On a day renowned for life-altering resolutions, the Hermantown boys hockey team doesn’t have to change much.
No, the Hawks are just fine the way they are. Their offense is rolling almost unimpeded at times, their blue line is loaded with top-end talent and the goaltending is plenty staunch enough. Hermantown has scored 35 goals in its past five games - all wins - including an 8-3 victory over Lake Superior Conference rival Cloquet-Esko-Carlton on Thursday evening in the championship tilt of the Hilltopper Holiday Classic at Mars Lakeview Arena.
“We’re just going to try and keep the team playing like we are right now,” senior wing Cole Koepke said after notching a hat trick to push his season tally to 16 goals.
It’s a sound new-year strategy for Class A’s top-ranked club, which defended its tournament title by scoring the game’s final four goals after junior Joe Backus had pulled CEC (8-6) to within 4-3 in the second period. A year after their offense revolved largely around one line - which included Nate Pionk and Ryan Kero, who totaled 72 and 77 points, respectively - the Hawks (10-1-1) are spreading it out.
Thursday it was Koepke. Tuesday and Wednesday it was junior Jesse Jacques scoring a combined four goals in wins over Delano and Roseville. Matt Valure had a pair Thursday, and Ryan Sandelin, another junior, recorded his 14th of the season.
“It changes everything,” said Hermantown coach Bruce Plante, who now boasts 501 career wins. “For the first part of this year, we had just that one line scoring goals.”
Plante and the Hawks tinkered after a 3-0 loss at Minnetonka on Dec. 18. They bumped Jacques to the first line with Koepke and Sandelin, and moved dangerous sophomore Tyler Watkins to the second line. The result was better offensive depth.
“You can build a great team if you can get two lines that score,” Plante said.
Sandelin is relishing playing up front after filling in at defense last season. He’s versatile enough to excel at both, but with 14 goals in 12 games, the son of Minnesota Duluth men’s hockey coach Scott Sandelin is showing a scorer’s touch.
“I definitely missed it last year, but I had to do my time,” Ryan Sandelin said. “At the end of the day, that was the bigger thing - I had to fill in for the team.”
Sandelin said the Hawks’ veteran defenders, players like seniors Wyatt Aamodt and Eric Gotz, are triggering the scoreboard fireworks by getting the puck out of Hermantown’s zone in a hurry and joining the attack.
Thursday’s contest was rife with momentum shifts. The Lumberjacks scored first when junior Dylan Johnson redirected a wrister from the blue line.
Koepke scored his second of the night 33 seconds into the second period to make it 4-1, but CEC senior Cole Litsey and Backus sandwiched goals around one from Hermantown junior Dylan Samberg to make it 4-3.
From there, though, it was all Hawks. Koepke opened the second period and Sandelin scored 30 seconds into the third.
“You can’t start a period getting scored on like that in back-to-back periods, right away in the first shift,” Lumberjacks coach Dave Esse said. “That’s going to kill you. It deflates all the momentum, deflates all the morale. You can’t give those up.
“We competed for most of the game, but it got away from us in the third. That’s part of sports.”
Esse’s has been a Jekyll and Hyde squad. CEC upset Duluth East, ranked third in Class AA at the time, on Dec. 10, and opened this week’s tournament with a win over then-No. 4 Bemidji. In between, there were let-down losses against Andover and Forest Lake. The youthful Lumberjacks still are searching for consistency.
Thursday, they simply ran into a buzzsaw.
The two teams will meet again Jan. 28 in Hermantown.
First period - 1. CEC, Dylan Johnson (Jack Kuhlman, Cole Litsey), 5:58 (pp); 2. H, Matt Valure, 8:50; 3. H, Cole Koepke (Ryan Sandelin, Wyatt Aamodt), 15:50.
Second period - 4. H, Koepke (Jesse Jacques), :33; 5. CEC, Litsey (Reid Davidson), 5:33; 6. H, Dylan Samberg (Valure, Logan Judnick), 6:24; 7. CEC, Joe Backus (Michael Sullivan), 11:03; 8. H, Koepke (Sandelin, Aamodt), 16:10.
Third period - 9. H, Sandelin (Jacques, Koepke), :30; 10. H, Valure (Gotz, Tyler Watkins), 7:51; 11. H, Jacques (Koepke, Nolan Halverson), 14:36.Saves - Luke Olson, H, 22; Casey Holshouser, CEC, 40.