One more ride on the state tournament merry-go-round

Young girls who play hockey dream of competing in college, and maybe if they’re good enough, taking part in the Olympics some day. But before those dreams start to take shape for girls growing up in Minnesota, they dream of playing in the State High School Hockey Tournament.

Perhaps they’ve had a relative or friend lucky enough to live that dream, and it is the carrot on the end of a stick, something to be chased as long as a season of prep competition remains. Pursuing the tournament dream fuels the drive of those that have never been lucky enough to make it out of section play and reach the state tournament in the Xcel Energy Center, the same rink where the Minnesota Wild play and where the men’s WCHA Final Five will be held next month.

For those players and teams that have already experienced State, they want another taste.

Not all tastes are sweet. Such was the case for Molly Illikainen, now a senior forward for the Grand Rapids/Greenway Lightning, when she debuted in the tourney while in eighth-grade. Less than a period into the experience, Illikainen slid heavily into the side boards on the far side of the rink, got up in obvious distress, and somehow made her way to her bench as play continued.

“It tells you how special this game is for her, obviously to be back to the state tournament, because her last memory of the state tournament was going out in the quarterfinal game, first couple shifts, not just her leg but her shoulder broke,” Lightning co-head coach Brad Hyduke said. “She has a pin in her ankle and still has shoulder issues from that injury, but obviously has excelled through her high school career to the point where she played on that USA [U-18] team with two of the Roseville players, and also [receiving a] Division-I scholarship to Providence.”

GR/G had not cleared section play since, vanquished in recent years by Elk River/Zimmerman, led by New Hampshire-signee Jonna Curtis. This season, the Lightning had the last laugh. After winning a section semifinal contest in double overtime, Illikainen potted the game winner in the fourth overtime to eliminate Curtis and ER/Z, and advance the Lightning to St. Paul.

In Thursday’s AA state quarterfinal versus Roseville Area, Illikainen assisted on the only goal of the first period, and as the second period wound down, it appeared that the Lightning would be able to carry that lead into the second intermission as well. At that point, Illikainen’s teammates from the U-18 World Championships in January came back to haunt her. Roseville senior defenseman Lee Stecklein picked off a pass at center ice, made a couple of moves to enter the zone, and let fly a low drive that eluded the goaltender’s glove and found the low corner of the net for a 1-1 tie with 28 seconds remaining in the middle frame. Right out of the gate in the final period, Stecklein passed to forward Kate Flug, sending her on a partial break that the junior finished with a backhand to the top of the net with only 17 seconds elapsed. Flug finished the scoring into an empty net in the game’s final seconds, again assisted by Stecklein.

Although obviously disappointed by having her last chance at a state championship denied, Illikainen was philosophical afterward. She joked that she’d met her first objective by making it through the entire game. With the exception of the remaining consolation bracket of the tournament, her hockey future will be in Providence.

“Providence is a good example of a school that’s made an effort to get to Minnesota and recruit Minnesota girls,” Hyduke said.

This season’s Friars’ roster has half a dozen products from the state.

Grand Rapids/Greenway has had success sending players to the next level as well. Former Lightning players include junior Emily Erickson, one of the leading scorers for Bemidji State, and Illikainen’s sister Morgan, a freshman at Dartmouth. Despite the team playing most of its games in the northern part of the state, not as accessible to recruiters from the East, the best players still get noticed.

“A lot of these girls are getting exposed outside of our season anyway,” Hyduke said. “It’s happening in select camps, it’s happening with USA Hockey and what they do, and then obviously, Minnesota has a great foundation for elite leagues, and Molly’s one that had the opportunity to play on some pretty special teams outside of the season.”

Stecklein, who is signed to play next season for the Gophers, was part of a state championship team at Roseville as a sophomore.

