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Girls state hockey tournament: Lightning prep for big challenge

Molly Illikainen knew this was her moment. After playing extended shifts through regulation and three extra sessions, the Grand Rapids-Greenway senior center took the puck up ice in the fourth overtime of the Section 7AA girls hockey championship...

Molly Illikainen knew this was her moment.

After playing extended shifts through regulation and three extra sessions, the Grand Rapids-Greenway senior center took the puck up ice in the fourth overtime of the Section 7AA girls hockey championship last week against Elk River-Zimmerman. With the goalie screened by a defender, Illikainen let one fly.

Nothing but net.

Grand Rapids-Greenway's thrilling 2-1 home victory over the Elks qualified the Lightning (18-7-3) for their third state tournament, where they will play second-seeded Roseville Area (24-2-2) at 11 a.m. Thursday in the Class AA quarterfinals at the Xcel Energy Center.

"We did everything possible against Elk River, we did everything right. It was amazing," Illikainen said. "We worked so hard for it, I'm just glad it went our way. I took a shot knowing that was my best chance, and it ended. I was exhausted, so when it finally went it, it was so relieving. It was just awesome."

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The Lightning feel their dramatic victory over Elk River, as well as a hard-fought 4-3 victory over Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in the section semifinals, gives them momentum against a Roseville team that beat GRG 7-0 in the season-opener on Nov. 18 in Grand Rapids.

The Lightning, who got 46 saves from junior goalie Sydney Helmbrecht in the section final, are 8-0-1 in their last nine games.

"Molly has been our rock on and off the ice all year, and when I saw her put it in, I just went ecstatic," Helmbrecht said. "For her to be a senior, playing in her last game at home, it was a special moment."

Now the Lightning must look ahead.

Helmbrecht was looking forward to redemption after getting roughed up in the first meeting with Roseville.

"You don't just want to forget about it," said Helmbrecht, a three-year starter who doesn't remember ever giving up seven goals in a game. "You want to use it as a learning experience. We've improved a lot since then."

Grand Rapids-Greenway lost one of its top scorers, Meaghan Cemensky, to a season-ending injury at Duluth on Jan. 31 but is otherwise as close to full strength as the Lightning have been all season. Only five GRG players have played a full schedule.

Despite missing six games playing for Team USA at the IIHF World Women's U18 Championships in the Czech Republic over the holiday break, Illikainen leads the team with 53 points on 32 goals and 21 assists, while junior forward Kaya Baker has added 16 goals and 18 assists. Helmbrecht (14-4-2) has been excellent in net, with a .919 save percentage, 1.78 goals-against average and five shutouts. Captain Morgan Bruns, a junior who tore her anterior cruciate ligament as a soccer goalie last fall, has held off knee surgery until after the season and is one of the leaders on defense.

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"We had an opportunity over the weekend to absorb the big section victory," Lightning co-coach Brad Hyduke said. "Even then it was difficult because you kind of relive it a few times, but Monday's message was to turn our attention to what was the goal in the first place: the state tournament. Our girls are excited for this opportunity. They've got a lot of energy."

The Lightning are relishing the underdog role, with Hyduke pointing out that Roseville's two losses came when they had two players, leading scorer Kate Flug (44-22--66) and defender Lee Stecklein, joining Illikainen on Team USA. Hyduke added that the Raiders have four NCAA Division I commitments, including defender Lexi Slattery, who will be roommates with Illikainen at Providence next year. Stecklein and teammate Hanna Brodt (36-26--62) are two of the five finalists for the Ms. Hockey award, announced Sunday.

Hyduke said another player, goalie Erika Allen, a finalist for senior goalie of the year, could have chosen a DI school but elected not to. In all, eight players were on Roseville's 2010 state championship team.

"Obviously, we've got something to prove to Roseville," Hyduke said. "We want to play well and give ourselves a chance. We feel like we've got nothing to lose. We want to go down there and be giant killers."

Related Topics: HOCKEY
Jon Nowacki joined the News Tribune in August 1998 as a sports reporter. He grew up in Stephen, Minnesota, in the northwest corner of the state, where he was actively involved in school and sports and was a proud member of the Tigers’ 1992 state championship nine-man football team.

After graduating in 1993, Nowacki majored in print journalism at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, serving as editor of the college paper, “The Aquin,” and graduating with honors in December 1997. He worked with the Associated Press during the “tobacco trial” of 1998, leading to the industry’s historic $206 billion settlement, before moving to Duluth.

Nowacki started as a prep reporter for the News Tribune before moving onto the college ranks, with an emphasis on Minnesota Duluth football, including coverage of the Bulldogs’ NCAA Division II championships in 2008 and 2010.

Nowacki continues to focus on college sports while filling in as a backup on preps, especially at tournament time. He covers the Duluth Huskies baseball team and auto racing in the summer. When time allows, he also writes an offbeat and lighthearted food column entitled “The Taco Stand,” a reference to the “Taco Jon” nickname given to him by his older brother when he was a teenager that stuck with him through college. He has a teenage daughter, Emma.

Nowacki can be reached at jnowacki@duluthnews.com or (218) 380-7027. Follow him on Twitter @TacoJon1.
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