ST. CLOUD – Boys high school hockey practices in Minnesota began on Nov. 12, a Monday that was full of promise and anticipation. Teams can play a maximum of 25 games during the regular season before the postseason commences. That all leads up to the second Saturday in March, when state champions will be crowned at Xcel Energy Center.
Back before practices got underway, coaches, players and fans from a couple of the top teams in Class 1A knew what was going to happen on Friday night at the St. Cloud Municipal Athletic Complex, a two-sheet hockey center that is much more spectacular than its name.
“You look at the calendar in October and you circle this one,” said Hermantown coach Patrick Andrews. He said this after as good a hockey game as you will ever see; the second-ranked Hawks’ 2-1 overtime victory over top-ranked St. Cloud Cathedral.
Those rankings will surely flip-flop next week, which is just fine. In early January, the focus is much more on improving than on rankings.
“We try really hard to schedule as many tough teams as we can,” said Cathedral coach Derrick Brown, whose teams went to state in 2016 and 2017 (he also led Luverne to state in 2014 before being hired at Cathedral). “This was such a great atmosphere and such a great game for us to play, and like I told the boys, we’re only four days into January. The potential is there to only get better. So when the moments really do happen, in hopefully February and maybe March if we’re fortunate enough, we’ve been there, we’ve played these teams, we know what to expect.”
Everybody who follows hockey knows about Hermantown. Three stars on the back of the Hawks’ jerseys signify the three state titles they won during the 28 years that Bruce Plante was their coach. Andrews took over last season after Plante retired, and the Hawks finished third at state in their 15th trip to the state tournament.
Hermantown has an 8-3 record (with losses to Wayzata, Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Rosemount, all ranked in the Class 2A top 15). Cathedral’s loss Friday was its first after opening the season with 12 wins.
Friday’s contest was scoreless after the first period and each team scored once in the second; Blake Perbix for Cathedral and Ethan Lund for Hermantown. Cathedral came out firing, getting 16 first-period shots on goal to the Hawks’ 10 before Hermantown outshot the Crusaders 23-17 in the second and third periods.
The Hawks held a 5-1 advantage in shots in goal as the final minute wound down in the eight-minute overtime. It appeared the game would end in a 1-1 tie (only one overtime is played in the regular season). Then came a faceoff in the Hermantown defensive zone, and … let’s allow Hawks senior scoring leader Blake Biondi to describe what happened.
“That started off with Sam High right off the draw making a nice play. It went out to Justin Thomas on the wall and he made a great play. There was a nice chip right to me and I could have skated one-on-one; I looked back and saw Joey (Pierce) beat his guy so I kind of stalled up and waited for him to get some space, put it right on his stick and he buried it. It was a really nice play going all the way back to the defensive zone where it started.”
Yes, it was a really nice play in a game that was full of them. Pierce’s goal came with 32 seconds on the clock, and he of course was mobbed by his teammates.
Afterwards, everyone agreed that this was a solid experience for both teams.
“Biondi and Pierce are pretty special on their side of the ice and they made a play, and unfortunately for us they won a hockey game,” Brown said. “We’d love to win but sometimes you learn from losses. We kind of need something like this to maybe be a wakeup call. In the same sense, we learned a tough one last year; we had a great regular season and we were the number one seed (in the Section 6 playoffs before losing to Alexandria) and we didn’t get to where we wanted. So this will hopefully build our toughness when those moments happen, that we’re ready for the playoffs.”
Both teams have lots of big games to play. Cathedral will meet eighth-ranked Sartell-St. Stephen next week and then defending state champion Orono. Hermantown will play host to top-ranked 2A Minnetonka eight days after edging Cathedral.
And no matter what the rest of the season holds, everybody who was at Friday’s game will remember it.
“Oh, for sure,” Pierce said. “We’ve had this one on our calendar for a long time.”--Follow John on Twitter @MSHSLjohn, download “Preps Today with John Millea” on your favorite podcast app and hear him on Minnesota Public Radio.