In Hermantown coach Patrick Andrews’ opinion, section championship games are the worst possible game for the No. 1 seed.
“The section championship is the most nerve-wracking of them all,” Andrews said Wednesday night. “I’ve been an assistant in a state championship game, been a head coach in the state tournament and I would say this is the most nerve-wracking of all the games.”
So when Duluth Denfeld kept top-seeded and prohibitive favorite Hermantown off the scoreboard for the first 27 minutes of the Section 7A final at Amsoil Arena, those nerves were growing in intensity.
But the Hawks kept their poise and finally solved Denfeld goaltender Shawn Easty once in the second period and five more times in the third for a 6-0 victory.
The win sends second-ranked Hermantown (21-3-4) to the Class A state tournament for the 10th time in 11 years, where it will play a quarterfinal opponent to be determined next Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
The Hawks’ nine-year state run ended a year ago in the 7A final, losing 3-2 in a thrilling double-overtime game against underdog Greenway.
But Blake Biondi (two goals, two assists) and linemate Zach Kilen (two goals, three assists) helped make sure the Hawks would be going back to the capital.
“Three hundred and sixty-five days of hard work, but we’re not done. We’re not even close to done,” Biondi said. “This group is really close and we want to win a state championship. We’re not here to just win a section, we’re trying to win a state championship.”
The defensive game plan Denfeld (21-6-1) used, however, didn’t make it easy. Neither did senior goaltender Shawn Easty, who finished with 44 saves.
“It’s a coach’s nightmare,” Andrews said. “You’re the better team and the (opponent’s) goalie stands on his head — Easty was unbelievable through two periods of the game. You’re scratching your head wondering what you have to do.”
Easty stopped 30 of 31 shots in the first two periods, allowing only Kilen’s backhanded swipe just outside the crease midway through the second.
“We didn’t play our best in the first period, we were a little shaky,” Kilen said. “We gathered ourselves in the second and came out playing our best (in the third) and buried them.”
Andrews tried to impress upon his players that they needed to muck it up in front of the goal to succeed as Kilen, Biondi and Ethan Lund did on that initial goal.
“That’s what it was going to take and that’s what we kept telling them, ‘You have to get dirty and get to the net because the cute stuff is not going to work tonight.’ And they did,” Andrews said. “They finally got in their house, in their kitchen, right in the crease and hacked and whacked, and it went in. That relaxed us because if we had gone into the third 0-0, I think we would have had some pretty tight sticks.”
Outshot 31-7 through two periods, the Hunters couldn’t hold out any longer. The Hawks scored three times in a 1:55 span and then added a power-play goal minutes later to break the game open.
“We outplayed them in the first and second, but they fought hard. They didn’t quit, and they definitely made us earn that win,” said Biondi, who has 43 goals and 45 assists this season. “We kept getting shots to the net and finally broke their trap, and we ended up getting (goals) in bunches and broke the ice.”
The Hunters will have to wait another year to try and snap their 31-year state tournament drought. They gave all they could for 36 minutes.
“We ran out of gas,” Denfeld coach Dale Jago said. “We basically went with four defensemen and two, two-and-a-half lines. Our top guys were gassed. We kept whipping the horse, but the horse didn’t want to run anymore. They kept coming in waves. They’re deep and they capitalized.
Duluth Denfeld 0-0-0—0
First period — No scoring.
Second period — 1. Zach Kilen (Ethan Lund, Blake Biondi), 9:29.
Third period — 2. Aydyn Dowd (Cole Antcliff, Kilen), 2:04; 3. Kilen (Biondi), 2:25; 4. Biondi (Ethan Lund, Kilen), 3:59; 5. Jackson Lucia, 6:30 (pp); 6. Biondi (Kilen, Drew Sams), 16:55.
Saves — Shawn Easty, DD, 44; Jacob Backstrom, H, 10.