“We’ve been fortunate that we’ve had a lot of good players over the years, so the star players today weren’t the star players two years ago,” Roseville coach Vic Brodt said. “They were maybe the third line players, the second line, they’ve got a chance to emulate. That’s special; that doesn’t really happen that often in girls high school hockey. Typically, you’ve got a top player and she comes in as an eighth or ninth grader, a lot of times she’s going to be the player to go to right away. That’s not been the case, so I think that does prepare our players for different roles. And I think it will prepare them for when they go into college, because when they become a freshman in college, they’re not going to be the star players right away.”

For now, at the high school level, Stecklein is definitely a star. In Thursday’s quarterfinal, she said she noticed that the Lightning were having success bottling up and limiting the opportunities of top forwards like Flug and Hannah Brodt, the coach’s daughter and a St. Cloud State recruit. So Stecklein did what top players do, expanding her efforts beyond her normal strong defensive role and quickly turning the game around once she looked to become more offensive.

Roseville has another pair of defensemen headed to D-I programs next season. Lexi Slattery will join Illikainen at Providence, and Paige Jahnke will be part of the first recruiting class at Penn State.

“It’s a great opportunity, especially if you’re kind of a fringe player, so to speak, maybe not a marquee player, that she’s going to get an opportunity to play,” Brodt said. “Obviously, they’re probably going to take their lumps early on, but when it’s all said and done, you want to play. They’re competitive kids, and I know Paige Jahnke is happy to have that opportunity.”

Before Brodt’s Roseville team could qualify for state, they had to pull what many regarded as an upset, defeating St. Paul Hill-Murry in a section final. Hill-Murray was led by highly-regarded senior Hannah Brandt, signed to play at Minnesota.

“She is a phenomenal hockey player,” Brodt said. “She’s in the likes of some of the marquee players of the past. She’s the best player that I’ve seen in a while, just from an individual skill. What makes her so good is she moves the puck so well. It’s not just about her bringing the puck up the ice, she uses her teammates well, makes all the players around her so much better.”

One coach that has had great success in reaching the state tournament is Edina’s Laura Slominski. The Hornets are appearing in a fourth-straight tourney, and finished as the runner up to Roseville in 2010 and Minnetonka last season. Slominski says they don’t have the star forward that can take over a game like they did with Providence sophomore Corrine Buie and Harvard freshman Samantha Reber, but they play a good team game and are strong defensively. The Hornets boast three defensemen bound for Division I:  Megan Armstrong to New Hampshire, Ali Austin to Yale, and Lizzy Otten to Union. Otten will be joined at Union by her goaltender, Maddie Dahl.

Even with all of that defensive talent, the Hornets were nearly done in by Mounds View and Princeton recruit Maddie Peake. Peake, who centers the Mustangs’ top line, set up her team’s first goal and almost struck again in the final minute with the goaltender pulled for an extra attacker. Her quick shot from in front nearly beat Dahl through the five-hole, to the extent that Peake raised her stick in celebration.

“I still believe that I saw something there,” Peake said. “I can’t blame it on the camera angles or anything. I should have buried it obviously harder, so I knew it for sure went in. But I still think I saw something there.”

If the puck ever did in fact cross the line, it was not captured on replay, so Edina is the team left competing in the championship bracket.

Also still alive is defending champion and top-seeded Minnetonka. Gone are star goaltender Julie Friend and top defenseman Rachel Ramsey, now rookies poised to oppose each other in the postseason at St. Cloud State and Minnesota, respectively.

“Last year was a unique experience because it was our first one,” Skippers coach Eric Johnson said. “Out of our roster of 18 players including goalies, 13 of them were here last year. Last year’s tournament went about as well as we could have hoped for and expected. This year, our girls are going to try to focus on one game at a time.”

One down, two to go, as Minnetonka scored three goals in the final period and defeated Eagan, 4-1. Eagan co-head coach Scott Darwitz was left to lament, “It’s the sixth [appearance] in a row, we can’t get out of the first round.”

Also advancing on the first day of the AA tournament was Lakeville North, defeating Roseau by a 5-0 score. Friday’s first semifinal matches Roseville and Edina, while Lakeville North takes on Minnetonka.

Three teams will see their dreams end, only one will have them realized. But for all, it will be an experience that they will always remember.