By Rob LaPlante
Crow River News Sports
In a matter of two days, the North Wright County girls’ hockey team became co-conference champions and earned a likely top seed in the upcoming section playoffs.
With Buffalo (5-1, 19-6 overall) clinching at least a share of the Mississippi 8 title with a 4-3 win Jan. 22 over the River Hawks, NWC had to defeat a winless Cambridge-Isanti team (0-6, 6-19 overall) – a team they previously defeated this year 11-0 – in order to assure a tie for the conference title.
“I gave the message to the girls before the Cambridge game that we’re not starting the game out 11-0. It’s zero, zero,” said NWC head coach Jason Johnson.
Even at that, the River Hawks struggled out of the gate. The Bluejackets lit the lamp first early in period one and despite outshooting C-I 14-6 in the opening period, the score was tied at the intermission 1-1 thanks to sophomore defenseman Marina Chapman’s goal.
“We didn’t have the start we wanted too,” Johnson said. “After the first period, I talked about getting pucks on the net and getting the shots low. We were throwing everything in the goalies glove and blocker.”
Junior defenseman Mackenzie Johnson took her coaches advice to heart. The Hawks took a 4-1 lead into the second intermission, thanks in large to Johnson’s first career three-goal game. Johnson registered a pure hat trick with all three goals coming from the point.
“They were all pretty similar goals,” Mackenzie said. “The forwards did a really good job of getting the puck to the point. Once they passed me the puck, I just had a quick release and shot it low and they were setting screens in front of the net and they all happened to go in.”
The three goals brought her total to eight on the season. The Hawks would add four more in the final period to win going away 8-1. Senior forward Maddi Sjelin collected four assists, as NWC earned a share of the conference title for the second year in a row.
“We would have liked to beat Buffalo the second time,” Mackenzie said. “But so far the season has been going great. We all do a good job of encouraging each other. We play like a team and we’re having fun while we do it.”
With the fate of the conference decided, the Hawks went into the final game of the regular season with an all important Section 8AA matchup with the Spuds of Moorhead.
Like the previous night, the Hawks found themselves in an early battle. Despite outshooting the Spuds 13-6, the game remained scoreless after the first period.
The Spuds took a 1-0 lead early in period two when Kristen Drechsel one-timed a shot past NWC junior goalie Alex LaMere. Unlike the Bluejacket game, Moorhead sophomore goalie Brianna Storms wasn’t budging.
It wasn’t until the 9:01 mark of period two when the Hawks and senior forward Rachel Heiber broke Storms’ shutout bid. Moments prior to her goal, Heiber had a couple chances, the closest coming on a nice move that resulted in a post.
“I did have a lot of opportunities,” said Heiber, who ranks second on the team in goals, assists and points. “I was hoping I could at least get a couple out of them.”
Heiber helped set up senior leading scorer Dani Sibley for a 2-1 lead, with a power play goal at the 14:58 mark of period two. It was Sibley’s team leading 30th goal of the season.
The game appeared to be safe at the 7:00 mark of the final period when Heiber scored her second of the game and 17th of the season. Both Sibley and Sjelin assisted on the goal, as the Hawks’ relied heavily on their top line.
“Yeah, totally,” said Heiber, when asked if their line was feeling any fatigue after playing a ton of minutes in the second of back-to-back games. “But once you get going that fast, you start to lose track of going every other shift. You’re just like in the moment and can keep going with it.”
Moorhead’s Rebekah Hakk made it 3-2 at 14:54, but LaMere and the Hawks held on for the 3-2 win and a likely No. 1 seed in Section 8AA.
“There were some anxious moments,” Coach Johnson said. “We used two lines pretty much the whole game. Getting closer to the playoffs, we’re going to have to rely heavily on the top two lines and against Moorhead we chose to run with them to see where they are at.”
Section seedings were held Feb. 6 and the Hawks are guaranteed a home game in the Feb. 9 quarterfinals round. Winners advance to the semifinal round Feb. 12 with the highest seeds hosting. The Section 8AA title game will be Feb. 15 at a neutral site (TBA), with the winner advancing to the state tournament Feb. 20-23 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. All section playoff games are 7 p.m. starts.