Despite peppering Hill-Murray goalie Sam Illgen 58 times, No. 6 Blaine (16-4-1) couldn’t complete a comeback against No. 3 Hill-Murray (18-3-0) in a 4-3 loss at Aldrich Arena Feb. 5.
The non-conference contest served as a primer for both sides heading into the final regular season stretch before sections.
Bengals coach David Aus felt the timing of a high-profile contest was right on. “I’m thankful [Hill-Murray coach] Bill [Lechner] did that because it’s a great test for us,” Aus said.
Blaine sustained its first loss since a Jan. 9 upset by Elk River at Fogerty Arena, 6-4, a stretch of seven contests.
During that time Blaine had outscored its opponents 40-16, including a 4-1 win at Minnetonka Jan. 21. Blaine had opened a four-game week with a 10-3 win at Armstrong Feb. 3.
The Pioneers jumped to a 3-0 lead in span of four minutes, 33 seconds in the first period, despite being outshot by a 14-9 mark.
After Pioneers’ leading points-maker Mitch Slattery picked up his 15th goal of the season, Dustin Krueger tapped home a rebound that tricked Blaine goaltender Andrew Houle.
Blaine coughed up the puck as a power play ended and Hill-Murray jumped on the two-on-one counter attack. A shot sailed wide of the cage, but the rebound bounced back in front of the goal where Krueger was waiting.
Forty-two seconds later, Darby Regan put what looked like a dump-in pass into the roof of the Bengals goal, fooling everyone including Houle, who went low to block the shot.
Lechner said that was how his team is supposed to play, scoring in bunches and jumping at chances to score. “In the second period [Blaine had] a little momentum and we had to weather the storm and third period things got a little unraveled,” he said.
Pioneers’ leading scorer Josh French picked up his 21st goal of the season early into the third period on another counter attack to make it 4-0.
Less than two minutes later Blaine’s Luke Notermann scored the first of three power play goals in a span of 7:31. Brandon Notermann drew a elbowing penalty before his brother knocked the puck from close range.
Two minutes later Blaine appeared to make it 4-2 after Riley Tufte poked home a loose puck resting in the goal crease after Nic Simpson bowled over the Pioneers netminder. After discussion, the referees determined Simpson had interfered with Illgen and the goal was erased.
The Pioneers continued a march to the penalty box which helped Blaine generate many more scoring chances. The Bengals had a five-on-three power play for 1:07, but couldn’t do more than ring two posts and miss the net a handful of times until Brandon Notermann pounded home a shot from the doorstep of the goal with 15 seconds left on the one-man advantage to make it 4-2.
Hill-Murray was caught with too many men on the ice and 28 seconds later, Simpson snapped a wrister past Illgen to make it 4-3 with 3:47 left.
When asked about the message during the first intermission, Brandon Notermann said, “We knew we were down but we had to pick it up. We knew we had the shots and the started going in that third [period].
“We had all the chances but we couldn’t get that one to go in. We were close.”
While the end result wasn’t a win, Aus was content with the determination to comeback after a rough start.
“It’s frustrating because you work so hard,” he said. “But I’m proud at how they bounced back after the first period and they played really hard against one of the best teams in the state. I thought we really turned it on in the second period.”
Aus was impressed by the performance by Illgen to keep the Pioneers in the game until the end, despite the late penalties. “You have to tip your hat to their goalie because he made some unbelievable saves,” Aus said.
The Pioneers found themselves on the wrong side of the shots chart, which is rare for Lechner’s club. “That doesn’t happen to us,” he said. “We’re the ones with 40-50 shots a game so it’s a learning curve when you come unraveled and get the ‘W’.”
Jason Olson is at