Cougars play three at Xcel Center

State tourney run ends with fourth-place trophy

No, it wasn’t first place, second or even third. But Lakeville South accomplished one of the things it set out to do at the state boys hockey tournament by playing all three of its games at the Xcel Energy Center.

The Cougars’ state tournament run, and their dream season, ended when Eden Prairie’s Nolan Sullivan scored at 6 minutes, 55 second of overtime to give his team a 3-2 victory in the Class AA third-place game Saturday. Lakeville South (19-11-1) won one of three games in the state tourney; both losses were by one goal.

“It’ll be a fun experience for them to play three times on the Xcel Center ice,” Lakeville South coach A.J. Bucchino said following the Cougars’ 3-2 loss to Moorhead in the semifinals Friday night. That result, along with Grand Rapids’ 3-2 victory over Eden Prairie, set up the first all-northern Minnesota Class AA championship game in 10 years. Grand Rapids defeated Moorhead 6-3 to win its first state championship in 37 years. Moorhead dropped to 0-8 all-time in state championship games.

If not for a slightly sluggish second period Friday night, Lakeville South might have advanced to the state final for the first time in school history. After a first period in which Moorhead coach Jon Ammerman said his team was fortunate to be trailing only 1-0, the Spuds responded with two goals in the second period to take a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.

South, meanwhile, had plenty of shots – 41 for the game, including 21 in the third period – but they weren’t always dangerous chances.

“We worked hard for our scoring chances,” Bucchino said. “As a coach, you’d like better ones. we were shooting. We had quite a few shots. We were following the orders of shooting, but there was not a lot of net traffic.”

Zachary Bauer scored in the first period after Joe Novak forced a turnover. Defenseman Joshua Ess scored with 1:27 remaining after South pulled its goalie. That made it 3-2, but the Cougars could manage only one shot on goal after that.

“I think we could have had three or four goals, but that second period didn’t go our way,” Bucchino said. “Maybe it was a little lack of energy. It just put us in a hole.”

Ess scored a power-play goal in the first period of the third-place game against Eden Prairie, giving South the lead. A wrist shot by Bradley Golant with 2:01 left in the third sent the game to overtime before Sullivan ended it was 1:05 left in the extra session.

Eden Prairie outshot Lakeville South 48-25, including 40-16 over the final two periods and overtime. South goalie Isaiah DiLaura made 45 saves, and his work in the third-place game was one of the reasons he was named to the all-tournament team. Ess also was named all-tourney.

Lakeville South, making its first state tournament appearance since 2012, knocked off No. 2-seeded St. Thomas Academy 5-2 in the Class AA quarterfinals March 9. If that scenario sounds familiar to Cougars fans, it should – South defeated No. 1-seeded Duluth East in the quarterfinal round in 2012.

The Cougars survived a first period in which STA outshot them 17-4. Checco scored on a rebound to tie the game about three minutes after the Cadets got the game’s first goal.

In the second, South took control as Jack Olsen scored off a faceoff and defenseman Dawson Klein scored on a wrist shot from the point. William Moore and Golant had goals in the third, with Golant scoring into an empty net.

“We kept getting the puck down deep, forechecking their ‘D’ and playing the way we usually play,” Checco said. “I think we took over the game about the end of the first period.”

The victory over STA might have surprised people outside the South program, but the Cougars didn’t appear surprised.

“We did acknowledge we were not getting a whole lot of love going into this game,” Bucchino said. “That’s OK. It happens. Selfishly, when I was a player or coach, I loved that. It’s fun to prove people wrong and work hard and reach a goal people don’t think you can reach. It didn’t matter what the seed was, these guys believed they could win.”

The state tournament was the final time in Lakeville South hockey uniforms for a number of Cougars seniors, including Golant, Moore, Ess, Novak, Cory Checco, Austin Checco, Jake Oelrich, Ethan Boche, Noah Krentz. Sam Malinski and Jace Otremba.