by Bruce Stand, Sports editor
The Elk River Elks might be struggling in conference this year, but they are standing tall against section rivals, a reverse of last season.
With red-hot Jonna Curtis scoring both goals, including the game-winner with 27 seconds left, the Elks beat the Duluth Northern Stars 2-1 at home Thursday evening.
The Elks are 4-4 in the Northwest Suburban and 5-1 outside the conference, including 3-0 against Iron Range section rivals.
Last year, the Elks were 13-1-2 in conference but 2-2-1 against the Duluth-area schools including a 4-0 loss to Proctor-Hermantown-Marshall in the 7AA finals. The early-season highlight for the Elks this year is a 5-3 conquest of P-H-M (currently 9-6-1) on Dec. 22 when Curtis got three goals to start her current binge of 11 in six games.
Just four of the top 20 players from last year graduated but the Elks are currently in sixth place among 10 teams in the NWSC.
“We have a good conference, yes, top to bottom,” said coach Joe Heasley. “But we’ve had a lot of games where we don’t show up to play three periods. We take a period off and get behind and it’s hard to catch up. Tonight, and yesterday at practice, we stressed playing three good periods.”
Heasley said this team’s skill level is comparable to last year’s but the experience level is much lower with eighth-, ninth-, and 10th-grade rookies in the lineup.
Against the Northern Stars (a co-op of Duluth Denfeld and Central), the Elks did a lot of things right except put the puck in the net, as 40 of 42 shots did not get past Duluth goalie Megan Hanson. Elk goalie Samantha Geissler faced only 19 shots.
Taylor Udenberg scored for Duluth (6-9-2) at 10:09 of the first period, but the lead stood for just 51 seconds before Curtis knotted the score with an assist from Cassi Schreckenghaust.
The second period was scoreless and third almost was.
Curtis finally settled the issue when she picked up the puck near mid-ice, sliced past a defender, worked her way up the boards, cut to the middle and launched the game-winner, top-shelf. Cassey Petrich and Danielle Esperum were credited with assists.
“Jonna was snakebitten for the first five or six games this year,” said Heasley. “Nothing was going in. But she’s gotten them in bunches the last seven or eight games.”
The junior forward now has 17 goals in 14 games after a slow start.
The Elks will resume conference play at Centennial on Saturday evening, 7:30 p.m.