Moments after Cloquet-Esko-Carlton's Jon Baker scored to halve the Lumberjacks' deficit in the second period of their Section 7AA boys hockey semifinal vs. Duluth East on Saturday afternoon at Amsoil Arena, CEC earned a man advantage.
Two momentum-turning goals were scored during the power play. Unfortunately for the Lumberjacks, they were shorthanded daggers as East did what East does this time of year, capitalizing on mistakes en route to a 5-2 victory and an 11th consecutive section final.
"You try to control the deflation as much as you can and keep the guys' heads up, but it was a backbreaker," first-year Lumberjacks coach Shea Walters said.
The second-seeded Greyhounds (17-6-2) advance to Thursday's title tilt against No. 1 Andover, which pounded Elk River 8-0 in Saturday's first semifinal.
On the penalty kill leading 2-1, Greyhounds seniors Ryder Donovan and Ricky Lyle squirted free for a 2-on-1. Donovan made the CEC defender to commit, then delivered a beautiful feed to Lyle, who restored East's two-goal cushion.
"It was a great pass from Ryder - I'm not sure how he got that through," said Lyle, who scored twice and now has six goals in two playoff games.
Less than a minute later, a similar scenario transpired. This time, though, Donovan kept it himself and used the CEC defender to screen Lumberjacks goalie Owen Carlson while firing a wrist shot from just above the left faceoff circle to make it 4-1.
"I was pretty gassed at that point," Donovan said. "I was just trying to put it on net."
The way the last week has gone for Donovan, it probably shouldn't have come as a surprise that it was the fifth-year varsity player turning the tide.
Consider: On Monday, Donovan committed to Wisconsin. The next day, he scored a goal in a 7-0 quarterfinal rout of Duluth Marshall. And on Friday, he was named one of 10 Mr. Hockey finalists.
The good times continued Saturday.
Donovan finished with a goal and two assists - all in the decisive second period. Still, he insists the past week hasn't been the best of his hockey career.
"It's been a good week, but I don't think it's better than last year, winning a section final," Donovan said. "All I want to do is get to the X."
Incidentally, Donovan suffered from some tough puck luck early Saturday. He didn't get off much of a shot on a mini-breakaway in the first period, then fired over the net while all alone in front at the beginning of the second. Donovan proved he has a short memory.
"That's what you have to have this time of year," East coach Mike Randolph said. "He really set the tone in the second period."
Lyle's first goal was just as critical as his second. The third-seeded Lumberjacks (14-12-1) jumped on East to start the game, outshooting the Greyhounds 6-2 in the opening minutes. East eventually evened things out, but the teams appeared headed to the first intermission deadlocked at zero.
But with 18 seconds to play in the period, Lyle corralled a loose puck in tight, spun and lifted the contest's first goal between Carlson's blocker and the near post, squeezing the puck through a sliver of an opening.
"I think that first goal was huge for our guys," Lyle said. "We came out sluggish and we didn't have much mojo."
Said Walters: "It's the golden rule, right? Don't give up a goal in the first minute or the last minute."
Duluth East 1-3-1-5
First period - 1. DE, Ricky Lyle (Logan Anderson, Jack FitzGerald), 16:42.
Second period - 2. DE, Jonathan Jones (Ryder Donovan, Jacob Jeannette), 5:52; 3. CEC, Jon Baker (Aaron Moore, Mason Langenbrunner), 6:40; 4. DE, Lyle (Donovan), 7:32 (sh); 5. DE, Donovan (Lyle), 8:09 (sh).
Third period - 6. DE, E.J. Hietala (Frederick Paine, Lyle), 16:11 (en); 7. CEC, Landon Langenbrunner (Andy Acers), 16:54.
Saves - Owen Carlson, CEC, 27; Brody Rabold, DE, 18.