by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
The first 12 minutes of Elk River’s post-Tony Sarsland era were the best stretch of hockey the Elks have played this season, a four-goal burst leading to a 5-3 upset of Maple Grove at home Saturday evening.
And both captains were quick to credit their 27th-year, 588-win former coach, who resigned Friday morning after being informed by the school that he was under an investigation.
“We came out strong. We came out with a chip on our shoulder,” said goalie Anders Franke.
From what? “From losing our head coach. We just said we’ve got to move on, move forward, nothing we can do about it, just come out and compete, and you saw what happened. We were feeling the fire tonight.”
The Elks handed No. 3 ranked Maple Grove its first conference loss and punched five of 26 shots past the Crimson’s stellar senior goalie Kyle Koop, a finalist for a state goalie award.
“We had a big start. We tried to put it all out there for Tony Sarsland,” said Nick McCormack, senior defenseman. “We are dealing with it as a team. As a family. We are all in, all as one, as a family.”
Andrew Zerban delivered two goals, and Austin Larson, Chase Springman and Peter Jones one each, as the Elks improved to 10-5-1 in the NWSC and 13-8-2 overall.
Tony Paulson scored twice for Maple Grove, now 14-1-1 in the conference and 19-2-2 overall. The Crimson, ranked third behind Duluth East and Minnetonka, are already assured of the NWSC crown with two games left. They beat the Elks 3-1 on Dec. 28.
“The kids worked extremely hard and they deserved it,” said Ben Gustafson, serving as interim head coach. “I am very proud of the kids. We are gong to continue to work hard to prepare for Osseo on Tuesday.”
A big crowd ringed the rink for the first game without Sarsland and to watch the Elks take on the top team in the NWSC, with the Crimson bringing a nice following too.
Everyone looked on with a bit of astonishment as the Elks took a quick 4-0 lead.
Zerban scored unassisted just 2:51 into the game. Larson drilled a top-shelf goal at 6:31 with Mitchell Kierstad feeding him the puck from behind the net.
Springman delivered a breakaway goal at 11:28 after Ryan Heid fired a pass from deep in the defensive zone to mid-ice. Just 20 seconds later, Jones rifled another close-range goal off another pass from behind the net, by Jared McLaughlin, with Larson also assisting.
Paulson got one back for Maple Grove at 15:54, circling from behind for a wrap-around goal assisted by Alex Mason and Dylan Steman.
The Elks, up 4-1 at the break, needed just 60 seconds in the second period to strike again as Zerban swooped past the goal right to left and slipped the puck inside the far post, Kierstad assisting.
The Elks had a 5-1 lead at that point despite being outshot 14-8.
Maple Grove counter punched as Dylan Steman scored just 44 seconds later (Paulson and Mason assisting). Paulson did the same at 7:14 on a power play (Steman and Joe Franta assisting) with a shot that glanced off Franke’s shoulder and into the net.
“Maple Grove is a very skilled team. They move the puck really well,” said Franke, who stopped 34 of 37. “They are a top-three team in the state and they showed why.”
The final 24 minutes were a stalemate, though, and the Elks wrested back control in the third period with an 8-5 edge in shots. The Crimson pulled the goalie with 2:00 left but managed just one good shot on goal and sent him back with :20 left.
Zerban leads the Elks with 19 goals. The other goals came from players who don’t normally score as Jones and Springman have three goals each and Larson two.
Koop is one of two finalists (along with Moorhead’s Michael Bitzer) for the Frank Brimsek Award as the state’s top senior goalie and had a .923 save percentage coming into the game. He settled down the last two periods.
Regarding the absence of their longtime coach, Franke said it was difficult to deal with.
“That’s tough to answer that, because we don’t know (what happened),” he said. “It was just a shock, just a shock. But I think we are going to handle it real well. We are going to be reckoned with, in the sectional.”
The Elks have two conference games left, at Osseo on Tuesday and at home against North Metro on Thursday.