The final buzzer had just sounded on the Class A state championship game on Saturday afternoon, and Alexandria players dropped to their knees as Orono celebrated its first-ever title with a 2-1 victory.
Cardinals’ junior forward Jack Westlund saw senior goaltender Jackson Boline kneeling in the crease with his head straight to the ground. Boline stopped 25 shots in a heartbreaking loss. He was about to be named the Herb Brooks Award winner in Class A and was phenomenal throughout the tournament, stopping 77 shots with a .962 save percentage in three games.
Westlund skated up to Boline, dropped to a knee himself and threw his arm around him.
“The way he played is the reason we were in that game,” Westlund said of his message to Boline. “He had nothing to be ashamed of. He played unbelievable all year, especially in the playoffs. Without him, we wouldn’t have been in this game.”
That’s the kind of brotherhood that players talk about building on a run like the Cardinals just went on.
Alexandria had never won a quarterfinal game in its previous four trips to state, so this group made history for the program. A second-place finish is a moment they will remember for the rest of their lives, even if it was tough to take in the immediate aftermath.
“All these guys on the team are my family,” Boline said. “I love them all. It’s just a tough way to go out.”
It took a perfect bounce for the third-seeded Spartans (23-7-1) to beat Alexandria (19-11-1) on a goal that came 6 minutes, 17 seconds into the third period.
Orono’s Jack Kubitz sent a shot in from the point that went wide left but ricocheted to the stick of teammate Landon Wittenberg who was waiting just right of the crease. Boline recognized all week how pucks can deflect hard off of the boards at the Xcel Energy Center, but he had no chance to follow the puck or get in position for the save.
“Honestly, I was so surprised that the puck just popped right out on my stick,” Wittenberg said. “No way I can miss this. I just hammered it as hard as I could.”
The two teams were locked in a 1-1 game after the first period. The Spartans struck first with a Thomas Walker goal 7:18 into the opening frame, but Westlund responded at 15:07 with a goal of his own on an assist from Ben Doherty that tied things up.
The Cardinals spent much of the remaining two periods having to play defense. Alexandria took six penalties in all, with four of those coming in the second period when Orono outshot Alexandria 11-1. The Spartans had nothing to show for it in terms of a goal, but it kept the Cardinals from generating much of an attack.
“It’s just part of the game where when you have to kill, it taxes your top forwards and your goalie is stressed a little bit,” head coach Ian Resch said. “I’m not going to come up with excuses. That’s part of the game. You got to kill penalties, but it took a little bit away from our forecheck.”
The Cardinals had a couple looks in the final minutes of the third to score the equalizer. Sophomore Caleb Strong had a shot from an angle that Orono goaltender Evan Babekuhl saved high. Alexandria also went on a power play with less than five minutes left, but the Spartans killed it without much pressure.
The Cardinals gathered in the locker room after the game, stung by coming up a win short of their first championship but with a coaching staff that hopes they realize what a special run they just went on.
“It’s hard to put into words,” Resch said. “It really is. We were underdogs just to come out of the section, then to be playing in the championship today. I couldn’t be prouder of this team, our youth hockey program, our community. It’s going to take a couple days, but the guys are going to be able to reflect and realize what they accomplished.”
This was a group that went through its ups and downs through the year but never doubted. Alexandria lost seven of nine games from Dec. 12 to Jan. 4 with a team that was still getting used to playing with each other. With only four seniors on the team, that took time.
“I believed in our guys,” Boline said. “When we were in that stretch, we were still getting to know each other almost. We just had to come together, and that’s what we did.”
Resch said he sees a lot of fun left to be had for this team with so many of these players expected to be back next year. He also acknowledged every year is different.
“It takes hard work, commitment, dedication year around,” Resch said. “It’s extremely tough to get where they got.”
That’s why a run like this that culminated in front of 8,544 fans in the Class A championship game was so memorable for this group. Even if it came one win short of the ultimate goal.
“It’s an insane bond,” Westlund said. “We’ll be able to see each other in 40 years and act like we’ve been best friends since. It’s just crazy how close we all are and how connected we are to each other.”Four Cardinals named Class A All-tournament
Alexandria had four players named to the Class A All-Tournament Team after Saturday’s championship game in Jackson Boline, Jack Westlund, Jack Powell and Caleb Strong.
Boline had a .962 save percentage and turned aside 77 shots, while allowing just three goals in three games. Strong had a goal and three assists. Powell had three goals and an assist and Westlund scored twice.
ALEXANDRIA 1 0 0 - 1
ORONO 1 0 1 - 2
SHOTS - Alexandria - 9, 1, 6 - 16; Orono - 9, 11, 7 - 27
SCORING - FIRST PERIOD - Orono - Thomas Walker (Lucas Jorgenson, Jack Suchy), 7:18; Alexandria - Jack Westlund (Ben Doherty), 15:07
SECOND PERIOD - No scoring
THIRD PERIOD - Orono - Landon Wittenberg (Jack Kubitz, Zach Adams), 6:17
GOALTENDING - Alexandria - Jackson Boline - L, 25 saves, 2 goals allowed; Orono - 15 saves, 1 goal allowed