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.

27 COMMENTS

  1. I gotta say I’m not sad at all that the CCHA will be done after next season. Any conference who implements the shootout deserves to be put out of its existence.

    • You like ties?  I find ties about as boring and stupid as it gets.  There is nothing worse than seeing a hockey team with a record of 15-10-8.  Give me a break.  Ties are for children’s leagues where the parents don’t want anyone to lose!  Hockey is in the dark ages still and needs to get rid of ties. 

  2. I’m sorry if you already blogged about this and I missed it but what happens to you  2013.   Will you be the NCHC blogger? 

  3. How does this idea sound?”The Land of 10,000 Lakes Pond Hockey Classic” between the Gophers and say…UMD on a pond with portable bleaches surrounding it?  Nostagia at it’s best, and certainly better than those lame outdoor stadium games in which fans can’t see squat!!This thing could have some legs and gain National Publicity big time.  What do you think you movers and shakers out there?  Let’s make this happen!  NBC sports would eat this up big time with the built in marketing (10K lakes/pond hockey), and the nostalgia of playing hockey on pond when we were kids.  I’d buy a ticket for sure.  Hope someone can make it happen.

  4. I’m predicting um over the U-18, 7-2.
    And MSU over the U-18 High School team, 3-2 OT shoot-out. Could be the last MSU win, exhibition or otherwise, for the rest of the season.

    • It looks to be a long year for your boys this year. What happened from last year to this year? Hildebrand doesn’t seem to be able to steal a game like he used to.

      • From viewing the Spartans last weekend it seemed to be a combination of things. There were some colossal defensive breakdowns, sometimes Hildebrand bailed the team out sometimes not. Then there were other goals that he allowed that simply would not have happened last year Bischoff goal Friday, Reilly goal Saturday). Much like Wilcox last year, repeating the superman impersonation in goal is not so easy to do.

        • It is a combination of things. Defense is lacking. MSU started the season with just 5 D. They auditioned guys off the Club team. So the D is worn right out. Which places enormous pressure on the GT. And so, he is worn out from carrying this team for three and a half years. Offense is where it was four years ago, lost. No PP.
          And players seem to regress instead of PROgress under tCHHCoMSU. To many things to fix all at once. That to, seems to be a habit with this coaching staff. They cannot get a handle on a problem before it affects every other aspect of the team.

  5. I am looking forward to the Wisconsin series and I think it will be a good test for the Gophers. They have worked hard after a slow start to climb back above .500 for the first time this year. Generally speaking records don’t mean much in this series. It will be interesting to see if the Gophers can keep the momentum up. They have played well on the road beating 4 ranked teams, but have struggled recently against Wisconsin and in Madison. On paper one would think that the Gophers would win, but we don’t that on paper doesn’t mean much. If the Gophers can play like they did the last few weekends, I like their chances and I think it will go a long way to building the confidence of the team down the stretch, not to mention improving NCAA chances if they can prevail this weekend.

  6. What does Penn State have to do to get any respect? Swept by Ohio State, Paula? C’mon. I mean, we have more wins then Ohio State, Wisconsin and Michigan State combined.

    • I personally don’t think Penn State is as good as their record reflects. The only ranked team they played this year was St. Lawrence and they tied and lost against them. After watching them play the gophers I wasn’t impressed by their play. They throw a lot of pucks to the net and that may work against the weak opponents they racked up all their wins against but it it’s not going to work against good teams. Just my opinion.

      • They split with Notre Dame(who is ranked) and Split with your Gophers. For a team that has been D1 for 4 years to be beating and splitting with teams with that history and caliber, I’m ecstatic with their record.

        • Notre Dame wasn’t ranked when they split. Having the 39th toughest schedule out of 60 teams isn’t that impressive. Penn State doesn’t play well away from Pegula.

    • We have gone through this the last three years with Penn State. They play a bunch of unranked teams at home and blow them our, compile some gaudy stats and everyone says that they are the second coming. Make no mistake I think Gadowski’s has done a great job and built an exciting team in a short time, but until they can win March and beat ranked teams away from Pegula, it will be hard to consider them legitimate.

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