While the Moose Lake Area girls hockey team is off to its best start in Joe Mohelsky's 11 years as coach, it's not to say the Rebels are all business all the time. Yet, they never stop competing.
Monday evening, following their 4-0 shutout of Irondale-St. Anthony Village in the opening round of the Schwan's Cup in Blaine, Minn., Lauren Pederson said Sage Gerard was the best actress at a team-wide contest of charades, while Kiersten Evenson came in atop a wild board game of Apples to Apples.
Their Hilton Garden Inn hotel rooms in nearby Shoreview, Minn. echoed with spirited laughter, and it's that chemistry on and off the ice that has MLA currently sitting at 11-1-1 — the best record of any of the 56 Class A schools in the state.
"We're a really close team this year," said Pederson, who buried two goals in their blanking of the Knights Monday afternoon. "I think that really helps."
It also helps to have one of the state's most productive lines. Mohelsky's top trio of skaters — which includes Pederson, Gerard and the program's all-time leading scorer, Jessica Bird — had counted 46 of the team's 56 goals at the halfway point of the season. That's good for 82 percent. And Bird alone has netted a state-leading 32 of them.
Bird, a senior who is eyeing collegiate hockey at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls next year, is also third in the state with her 45 points and gets most of her goals off the stick of Gerard. Gerard, also a senior, totals a team-high 22 assists for 27 points. Pederson, a junior, follows with 14 points, two of which she added Monday into the net to give her nine goals this winter, second only to Bird.
Monday, Pederson scored once in the first and the second periods, while Bird tallied twice in the third. Gerard added three assists and Bird two more to give the always-busy line nine of the team's 10 points. They played Tuesday against Andover in the Schwan Cup Silver semifinals. A win there would have put them in Wednesday's final against either Anoka or Rogers as this edition of the Pine Journal went to press.
"We lean on them to put the puck in the net," said Mohelsky said of his first-liners.
The only other point Monday came off an assist from Jessica's identical twin sister, Jamie Bird, who is recently recovered from a broken foot suffered during volleyball season, as the blue-liner is quickly getting back to her usual form.
Combine the two rare Birds of Jamie and Jessica with the Benzie sisters, Josie and Jamie, and Moshelsky can at times have a mouthful trying to tell who's who on the ice.
Meanwhile, Mohelsky's daughter, Ruby, is also a contributor, along with Abby Painovich and Evenson. All have produced multiple points thus far, making MLA — ranked No. 16 in the latest state polls — more well-rounded than one might think.
"They work their butts off every shift," the elder Mohelsky said of a team that has won four straight and hasn't lost since their lone defeat to Class AA's Dodge County 26 days ago. "We're playing well. As long as we stay within ourselves, I think we can compete with anyone."
Don't forget goaltender Maddy Gamst, either. All the junior netminder has done is play nearly every game since starting her freshman year. Missing just two career contests, including one this season versus Superior, Gamst has logged 627 minutes already between the pipes this winter. Along with that longevity, one needs a magnifying glass to see her 1.46 goals against average, allowing a miniscule 18 goals on 259 shots faced. Her 241 total saves average out to more than 20 a night.
With eight more saves Monday and posting another zero — her third of the season — Gamst often times gets the best of her teammates at practice, too. Mohelsky said in a drill where their top line players shoot five pucks apiece, his goalie frequently fends off the quintet of attempts.
"I think it's a little secret competition between them all," Mohelsky said. "But she definitely stands on her head."
"It's fun just having that daily competition with some of the area's best hockey players," added Gamst.
Asked who usually wins between her and Jessica Bird, 1-on-1, Gamst said it depends on the day.
"Either way, we both have a lot of fun doing it," Gamst said.
That competitive drive never dies. Not whether playing charades, Apples to Apples, or on the ice, seeking their school's first trip to the state tournament come late February. They've already beaten annual Section 7A finalist and No. 10-ranked Hibbing-Chisholm. They'll look to do the same Jan. 26 against section stalwart and defending champion Proctor-Hermantown, currently ranked No. 7, and again come the following month.
It's a tall task, but the Rebels believe they'll be the new ones hoisting the title trophy not too long from now.
"I think we can," Pederson confidently commented.
"That's what we're hoping for," chimed Mohelsky. "We're just trying to get better each shift."
"It's at the top of our list," added Gamst, who helped the Rebels win a 12-and-Under youth state hockey title when she was a sixth-grader. "Everything is kind of falling into place. I think we have a really good chance."
The MLA girls varsity team plays at home next at 7:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 5 against Princeton.