Area Boys Hockey: Cardinals squeak out low-scoring thriller in section semifinal
ST. CLOUD — Little Falls junior goaltender Dane Couture did everything he could to send the Alexandria boys hockey team home for the season Saturday, Feb.22, in the Section 6-1A semifinal.
Despite making 30 saves, the Cardinals came away with a 2-0 victory and a fourth-consecutive trip to the section final.
It didn't matter where the shots came from in the first two periods; Couture had an answer. That was until Shane Birkeland scored a shot that barely crossed the goal line early in the third period.
"That was just everybody on the line doing some hard work," Birkeland said. "I threw it out to (Josiah Gronholz) in front of the net. He shot it and I picked up the rebound. I don't know how it went in, but it did."
The pucked snuck through the legs of Couture amid several players in front of the net. It ended up being the winning goal, but not without a dramatic third period.
Little Falls (19-7-1) had three power plays in the last 10 minutes of the game. Throughout the first 41 minutes, the Flyers struggled to generate consistent scoring chances. Alexandria head coach Ian Resch recognizes that the Cardinals (19-8-0) will have to be more disciplined if they want to keep their season alive.
"We took too many penalties tonight," Resch said. "If we do that next Thursday against Cathedral, we will get blown out. I thought we had taken care of that, but it resurfaced again tonight. If we can't figure out that part of the game, it will be all over."
Little Falls played the final 1:30 with a 6-on-4 advantage. Alexandria's penalty kill allowed Caleb Strong to take a full-ice heave that found the back of the net. The insurance goal assured a fourth-straight section final between St. Cloud Cathedral and Alexandria.
"I thought our guys did a nice job of weathering the storm," Resch said. "They settled into their game and the structure. I thought as we spent more time in the offensive zone we gained momentum. I think we wore them down by the end of the game."
Even in a loss, the future is bright for Little Falls, and it starts with Couture. Not only is he a junior, but he's also a captain. He has the attention of other teams around the section.
"He almost stole the game for them," Resch said. "If I knew that it was going to be 0-0 going into the third, I'd think that one goal was going to be enough. He battles for them. He's square to the puck, and he protects the net so well. You usually don't score on him with the first shot. It takes rebounds and tips to beat him. He's that good."
On the other end of the ice, it was Alexandria's junior goaltender who came up big. Not only did Christopher Loken pick up his first playoff win, but he also did it in shutout fashion with 17 saves.
"(Couture) played a crazy game, and he made a lot of big saves," Loken said. "Personally, I'd rather be in that situation where I see shots the whole game. Throughout the year, I've struggled to stay focused when I haven't seen a lot of shots. I think the environment here and what was on the line kept me sharp."
The celebration won't last long for Alexandria as they will turn around and play Cathedral (22-3-1) Thursday, Feb. 27, at the MAC. Much like two seasons ago, the Crusaders are heavy favorites to win the section title. That year, the Cardinals pulled off a 3-2 overtime upset to advance to the state tournament.
There are seven Cardinals that were on the roster when Alexandria beat Cathedral in 2017-18, including Birkeland. He knows what it's going to take to knock off the defending Class 1A champions.
"Everybody in this locker room believes," he said. "Today is the 40th anniversary of the 'Miracle on Ice' team beating the Soviets. That's kind of how we are thinking right now. Anybody can lose on any night. We are going to play physical and get pucks deep."
On Jan. 27, the Crusaders beat the Cardinals 5-2 at the Runestone Community Center, and they did it without one of their top forwards. Jack Smith, a University of Minnesota-Duluth commit, who missed six weeks with a lower-body injury. He leads Cathedral in points this postseason with eight, including two assists in the 5-1 win over River Lakes (15-11-1) Saturday afternoon.
Smith is only one-third of Cathedral's lethal top line. Nate Warner and Blake Perbix combined for 144 points in the regular season. If Alexandria wishes to pull off an upset, they'll need to slow down Cathedral's big three.
"They're on another level, man," Loken said. "They're incredible, but I know we can beat them. They're not going to make it easy on us. If we play our game, stay disciplined and work hard, I think we have a shot."
Alexandria 0 0 2 -- 2
Little Falls 0 0 0 -- 0
Third period: Alex-Shane Birkeland (Josiah Gronholz, Jacob Partington) 4:58, Alex-Caleb Strong empty net, short-handed 16:39
Goalies: LF-Dane Couture (30 saves); Alex-Christopher Loken (17 saves)