The Hill-Murray Pioneers boys’ hockey forces had a challenge set out for them: to match the exploits of the Hill-Murray girls’ hockey team.
In case you haven’t heard, the girls won the Class AA State Championship last week.
The boys took a huge step toward their 27th State Classic appearance when they routed Roseville by a 5-1 score.
They next met Stillwater (3), an overtime 2-1 winner over White Bear Lake (2) in the Section 4AA finals played at the State Fair Coliseum Feb. 28.
Hill-Murray 5, Roseville 1
The Pioneers jumped on the puck right away in the semifinal match of Section 4AA boys’ hockey against Roseville at the State Fair Coliseum Feb. 25.
Hill-Murray scored a pair of first-period goals and mounted a 5-0 margin in the third period of play before one of Roseville’s forays into the Hill-Murray defensive end paid off.
“I was pleased with how our kids played tonight,” said Hill-Murray veteran head mentor Bill Lechner. “They hounded the puck and their passing was precise and on the mark. The two early goals kind of set the pace for us. It is nice to jump on a lead and then play your game the rest of the way.”
That was precisely what the Pioneers did. They “jumped on the lead” and then left their defense with the task of holding off the Roseville attack. Shots-on-goal were 30-17 in favor of Hill-Murray.
The Pioneers opened the scoring early with a feed from Lucas Wewerka to Zach Mills, who one-timed a laser shot above the glove and inside the left pipe at 1:31.
Hill-Murray continued the onslaught into the Roseville zone as Joey Anderson picked up a loose puck just inside the blue line. He side-stepped a defender and from mid-slot saw his shot carom off the stick and into the back mesh. At 6:01 it was 2-0 Pioneers.
In the second period Mitch Slattery sent a pass to Anderson, who sent a sizzler inside the right post at 7:19.
Two minutes later, a feed from Zach Mills hit the blade of Dusty Krueger. The senior winger cruised to the dot in the circle to the right of the Roseville net. From there he unleashed a bullet that found a niche on the short side and it was 4-0 at 9:48.
In the third stanza, the Raiders were assessed a penalty and it took the Pioneers just 10 seconds to make them pay.
Slattery fed the biscuit to Josh French who let fly a quick-wrister that found its way to the back twines at 6:39.
The Raiders returned the favor when Hill-Murray found they were a man short with a player in the penalty box.
A pass from Matt Irwin back to Andrew Colvard saw the defender rifle a shot through traffic that found an opening between the pipes at 15:13 for the final in the 5-1 Hill-Murray triumph.
The win pushed the Pioneers into the Section 4AA championship game against the Stillwater Ponies.
Stillwater 2, Hill-Murray 1
The Pioneers’ dream of making their 27th appearance in the Minnesota State High School Boys Class AA hockey tournament was dashed Feb. 28.
The Stillwater Ponies galloped to their first Section 4AA boys’ hockey championship with a stifling defense and an opportunistic offense.
The Ponies were seeded third in sectional play. They played the part of “Jack the Giant Killer.” First they stopped a good Tartan team 6-3. Next they went up against number-two-seed White Bear Lake and downed them 2-1. Then they met the number one Pioneers and handed them a similar 2-1 loss.
When unseeded Stillwater opens Class AA state championship play March 6 at 6 p.m., at the Xcel Center, they will have an opportunity to continue their successful underdog campaign, against number-one-seed Edina, making its 25th appearance in the tournament.
Coach: ‘No surprises’
Of the loss — in the last hockey game to be played at the storied State Fair Coliseum — veteran Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner was gracious in defeat.
“There were no surprises for us. They (Stillwater) are well coached. They work hard. They came ready to play.”
Coach Lechner then acknowledged the problems in the second period, when the Pioneers were out-skated and outshot by 13-8.
“That second period was probably our worst period all year. I don’t know why, but we were lucky to get out of it with the score only 1-1. We played better in the third period.”
During the third, the Pioneers recovered to outpace the Ponies with 10-6 shots on goal, but couldn’t connect.
“We had our chances; we just couldn’t find the net,” Lechner said. “But we’ve been fortunate at Hill. We’ve been there many times. Now someone else has the chance, Good luck to them!”
Hill-Murray opened the scoring in period one when an up-ice pass from Joey Anderson caromed off the boards to the stick of Mitch Slattery. The agile winger moved around a defender, cut through the left circle, deked the goalie to his right and slid the disc inside the left pipe at 5:18.
Play moved into the second period and Stillwater came out and played as if they were obsessed.
Their efforts paid off early when a precision pass from John Heddle found the blade of Devin Cates. The junior forward sailed through the circle to the left of the Pioneers goal. He hit the slot and unleashed a missile that found the back twines inside the right post at 1:43.
Try as they might the Ponies out-skated, out-shot and out-checked Hill-Murray, but the 1-1 count still showed as the period ended some 15:17 later.
Play moved into the third stanza and then came an early penalty which in the end cost Hill-Murray the game.
The first power play opportunity for either team came to Stillwater at 4:56 of the third stanza when the Pioneers were whistled for an interference infraction.
Over a minute later the Ponies were able to capitalize with the game-winner.
Coach Lechner described the play. “On the power play goal, they could have called an infield fly rule. We needed some baseball players out there to grab the puck out of the air.”
It was heads up as the shot, by Brandon Jungmann, looped high in the air, came down behind goalkeeper Sam Illgen, bounced off his backside and across the line.
On the play, in which Stillwater was moving the puck well in the Hill-Murray zone, Sam Sagissor was awarded an assist.
The Pioneers, ranked number one in the state for most of the season, finished with a record of 24-4.
The Stillwater Ponies (16-10-2) move on to play Edina (22-4-1) in the opening quarter final play of the Class AA action March 6.
— Wally Wakefield can be reached at email@example.com .