by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
The Rogers Royals were just one game from their first state hockey tournament, but that’s a long bridge when the opponent is the Hermantown Hawks.
No. 2 Hermantown pummeled the unranked Royals 5-0 in the Section 5A finals before an overflow crowd at Champlin Ice Forum on Friday evening.
“No question, they are a very good team,” said Rogers coach Tim Marchand, after his team had its season ended by Hermantown for the second straight year.
Five different players scored and eight players had one assist each for the Hawks, who have marvelous depth for a Class A team. Connor Lucas had the shutout with 21 saves.
The Hawks were state runners-up last year after beating the Royals 4-0 in the section semifinals. They graduated 14 players and came back just as strong.
“With those 14 seniors last year, a lot of juniors got an extra year of playing time on JV,” said coach Bruce Plante. “Hermantown kids are willing to play two years of JV to get one year of varsity and that doesn’t happen in most plays. So we have a third line of seniors who’ve played two JV seasons. The key to our team is that depth.”
The Hawks decimated the Royals in the second period with three goals, two of them on 5-on-3 power play, and a 17-2 shot advantage. Otherwise shots were about even as Hermantown had a 35-21 advantage overall.
“Rogers is big, strong, physical and tough,” said Plante, “but if we play our game, that’s probably going to be good enough to win … We play defense pretty hard and we attack off that, and we’ve got some skill guys and speed guys, and we play aggressively all the time.”
Asked what the long-shot Royals, who finished 16-9-1, had to do to challenge the Hawks, Marchand said: “We had to be confident in what we have and what we bring. We needed to close the lanes quicker on them. We came out and established possession right away, but we needed to get more shots. That was the key.”
The first period was almost evenly-matched as Hermantown had just a 10-8 shot advantage, but it was the Hawks who got on the board. Brian LaBlanc hit a slap shot from just outside the circle that got under Vukelich’s stick at 11:09.
The Royals stayed within 1-0 until they stumbled into a 3-on-5 situation 6:32 into the second period and Hermantown took full advantage with two goals. Rogers was whistled for two simultaneous infractions — a bench penalty when too many guys jumped over the boards, called on Mark Baumtrog, and cross-checking on Phil Ballard.
The Royals fought off the Hawks for a minute and 20 seconds before Garrett Skrbich ripped one past Rogers goalie Robby Vukelich at 7:52, and Chris Benson did the same with eight seconds left in the two-man advantage, at 8:24.
The 3-on-5 “didn’t help,” understated Marchand.
“They’re a pretty good team with a really good power play and special teams. It was a critical time, when things were still going well, 1-0 at the time and anybody’s game.”
The Hawks were suddenly up 3-0 and the Royals were sagging.
“That was a huge part of the game,” said Plante, “when we scored on both and put them on their heels a little.”
Back at even strength, the Hawks struck again less than two minutes later as Billy Grillo scored for a 5-0 lead.
Jared Thomas made it 5-0 with the game’s last goal 4:24 in the final period.
“It was a good season,” said Marchand. “Early on we had a lot of young boys out there and we took a bad stretch where we had five losses in a row, but after that, we put together a nice string.”
The Royals had two distinctions — the first team to go unbeaten in the Mississippi 8 and the first Rogers team to reach a section final.
Hermantown, earning its eighth state trip, outscored three section foes 11-1. They’ve allowed just 13 goals in 25 games.