Boys hockey: Lakers run out of gas against Green Wave in 8A semifinal
The Laker boys hockey team is on the outside looking in at the Section 8A title game again after a 6-2 loss against EGF on Saturday. Yet, another impressive season leaves hope for better days ahead.
THIEF RIVER FALLS – Rome wasn't built in a day.
The age-old expression is a near-perfect way to describe the Detroit Lakes boys hockey program after the 2022-23 season.
The Lakers wrapped their fourth campaign under head coach Ben Noah with a record of 17-8-1 after a 6-2 Section 8A semifinal loss to third-seeded East Grand Forks. The most formidable section in Class A reared its ugly head, leaving third-seeded Detroit Lakes on the outside looking in at another title game.
"It's been a really good year. I enjoyed playing a lot with all of our senior class," senior Chase Kukowski said. "It's definitely going to be a tough one to have to move on from."
Kukowski got the Lakers on the board early in the second period. However, the Lakers were already recovering from a three-goal deficit.
East Grand Forks scored three times in a span of 1:14 midway through the first period. Chase More, Grady Manger and Hunter Vanrson stunned Detroit Lakes, forcing Noah to burn his timeout in the opening frame.
The mid-game reset proved valuable. Detroit Lakes stopped the bleeding, cutting EGF's lead to 3-2. Easton Kennedy scored on the power play following Kukowski's tally.
"It was the timeout," Noah said. "We just told them to wipe away everything that happened, go one shift at a time and win your shift. The timeout definitely dropped (EGF's) momentum and calmed everything down. Our guys started winning shifts, and then we were back in the game. We believed we were able to claw back. Before you know it, you get one, and then you get another one."
"I'm proud of our fight and our ability to not go away. A lot of teams in the past would've laid down and let this game go into running time. We left everything on the ice."
Despite Kennedy's man-advantage score, the power play lasted for another four and a half minutes. A Green Wave boarding infraction gave Detroit Lakes five minutes of 5-on-4 play.
EGF goaltender Chase Mero stood tall, stopping several point-blank chances to preserve the one-goal lead.
The Green Wave regained momentum with Cole Bies' unassisted power-play goal late in the second period. EGF added two more in the third to notch the second spot in the Section 8A title game. Top-seeded Warroad claimed the other with a 6-1 win over Thief River Falls.
Saturday didn't go the Lakers' way. They weren't snubbed of a chance at their first state tournament berth since 1996 by an unlucky bounce or an unfair happenstance. Despite Detroit Lakes' best comeback effort, the better team won.
"We had so many untimely sicknesses and injuries in the last month of the season, and we never really got the opportunity to get on a roll," Noah said. "We didn't get to win a big game and have it catapult us to that next level of confidence that you need to come into this gauntlet and believe that you can win. It's not that we didn't believe we could win tonight, and we had our spurt that changed the momentum, but once it went back to East Grand Forks, we didn't have any gas left to get it back. That's where untimely sicknesses and injuries hurt us. We weren't in good enough shape to battle through that adversity."
The Section 8A pecking order remains the same. After the three-headed monster at the top in Warroad, EGF and TRF, teams like Detroit Lakes are traditionally left with the scheduling scraps. Yet, with 36 wins over the last two years, Noah hopes he has the competitive currency to buy better regular-season competition.
"I have to continue to develop relationships with coaches around the state and toughen up our schedule," Noah said. "I'm going to continue to work on that for our program. It's a huge piece of the puzzle. We weren't forced to play at (EGF's) pace enough this season. You could see it in our game. We don't transition fast enough, and we get tired quicker when we're trying to keep up with that pace. Nothing can prepare you for that unless you play a tougher schedule."
In the grand scheme of things, this year will ultimately be viewed as a success for what it will do for future Detroit Lakes boys hockey teams. The Lakers spent what felt like an eternity ranked in the top 10 in Let's Play Hockey's Class A poll.
"What's cool about these last two seasons is we won 19 games and entered the top 10 last year. We were in the top 10 all year long in Class A this year," Noah said. "The state is taking notice of where our program is headed, which should cause other good teams to want to play us."
After Detroit Lakes' 2022 playoff exit, Noah challenged his returning players to approach the incoming offseason differently. Kukowski, a perceived fourth-line player at the time, took the message to heart.
In his first year of varsity action, he finished with nine goals and 10 assists, earning him a spot on the University of Jamestown's club hockey team next winter.
"It's very cool," Kukowski said about how much he's improved from a year ago. "It doesn't happen without my teammates and coaches. They've helped me a lot. They push me every day in practice. The coaches have been great in helping me with systems and getting ready for varsity hockey."
Kukowski pictured himself skating out of the tunnel at the Xcel Energy Center at the state tournament. Like thousands of Minnesotans, it's a dream that will go inexperienced. However, when a Detroit Lakes team finally climbs the mountain again, he will point to the pegs he and his friends placed along the way and be proud of their accomplishments.
"Our program is building," Kukowski said. "It's going to be fun to come back and watch our underclassmen play next year and the kids after them in the years after that. I look forward to getting together with the guys and watching what we helped build to get over the hump. I love my teammates. They're great guys, and they're fun to be around. Our program is growing into a different DL. I'm glad I got to be part of it."
DL 0 2 -0 – 2
EGF 3 1 2 – 6
SCORING- FIRST PERIOD- EGF- Chase Moe (Grady Manger) 8:29; EGF- Manger (unassisted) 9:34; EGF- Hunter Varnson (Judd Pesch) 9:43
SECOND PERIOD- DL- Chase Kukowski (Carter Bellefeuille) 5:01; DL- Easton Kennedy (Jacob Thomas) PPG, 6:37; EGF- Cole Bies (unassisted) PPG, 15:22
THIRD PERIOD- EGF- Brock Schultz (Landon Jamieson, Caleb Schmiedeberg) 3:06; EGF- Chase Moe (unassisted) 4:22
GOALTENDING- DL- Josh Mack-Kael Witt 37 combines saves, EGF- Chase Mero 14 saves