Though the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team hasn't won in its first three games, Coach Dave Esse is seeing signs of improvement.
First among those was a narrow 2-1 loss against defending Section 7A champion Duluth Marshall at Mars Lakeview Arena last Tuesday night.
In that game, the 'Jacks (0-2-1) held a 1-0 lead after Kyle Klatt's first period goal, and kept that lead into the third period.
Once there, though, a pair of power-play goals from Marshall's Luke Pavelich sank the 'Jacks in a 2-1 defeat.
"It was better than I expected," Esse said, noting that the 'Jacks lost 3-0 to the Hilltoppers in a 17-minute scrimmage at the conference preview the week before. "Marshall is a good team, one of the top Class A teams in the state and I thought it was a good high school hockey game."
The peculiarities of Marshall's home rink -- with a low ceiling and a small ice sheet -- made the going difficult at times.
"Sometimes it was fire wagon hockey, with odd man rushes, and other times we stood up well," Esse said. "I just wish we hadn't had those penalties."
Zach Strom made 29 saves on 31 Marshall shots in goal for CEC, which had 23 shots on Marshall goaltender Alex Murray.
"Our defense and our goaltender played well," Esse said.
"We showed a lot of poise and patience."
On Saturday night, though, there were more items to fix in a 4-2 loss to Bloomington Jefferson.
"That game was disappointing," Esse said. "In the first period I didn't see the effort we have to have. Team-wise, our speed is down from last year so it's absolutely vital that we work hard on every shift to stay in the game. We didn't do that in the first period against Jefferson."
The Jaguars scored two goals on their first five shots of the game, with Kyle Wendorf making it 1-0 just 99 seconds into the game and Johnny Panvica scoring shorthanded at 8:26 for a 2-0 lead.
"We didn't have a spark, we didn't have atmosphere," Esse said. "Coach (Kyle) Young and I had to get after the players a little bit in the first intermission and after that it was better."
That said, the Jaguars built a 4-0 lead in the second period before Ryan Lind broke through at 15:18 of the session.
"Ryan really has been playing well," Esse said. "He's got a great shot and gets it to the net quickly. He hadn't scored since his sophomore year and now he's got three goals in three games."
Lind also scored a power-play goal midway through the third period and the 'Jacks had other chances as well.
"Special teams killed us," Esse said. "We allowed another power-play goal and a shorthanded goal which didn't help. We had lots of third-period chances though and had some chances to get even closer at the end of the game. I liked how we finished."
With a week off due to the midweek storm, the team has a full week to prepare for South St. Paul's visit on Saturday.
"We lost two days of practice from the storm but we hope we can come back with fresh legs on Saturday," Esse said. "We do need to work on special teams but the point is that we can't focus on wins and losses now with so many new players. We need to get better and be playing well when it matters at the end of the season."
Esse also had praise for Klatt's play.
"He has really improved his game," Esse said. "He's got very quick hands and he's better mentally too. I think that has lot to do with the great football season he had. His confidence is really there right now."
That said, there's no substitute for hard work, and the 'Jacks need plenty of it.
"It is imperative that we play good positionally and work every single shift," Esse said. "We might not be in some games if we don't work. We have to play team defense and know our surroundings. But this is a tight-knit group and they are getting along and working very hard. It's a process. We have at least 26 games this year with a playoff game and we think we will get there."