CLOQUET — The home team left Northwoods Arena disappointed, but the Section 7AA boys hockey quarterfinal was a homecoming for Zach Michaelis.
The Elk River/Zimmerman senior forward scored the first and last goals, the game-winner coming 7:14 into overtime, to give the Elks a 5-4 victory over Cloquet-Esko-Carlton.
Michaelis spent the fall playing for the North American Hockey League’s Minnesota Wilderness, who call Northwoods Arena their home.
Michaelis, who has committed to Division I Nebraska-Omaha of the NCHC, scored two goals and assisted on seven others during his 14-game stay with the Wilderness.
“It’s kinda cool to come back,” Michaelis said afterward. “A lot of the kids (from the Wilderness) and my billet family were out there. I had a lot of people here watching me, so it was good to cap it off the way that I did.”
Michaelis swept down the right wing, displaying amazing speed after nearly 59 minutes of game time, and put the puck past Jacob Walsh to send the Elks (11-15) to a semifinal date against Grand Rapids on Saturday afternoon at Amsoil Arena.
“Right after I scored, my legs started cramping because I was playing so much,” Michaelis said. “I was pretty tired but Coach Gustafson did a good job of getting everyone in shape, so I felt I was in better shape than anyone else out there.”
Elks coach Ben Gustafson was effusive in his praise of Michaelis.
“(Michaelis) was phenomenal all night, a lot of our players were,” Gustafson said. “These games are why you come back to play high school hockey. He’s a special player. I talked to him (Monday) and told him that big-time players step up in big-time games.”
Michaelis scored on the game’s first shot attempt from the right faceoff circle 32 seconds into the game.
Shortly after Austen Humphrey came out of the penalty box, the senior forward gathered a Joe Greniuk pass and wristed a shot past CEC goaltender Jacob Welsh’s stick side for a 2-0 lead at 9:11.
The Lumberjacks (13-12-1) needed only 17 seconds of the second period to begin their comeback as Christian Galatz netted his 32nd goal of the season.
Aaron Moore’s rebound goal on a power play at 12:15 tied the score, but it only took the Elks 20 seconds to equalize on Cayden Casey’s low shot from the slot.
Cole Ketola and Walsh appeared to steal the game from Elk River/Zimmerman in the third, Ketola scoring his 14th and 15th goals of the season just 2:10 apart for a 4-3 CEC lead.
In between those goals, Walsh made a pad save on Humphrey’s shot on a 2-on-1 rush, and then after Ketola’s go-ahead goal he stoned Blake Johnson on a breakaway to preserve the lead.
Walsh, a sophomore, had split time all season with Owen Carlson — who started 15 games — but Carlson decided to join the North Iowa Bulls of the NA3HL, a Tier III junior hockey league, leaving the job to Walsh.
Leaving was an option for Michaelis as well. He toyed with the idea of staying in junior hockey before coming back at the start of the season.
“You only have one senior year and I wanted to be back with my best friends for one last year,” he said. “It’s for moments like these.”
Gustafson wasn’t too worried about his star’s decision.
“Zach told me he was coming back all along,” Gustafson said. “When he was back for the start of our season, it wasn’t a surprise or a shock to me. I trusted Zach.”
And that’s who the Elks turned to after Humphrey forced overtime by knocking home a loose puck at the right edge of the crease.
“It was a fun game to play in, back and forth,” Michaelis said. “When we went down 4-3, we had 10 minutes left and we had to stay calm. Austen scored a huge goal for us and set us up for the game-winner.”