by Eric Oslund
The Elk River girls hockey team had made the section finals eight years in a row. A great accomplishment by any stretch of the imagination, but one that has been overshadowed by the fact they continue to come up just short of the state tournament.
They would try to break their string of five consecutive losses during the 2017 season, as they once again earned the No. 1 seed in their section and advanced to the finals. Everything seemed to be working in their favor heading into their game against Forest Lake.
It was an electric atmosphere in the Forgery Ice Arena as the top two seeds of section 7AA were set to square off. The Elk River faithful showed up in troves and were clearly ready to avenge last year’s loss to Forest Lake in the section final. Not only were they loud and energetic, but they were booing every Forest Lake player that was introduced before the start of the game – they introduced the entire team.
The Elks were flying all over the ice from the first drop of the puck, but it was Forest Lake who scored first. Kayla Kasel received a pass from Madi Nolan, made a nice move on an Elks defender and beat sophomore goaltender Megan Jung, giving Forest Lake a 1-0 lead a little over three minutes into the game.
A couple minutes later, things began to get chippy as there was pushing and shoving around Forest Lake’s goaltender after she made a stop. Elk River’s Shae-Elle McLean was then pulled out the pile and punched in the face. She would be sent to the penalty box with the player that took a swing at her – both called for roughing.
Penalties would be traded back and forth over the next couple minutes until there was 7:50 remaining in the period. The Elks had a five-on-three advantage and senior captain Kennedi Mitchell controlled the puck near the offensive blue line. She fired a shot on net, which was initially blocked, but her fellow senior captain Andrea Westgaard was able to clean up the rebound and get the puck past Forest Lake’s goalie, tying the game 1-1.
The Elks would find themselves on another power play with 3:43 remaining in the opening period, but this one would not work out as nicely for them.
They seemed out of sync the entire time, missing passes, turning the puck over and just having trouble keeping it in the offensive zone and getting shots off. Forest Lake was able to clear the puck down the ice and then force a turnover as the Elks were taking it out of their zone. Nolan got her stick on the puck, and made the Elks pay, beating Jung and recording a short-handed goal to give Forest Lake a 2-1 lead.
That score would hold as both teams entered the first intermission and one of the focuses of that break seemed to be making sure the Elks young goaltender was doing alright. She hadn’t been in situation like this before, and one of the coaches took her outside the locker room to talk with her. McLean then came up and appeared to give her a pep talk before the start of the second period of play.
But according to head coach Dale Sager, Jung was doing just fine.
“To come into a rink like this, you have all these people around, people yelling and screaming, it’s a different atmosphere,” he said after the game. “As you know, the goaltender is a very important position and you put a lot of pressure on yourself, but Megan has done an unbelievable thing this year for us as a sophomore and I’m really glad she’s going to be back for a couple more years to back our defense.”
The second period was a lot less dramatic than the first as their was just one penalty and one goal, as Nolan was once again able to get the puck past Jung to give Forest Lake a 3-1 lead.
Both teams took the ice for the final period of play, the Elks needed to get something going. Just 17 minutes remained between where they were and the possible end of their season, and it was clear they weren’t quite ready for it to be over.
They could have rolled over, they could have thought, “Oh here we go again,” once things started to go against them, but they didn’t. They kept on fighting.
“They fought right until the end,” Sager said of his players. “They wanted it and they were going to do what they could to get it. We kept trying to claw back and fight back, but we just ran out of time.”
50 seconds into the final period of play the Elks got what they needed, a goal. McLean was able to crash Forest Lake’s net and control the puck from behind, she then found freshman forward Halle Johnson out front, who was then able to score, making it a 3-2 game.
The Elks appeared to be on the verge of a comeback, but it was stopped short when Forest Lake was able to score once again with 12:44 remaining in the game to make it 4-2. That lead would remain until there was 2:38 remaining and the Elks would pull their goalie to give them a six-on-five advantage.
The Elks looked strong after that. They were controlling the offensive zone and seemed to be on the verge of making it a one-goal game. But tragedy would strike once again as Westgaard was called for hooking. That gave Forest Lake the power play for the remainder of the game, forcing the Elks to play five on five with an empty net behind them.
Forest Lake would take advantage of the situation and score, giving them a 5-2 lead, which would stick for the remainder of the game.
For the sixth year in a row, the Elk River girls hockey team had their hearts broken in the section finals. One would think that the players and coaches would get use to it, but the opposite actually seems to be the case. Each loss seems to take more and more of a toll on everyone involved and it was clear after the game.
“At the moment, words really don’t describe how you feel,” Sager said. “For some of the seniors this is the fourth year in a row they lost in the section final. It’s heartbreaking. Words don’t really describe how you feel and the amount of hard work we put into it, the amount of time and effort. We have such an awesome, awesome group of kids that they deserved to get a W in here, and tonight was Forest Lake’s night.”