by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
A hockey season that started as a long-range rebuilding project ended one goal short of a state tournament as the Elk River girls lost to Forest Lake 3-2 in the Section 7AA finals on Thursday evening in Blaine.
The Elks had an apparent goal waved off, with a timely photograph adding to the “was it in or wasn’t it?” intrigue. More on that later.
This was the sixth straight year the Elks have played in a section final and the third time they’ve come up short. This time, the Elks had a very young team with just one senior full-time starter (four total) and several junior-high- age kids playing extensively.
“Like I told them, at the start of the season, once we lost Jonna Curtis, nobody expected us to do anything this year,” said Elk coach Joe Heasley after consoling a team heartbroken to come so close and fall short. “So we accomplished good things. Making it here was an accomplishment.”
He referred to the star of a strong senior group that graduated last year.
This would have been a Cinderella team to go to state as the Elks started 2-8-3 and finished 12-13-3.
But it’s the same for Forest Lake, which has not been very relevant in this sport since their last state trip in 2001.
“Last Saturday, we won our first playoff game since 2001,” said Ranger coach Ryan Sauter, referring to a 2-0 win over Duluth. “We have instituted a lot of changes in the way we think, the way we train, and the way we react to things, and our players have made that their own, not just something the coach tells them.”
The Rangers, who got two power play goals and one shorthanded, will take a 15-10-3 mark into state. They were top-seeded in the section and the Elks were third.
“What concerned me about Elk River,” said Sauter, “was that they have just as much balanced scoring in their lineup as we do and their defensemen are as good as we’ve seen all year. They’ve got a lot of kids who can fire the puck. But we were able to get one more goal than them.”
Anchored by a six-foot goalie, Abbi White, who is “one of the state’s best,” in Heasley’s opinion, the Rangers played with confidence and poise that belied their unfamiliarity to a big game such as this.
“We needed our top players to elevate their game to make sure they had the heart and passion needed for a big stage like this,” said Sauter. “It was the intangibles that made the difference down the stretch when we didn’t let Elk River get that final shot off.”
Said Heasley: “Forest Lake worked extremely hard. Their goaltender was good, and we knew that; she made a lot of saves. We could not get that last one by her.”
The Elks scored just 1:20 into the game when Sam Westgaard pounced on a rebound and tapped it past White, after a shot by McKenna Wesloh bounced off White’s ankle. Weseloh and Mandy Sailor were credited with assists.
The Rangers pulled even with a power play goal by Kaitlyn Van Tassel just 18 seconds into a power play, at 9:64. The Rangers flooded the net and Van Tassel shot from point-blank range to beat Elk soph Jessica Edwards.
The Elks were in a power play when Forest Lake took a 2-1 lead early in the second period. The Elks mishandled the puck and Forest Lake’s Amy Enroth chased it down. With open ice to the goal, she swooped past Edwards and back-handed the puck past her.
The Elks thought they had a 2-2 tie late in the second period. During flurry of soft shots on goal, one shot (we didn’t see by whom) looped over White’s shoulder, struck something and dropped just outside the red line. The official waved it off.
Heasley asked for their ruling, thinking that the puck may have hit the back post and bounced out.
“They said it hit the pipe,” said Heasley. “To me it looked like it didn’t, but I was a long ways off. Some Elk River fans over here (watching from above the net) said it went in. But, they’re Elk River fans.”
A photo taken by Bob Burley showed the puck seeming to be right up against the back post, although that was taken from some distance and it’s inconclusive.
So the Elks stayed behind 2-1 after two periods, and Forest Lake made it 3-1 with another power play goal in the first minute of the final period, this one by Alexa Bremer on a nice one-two-three passing sequence.
The Elks got back within one when a shot by Wesloh sneaked under White’s stick and barely trickled over the red line.
But the Elks, who had rallied from two goals down in the third period to beat Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in overtime Saturday, were not able to complete the job this time.
The whole game, Forest Lake always seemed to have a couple defenders in their way, and few Elk shots on goal had much mustard on them. There were four or five opportunities for rebound goals, but only on the first attempt was there an Elk following the shot to make the putback.
“The last couple weeks we’ve been better at getting rebounds and putting them away,” said Heasley. “Tonight we were not able to do that.”