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Cloquet ends East's season, 1-0

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton had been knocking on the door to the Section 7AA hockey championship for the last couple of years, and while it would have been colorful to say the Lumberjacks broke the door down Thursday night, it also would have been inacc...

Cloquet-Esko-Carlton had been knocking on the door to the Section 7AA hockey championship for the last couple of years, and while it would have been colorful to say the Lumberjacks broke the door down Thursday night, it also would have been inaccurate. More accurately, the Lumberjacks picked the lock and swiped the 7AA trophy by stealth in a 1-0 victory over Duluth East Thursday.
A sellout crowd of more than 5,500 fans at the DECC, bolstered by a regional live television broadcast, saw an exceptional East team end its season at Cloquet's hands on DECC ice for the second season in a row. Last year, an explosive Cloquet team whipped East in the 7AA semifinals but then went to Hibbing and lost to Greenway of Coleraine in the final, making it the eighth straight year Cloquet had gone home to watch on television as somebody else played in the state tournament.
This year, East was the solid favorite, having beaten and tied Cloquet during the season, and having whipped Greenway 5-2 while Cloquet split with Greenway to go 1-2-1 against its other two top tormentors. But Cloquet compromised any semblance of offense to spend all its quickness on a defensive scheme that harnessed the Greyhounds explosive offense -- and it worked. But only by the slender margin of Mike Erickson's shorthanded goal with 4:08 remaining in the third period.
It was as spectacular a goal as anyone could score without actually shooting, and it allowed the hustling, scrapping Cloquet defense to triumph while getting only 10 shots on goal. Josh Johnson made 19 saves for the shutout. So Cloquet (18-4-6) advances to St. Paul and the Xcel Energy Center next Thursday, while East goes home, with only a superb 17-7-4 record to show for the toughest schedule in the state.
"Give Cloquet credit," said East coach Mike Randolph. "They did a heck of a job doing what they had to do. We weren't loose; we were tentative instead of initiating things. And Cloquet chipped the puck out, and iced it I don't know how many times, but they kept us from sustaining a forecheck. They never attacked us all night; was there a 2-on-1 ever in the game?"
Randolph's eyes were still red from an emotional post-game session with his players, nine of whom are seniors. "We've got a lot of five-year kids, four-year kids and three-year kids. This is a great senior class," he said.
East had killed off its only penalty of the game in the first minute of the third period, and Matt Brenner went off for Cloquet for a cross-check at 9:23. Those were the only two penalties of the entire game, which was played at a tense, tight, but clean pace throughout. East's power play had a chance to bail out the Greyhounds, who had spent the whole game sputtering and misfiring offensively, mostly due to Cloquet's disciplined defensive style. On the power play, though, a shot from the left side missed the net, and the puck went ringing around the boards, through the right corner, and on out of the zone.
"They missed, and the puck squirted out," said Erickson. "I was about at the top of the circle, and I took off. I picked it up somewhere between the red line and their blue line."
By then, he also was beyond all five East power-players, and came in alone at goaltender Dustin Aro. As Erickson charged at the net from the left circle, Aro came out to confront him.
"I thought Aro played it well," said Randolph. "He left him nothing to shoot at."
Cloquet coach Dave Esse said: "Our 12 (Erickson) beat their 27 (Nick Licari) to the puck and got a breakaway. Our guy beat one of the best players in the state. When he went in at the goalie, I was looking for the trailer, because we were killing a penalty. He was in perfect position, but I still don't know how the puck went in."
Erickson, handling all the television interviews well, talked about going to his backhand and steering it through Aro. But in reality, he admitted he never really shot the puck. He had to abandon it, and as he flew over Aro, somehow the puck slithered under him.
"I took it to the net, and I knew he was going to come out," said Erickson. "He went down and came at me, and I tried to go to my backhand, but I never really got there."
Instead, Erickson went hurtling over the goaltender, trying to regain his balance as he flew past the net and crashed into the end boards. But as he sailed, out of control, past the goal, Erickson saw something very important.
"As I went by, I saw the puck go in," he said. "It was the best feeling of my life."
Erickson said he now has "21 or 22" goals, and he admitted he actually shot all the rest of them. But none was as big as this one.
Esse respected East's offensive firepower enough to play ultra-cautious.
"We hoped we could limit them to five scoring chances or less, then we'd have a good chance to beat them," said Esse. "They had about that. We were just fortunate to get a break at the end."
Erickson said: "We had to play them tight defensively. We had a couple of breakdowns, but we got the breaks. And Josh was great. We can win it all, I think, because Josh is the 'X' factor."

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