by Jason Olson
Plenty of sunshine greeted hockey fans and players for the second edition of the Winter Classic girls’ hockey game Jan. 28.
What’s become a way to celebrate the annual rivalry game, Blaine traveled to the new Coon Rapids Ice Center, but headed to its refrigerated outdoor rink Saturday afternoon instead of the controlled indoor climate before skating off the ice under the lights with a 5-0 win.
The Cardinals (4-12, 6-17) took eight penalties to Blaine’s three which spoke to how the two teams’ aggressiveness would play into the game. Blaine could afford to be more aggressive in the offensive zone, while the Cardinals were on their heels to make up for being a skater down for 16 minutes.
“Everybody’s frustrated. Even though we’re 17 games in, it’s getting old and everybody’s in the same boat and pointing fingers,” Coon Rapids’ second-year head coach Jessica Christopherson said.
Despite the special teams goals, she felt her players killed off the penalties the best way they could. “We were standing around watching rebounds and that’s what killed us,” Christopherson said. “Initially we were fine, but not tying anyone up is a problem.”
The Cardinals offense generated 18 shots on goal and had more quality scoring chances than one would think with less than two dozen shots.
“Our top two lines did a nice job and we had chances, but we still missed the net on quite a few,” Christopherson said.
The anticipation of the season after last year’s success made the sub-par record even worse for captain Michelle Harris.
“It’s a tough loss,” she said. “It’s really tough this year because we had so much momentum coming back and all of a sudden it’s not going our way. We’re trying hard but we have to keep pushing hard and keep doing our best.”
One reason for the slip this season could stem from the loss of leading scorer Amy Schlagel. She might return for the section tournament, but is always behind the bench or helping out during practices.
“She’s really good and it’s hard not having her here. We’re excited to have her back,” Harris said.
Bengals coach Steve Guider summed up the outdoor experience by saying “I think it’s just a lot of fun.”
His players started to ask about this season’s game the practice after last year’s chilly overtime thriller. “For [the players] it’s a bit of a novelty but for us it’s getting back to the basics,” Guider said.
The amount of ice time available just about negates the need to practice or play outside, he said.
Being on the ice in a regulation game with the sunshine was a treat for Guider and his team. “Just the sound of hockey is so much better,” Guider said. “You hear kids stopping, the cool breeze. It’s a great time.”
The only complaint came about the sunshine, which created a tough glare in the south-facing end of the ice.
Blaine goalie Tara Hoverstad said it was tricky. “It was really weird,” she said. “I didn’t like it. In the first period I felt like I couldn’t see the puck.”
The bright blob of light in the sky reflected off the ice and her experience as an outfielder on the softball team didn’t translate, Hoverstad said.
Having a more consistent rink was a positive for Hoverstad, who wasn’t fond of the goals that moved around at Phalen last winter, she said.
“Everyone’s focus was off last year,” Hoverstad said. “They didn’t have a blue line, the goals weren’t pegged and the boards were wood. It wasn’t like playing in a regular rink. Today seemed more like a regular game.”
Trading a scraper pulled by a tractor for a Zamboni and refrigerated ice against a nature-regulated surface also helped create a better playing surface for the teams.
Guider said he put his team through a tough workout two days before the game and after the 90-minute session, his team had build quite a snow pile on the rink.
“It got snowed up pretty good and it was windy so their legs were tired,” he said.
Cardinals captain Harris said the chance to play outside was fun, no matter the conditions. “Being able to do something a little different was great,” she said. “I was excited and it was perfect hockey weather today. The glare was really tough on the goalies so we tried to get more good shots on [Hoverstad] as quickly as we could.”
Blaine scored two power play goals in the first period to lead 3-0. Sam Swanstrom and twin sister Katie Swanstrom provided the scoring touch in the first period. Sam Swanstrom scored twice in the opening 12:40 with the first coming on the power play, set up by Alex Barber-Verdick and Erin Haper.
Katie Swanstrom and Kiersten Falck set up the even-strength goal at 12:40 of the period, then Falck set up Katie Swanstrom’s lone goal of the game with 1:30 left in the period.
Coon Rapids didn’t start that poorly as it controlled the puck and generated chances to get on the scoreboard.
“We took some real bad penalties, did some mentally undisciplined things and we dug a hole for us that we couldn’t get out,” said Christopherson, the reigning Section 5AA Coach of the Year.
Blaine’s Brittany Palmer made it 4-0 for the visitors with help from Brittney Thunstrom and Harper, who collected her second of three assists.
Sam Swanstrom and Harper assisted Kiersten Falck’s goal, the only score of the third period coming at the 7:31 mark.
The Bengals went two-for-eight on the power play, while Coon Rapids failed to convert on its three chances and was outshot 33-20.
Thirty-three shots making it on net is something the Bengals have worked on a lot during recent practices.
“We’ve been working on finishing at practice and going hard to the net and those are the things that will help us the most in sections,” Katie Swanstrom said.
Hoverstad posted her fourth shutout of the season and likes the direction the team is headed in at the end of the regular season after a couple shaky outings recently.
“So I’m hoping this is the start of a good streak. We played well as a team today,” she said.
Cardinals sophomore net minder Ali Weber was busy making 28 saves in the loss.
Blaine scored five times for the second game in a row after it topped another district rival Champlin Park 5-3 four days earlier.
The Bengals had also won consecutive games Dec. 13 and 17 against the same Champlin Park (3-0) and Coon Rapids (4-0) squads.
Both Blaine-Coon Rapids contests were decided in overtime last season with the Cardinals winning the first Winter Classic 4-3 as Addie Rust scored a power play goal 2:46 into the extra session – 10 seconds after Falck was sent off the ice for interference. Assists went to Rachel Bona and Brenna Paskey.
Coon Rapids went on to capture the Northwest Suburban Conference title, Section 5AA title and Class AA State third-place trophy.
Those scoring chances haven’t come around as much as they did last season, but when they have appeared, few have been able to finish the play. “That’s been happening a lot to us,” Harris said.
Holding the team together shouldn’t be a problem for Christopherson or her captains. “We haven’t had too much conflict on the team. We all get along pretty well,” Harris said.
According to Christopherson, the pressure to succeed now is strongest on the upperclassmen. “To give so much to the program and have the record we have it tough,” Christopherson said. “It’s really wearing on them.”