’Jacks cruise to win in Heritage Hockey tournamentThe ’Jacks used a suffocating team defense and powerful first periods to breeze to victory in the eight-team Heritage Hockey Classic last week in Duluth, delighting Coach Dave Esse and raising the team’s record to 8-4-0 overall.
By: Jeff Papas, Pine Journal
It’s been a long time since the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team has played this well for this long.
The ’Jacks used a suffocating team defense and powerful first periods to breeze to victory in the eight-team Heritage Hockey Classic last week in Duluth, delighting Coach Dave Esse and raising the team’s record to 8-4-0 overall.
So good was the team defense that the ’Jacks allowed only 32 shots on their goaltenders in the entire three-game tournament – or one fewer than they took against Denfeld alone in Saturday’s tournament final.
“Actually, in our last four games, in 12 periods, I think we’ve played 11 or 11½ great periods,” Esse said. “Going back to the Forest Lake game, we have picked it up a notch and showed much overall improvement since then.”
The team’s improved play extends to the junior varsity as well, which also won its side of the Heritage tournament over the same three-day stretch.
Esse shuffled his varsity lines for the Heritage tournament, moving Karson Kuhlman off the top line with Wes and Ben Michaud and moving the third Michaud brother, Dylan, to that line while skating Kuhlman with James Newgren and freshman Kody Bender.
“Teams were matching and playing total defense against the first line,” Esse said. “We’ll try any combination to get our kids the best chance to win. People say ‘you broke up one of the best lines in the state,’ but the object is to win the hockey game.”
The ’Jacks opened the tournament with an 8-1 rout of Buffalo on Thursday, scoring four times on their first 11 shots of the game in the first period on the way to a 5-0 advantage after the first period. Kuhlman scored twice with Newgren, Nate Niemi and Wes Michaud all adding goals in the first period.
“We emphasized starting strong,” Esse said. “In the games we’ve lost we’ve been back on our heels from the start. We put the gas pedal down against Buffalo.”
Beau Michaud scored a pair of second-period goals and Bender closed the scoring in running time in the third period. Justin Ketola stopped nine of 10 shots on the goal for the win.
The next day, the ’Jacks also started strong against Owatonna in the semifinals, scoring three times in the opening period on the way to a 5-1 win.
Drew Dincau, Kuhlman and Beau Michaud did the work in the first period, with the senior defenseman earning special praise from his coach.
“I’m very proud of [Dincau],” Esse said. “Coach (Kyle) Young has done a great job with our defensemen but Drew sees the ice so well and he’s such a great kid. I couldn’t be more proud of him. He has been making fantastic heads-up plays.”
Tanner Robideaux scored in the second period and Kuhlman picked up the final goal in the third period. Zack Strom started in goal for the ’Jacks and stopped all 10 shots he faced before breaking his goal mask on a third-period slap shot and giving way to Ketola for the rest of the game.
“We did a great job of taking away time and space (from Owatonna),” Esse said. “I wanted to jump up and down on the bench, I was so happy. We looked like we were playing the game of our lives in the second period and that is what our better teams here have done. They know when to go for the jugular.”
CEC limited Owatonna to only three shots on goal over the first two periods and just 12 for the game.
That win put the ’Jacks into Saturday’s final against Denfeld, and the ’Jacks saved their best for last, zipping one of the state’s better Class A teams on only 10 shots on goal in a 3-0 win.
“[Denfeld has] a great goaltender in Zach Thompson and they match up well against us,” Esse said. “Our goaltender (Strom) only had to make two big saves but one was a breakaway against one of the better players in the area (Denfeld’s Levi Talarico).”
After Newgren opened the scoring at 6:31 of the first period, sophomore Dalton Johnson scored his first varsity goal on a two-on-one shorthanded rush at 10:58 of the second period and Beau Michaud capped the scoring for the day with 18 seconds left in the second period.
The captain also made one of the headiest plays Esse – or this reporter – can remember from a ’Jacks player in the third period, and it came while he was injured.
After diving to block a Denfeld slap shot that hit him on the inside of a kneecap, Michaud struggled to get off the ice for a substitution, skating on one leg. While leaving the ice, a loose puck slid past him – and he still managed to kick it to a teammate to start a ’Jacks line rush.
“That just showed how tough he is,” Esse said. “He made a play even when he was hurt with a very painful injury. To continue with a heads-up play like that – I have a lot of respect for him. He’s our leader and that’s why he’s our captain.”
The ’Jacks host Grand Rapids on Thursday night and play at New Prague Saturday afternoon.
“We’re playing complete games,” Esse said. “If you want to beat the best you have to do that. I love our improvement from the first week in December.”