It’ll be no small task for the Lightning — a co-op of Pequot Lakes, Crosby-Ironton, Aitkin and Pine River-Backus — in their first trip to the Xcel Energy Center as they will open with two-seeded and undefeated Gentry Academy in the Class 1A quarterfinals 11 a.m. Tuesday, March 30.
The Lightning entered the Section 5-1A tournament as the two seed and needed overtime to advance in the section quarterfinals.
With a Kyler Couture goal with 31 seconds left in the first overtime, the Lightning escaped with a 4-3 win over No. 10-seeded Princeton.
In the semifinals, Northern Lakes blew out Pine City 7-1 highlighted by a four-goal first period to reach the section finals.
The Section 5-1A finals was a rematch of Northern Lakes’ last regular-season game against Monticello.
The Moose beat the Lightning in the regular-season finale 4-3 in Breezy Point.
The Lightning beat Monticello 6-3 behind a Tyler Seeling hat trick to earn their first trip to state.
“For every kid that plays hockey in the state of Minnesota it’s a dream come true,” Lightning head coach Craig Larson said. “We were able to keep our emotion under check when we were getting ready to play. They just showed up and were mentally prepared and ready to go. We were ready to win this thing.”
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Larson kept his message to his team brief prior to the section final on the road.
“We knew what to expect from them,” he said. “We had an overtime win early in Princeton and we told the kids Monticello is the bar for the section. And we have to figure out how we can raise the bar. Now the next step is a bigger one.”
Caiden Kjelstrom leads Northern Lakes with 44 points. The senior has tallied 21 goals and 23 assists — both team highs.
His linemate — senior Hunter Nybakken — is second with 39 points with 19 goals and 20 assists.
“They really work well together,” Larson said. “They score shorthanded goals, power play, five-on-five, they just get it.”
The Lightning’s top scorers go to separate high schools. Nybakken attends Pequot Lakes, while Kjelstrom goes to Aitkin.
“The only time they see each other during the day is at practice and in games,” Larson said. “They know how to find each other and can communicate. Their nose for the net and nose for making plays. It’s really easy to coach. Their consistency is key and their leadership is second to none.”
Northern Lakes averages 5.71 goals per game.
“We didn’t expect that,” Larson said. “I think with the game of hockey, defense is so important that you have to make that a priority. And my philosophy as a coach is good defense makes for good offense. We blocked a lot of shots against Monticello and that really disabled their team and it really created a lot of opportunities for our speed which we emphasize.”
Of the Lightning’s three losses only one was by shutout. The other two were one-goal games.
Goalie Adler Hoagland owns a 92.8 save percentage in 16 games.
“If your goalie is your best player you’re going to have a good hockey team,” Larson said. “You’re only as good as your goaltender allows you to be and he’s a constant worker on his game. He’s been a rock back there and he’s a guy we’ve gone with all year.”
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The Lightning’s second line has created scoring opportunities as well.
Seeling — a junior — is third on the team with 30 points tallying 15 goals and 15 assists. His help comes from Couture, a senior, who has 18 goals and 11 assists for 29 points.
“We don’t have less than 30 points on the top end of our three lines,” Larson said. “Our first line is close to 100 points. Our second line is mid-50s and our third line is about 30 and that depth is what you need to keep going. It’s been able to carry us in the big games.”
Five of Seeling’s 15 goals came in the last two section games.
“We saw a really impressive Tyler Seeling in the last half of our season last year,” Larson said. “We were thinking he was going to be one of our best players this season if not the best. And he stumbled a little bit with the second-year slump right out of the gate. But he really worked on his craft and he’s a goal scorer. And that’s what goal scorers do.
“(Seeling) plays on the right side with Kyler Couture, who is also top-five in scoring for us. And they both have been fantastic for us. They compliment each other really well.”
The Gentry Academy Stars are 16-0 and outscored opponents by an average of eight goals a game.
The Stars’ most competitive game was the Section 4-1A finals when they beat Mahtomedi 7-3.
The Stars have five players with 30 points or more and nine players with 20 points or more.
In the net, the Stars have rotated between Anthony Zoelezzi and Alex Timmons with Timmons seeing more action. Timmons owns a 91 save percentage in the limited shots he’s seen.
“They are a very skilled team,” Larson said. “Seen them play a couple of times. They got access to hockey opportunities that not many people in Minnesota have so we are spending time here watching film on them and getting to know some of their players. We are excited for the opportunity.”
Larson wasn’t surprised to see his team unseeded in its first state tournament despite having a win over fourth-seeded Little Falls earlier in the regular season.
“We were hoping for the No. 3 seed,” Larson said of the matchups he wanted for his unseeded club. “But we will prepare either way and Gentry is going to be a great challenge for us. Anything can happen.”
Larson wants the team’s record to speak for itself.
“We are 18-3 for a reason,” he said. “We may not have the metro schedule, but this group of kids has been motivated for a long time. They are one of the first travel teams in the association to have success as they moved up. They were expecting to improve and be better than they were last year and this is going to be a big step for our program.”
Class 1A State Quarterfinals
Who: No. 2 seed Gentry Academy (16-0) vs. Northern Lakes (18-3)
When: 11 a.m.
Where: Xcel Energy Center
Next: Winner will play winner of No. 3 seed East Grand Forks/Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato
CONRAD ENGSTROM may be reached at 218-855-5861 or [email protected] Follow on Twitter at www.twitter.com/the_rad34.