Grand Rapids players’ and coaches’ comments following their 3-1 high school boys hockey victory over Duluth East on Tuesday night belied the apparent fact that the Thunderhawks play with an air of confidence and nonchalance in tight games.
Despite the seeming ease in their manner of play in low-scoring contests, Grand Rapids goaltender Wyatt Pilkenton says that’s not how it feels on the inside.
“I don’t think we’re comfortable at all in that position,” the senior netminder said after a 22-save performance at Essentia Duluth Heritage Center. “We didn’t play the greatest game today and we know that we can do better than that. We were getting frustrated with ourselves and we definitely weren’t comfortable.”
Coach Wade Chiodo wasn’t pleased with the effort of the fifth-ranked Thunderhawks (10-1), who earned the season sweep over their Section 7AA rivals after beating the Greyhounds (6-6-1) 3-0 earlier this season in Grand Rapids.
“We lacked energy,” Chiodo said. “Most coaches would say that if at the end of the game you can say wholeheartedly that your team competed for three periods — no matter what the outcome is — they would be pleased. I didn’t think we competed. I thought we were flat and didn’t have any jump. We made it hard on ourselves.”
Still, if the Thunderhawks can dominate another section contender — they owned a 34-23 edge in shots on goal — in a flat performance, that bodes well when the team is hitting on all cylinders. Playing well in tight games also is good preparation for the upcoming playoffs.
“I would rather it not be that way,” Chiodo said of the close games. “But it helps us going through the rest of the season and into the playoffs and how to handle adversity. Those are the things that you want to get through in what I call the preseason. The real season starts in the playoffs.”
Part of the reason why Grand Rapids is able to overcome any deficiencies is due to the 6-foot-4 Pilkenton and his group of defensemen. Pilkenton is allowing just over a goal per game and has posted three shutouts.
“We’ve had confidence since we saw him in practice on day one,” senior defenseman Jack Peart said. “He’s a good goalie and being big definitely helps.”
The Greyhounds played the Thunderhawks even for most of the first period but failed to score on a couple power-play opportunities.
Garett Drotts made East pay when he batted in Joey DelGreco’s centering pass at the 14:12 mark of the first.
Peart, a St. Cloud State commit, made it 2-0 at 2:10 of the second period when his shot from the left point evaded East goalie Zander Ziemski’s glove.
But even when East halved the deficit on Grady Downs’ first career goal at 12:36 of the second, Grand Rapids didn’t panic. They gave off the aura that they wouldn’t be allowing another goal.
“It’s good to get used to these tight, low-scoring games,” Peart said. “In the state playoffs, pretty much every game is a tight game and it comes down to the last minute of the third period.”
And while Grand Rapids improved to 6-1 in games decided by three goals or less this season, it’s not the way Pilkenton wants games to go.
“We want to start clicking and put the puck back in the net,” he said. “We don’t want to practice having close games; we want to blow teams out.”
Grand Rapids added an insurance goal with 3:57 to play to avoid any last-second drama.
“It was good for us to stay on the gas pedal and get that last one,” Peart said.
Next up for the Thunderhawks is a home game Thursday against Class A No. 1 Hermantown, which handed Grand Rapids its lone defeat three weeks ago.
Grand Rapids 1-1-1—3
Duluth East 0-1-0—1
First period — 1. GR, Garett Drotts (Joey DelGreco), 14:12.
Second period — 2. GR, Jack Peart (Drotts), 2:10; 3. DE, Grady Downs, 12:36.
Third period — 4. GR, Easton Young (Braeden Holcomb), 13:03.
Saves — Zander Ziemski, DE, 31; Wyatt Pilkenton, GR, 22.
Duluth Denfeld 5, VMIB 0
Connor McClure scored two goals and added an assist while goaltender Jacob Snyder rebounded from a nine-goal drubbing with an 18-save shutout in the opening game at Heritage Center.
Kade Shea and Andy Larson each tacked on a goal and an assist for the fourth-ranked Hunters (6-2-1), who lost 9-3 to top-ranked Hermantown in its previous outing.
The Blue Devils fell to 7-7.
Duluth Denfeld 2-2-1—5
First period — 1. Kade Shea (Nick Mcgillivray, Connor McClure), 8:58; 2. Cole Olson (Mcgilllivray, Nate Burke), 8:58.
Second period — 3. McClure (Andy Larson), 8:36; 4. Larson (Olson, Simon Davidson), 16:07.
Third period — 5. McClure (Shea), 16:55.
Saves — Ian Kangas, VMIB, 42; Jacob Snyder, DD, 18.