'Jacks ride 4-win streak
Looking at the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys' hockey schedule this season, it's tough avoid calling the season a success even with six games to go in the regular season.
The Lumberjacks (13-5-1) are riding a four-game winning streak heading into the Thursday, Jan. 25, contest at home against Superior, and have not only beaten both last season's Class AA state title game entrants, but also Eden Prairie for good measure.
CEC is 3-1 against Class AA state entrants and has a matchup with defending Class A champion Hermantown still to play, but coach Kevin Smalley says neither he nor his players are satisfied.
"They still show up wanting to work and when you can leave the rink already looking forward to the next day, that's a great thing," Smalley said. "These players want to excel."
The Eden Prairie win was on the road Jan. 12, with Gavin Rasmussen scoring the winning goal, but that only set the stage for a convincing win over the Thunderhawks at the old barn the following Tuesday.
After a 1-1 first period, the 'Jacks erupted for five goals in the middle session, with Ryan Nelson, Branden Matteen, Nelson again, Landon Langenbrunner and Trevor Inman all finding the range in the middle session, with Owen Carlson making 19 saves in goal for CEC.
"Great atmosphere, a cold night, the surface was great, it was a ton of fun," Smalley said of the matchup. "We had the puck a lot that night and in games like these, if we play our game we should be able to control some of our own destiny."
They had the puck in the Thunderhawks' net a lot, too. CEC outshot the state champions 45-29 for the evening.
"It's nice to be able to beat those teams," Smalley added. "Going through the year, getting injuries and getting kids up to speed, it's good to be playing well. Early in the season we found ways to lose a couple of those games, now we're finding ways to stay in them and win them."
One of those games was the 4-3, overtime, come-from-behind win Friday, Jan. 19, over perennial Section 8 contender Roseau at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.
Trailing 2-1 after two periods with a goal from Bryan Broten, Aaron Moore's goal at 2:21 of the third period tied the game at two, but Aaron Huglen gave Roseau a 3-2 lead at the seven-minute mark.
But Rasmussen tied the game on a power-play goal with 4:13 left in regulation — before leaving in a controversial situation.
After winning a loose puck behind the Cloquet goal, Rasmussen cleared the puck up the ice, only to be felled by a blind-side elbow to the back of his head from a Roseau player. The incident, which put Rasmussen into the concussion protocol, went unpenalized.
"The kid (the Roseau player) followed Gavin from the word go," Smalley said. "That was an illegal hit. It shows up on the tape point blank."
"That's a match penalty with intent to injure," Smalley said. "I don't condone that kind of play and their coaches said they don't either, but what the tape showed doesn't lie."
To make matters worse, Dane Stoyanoff was sent off for kneeing 31 seconds into overtime — but Jedd Anich brought the house down with a shorthanded goal at 2:20 of overtime for the win.
With Rasmussen more than likely out for the Superior game and perhaps beyond, one could forgive Smalley for not having his lines set with the playoffs approaching.
"Kade Bender has been out for awhile and he's a big bull for us," Smalley said. "(Dru) Senich has been out for about six weeks with a broken jaw. We've lost guys for long periods, and now Gavin is out. But on the positive side, there have been kids who have stepped up."
Smalley said he sent tape of the Rasmussen incident to the game official, who apologized. "He felt really bad," Smalley said. "I'm not criticizing referees, they don't get all the calls, but here we suffer for it. You have to protect players."
And now with the stretch run approaching, Smalley has the coach's ultimate task still ahead of him: preparing the playoff roster.
"I'd love to have the lines all be together," he said. "We need everyone there, and we'd love to have our combinations set for the last three or four games."
The stretch run opponents — Superior, Forest Lake, Hermantown, fourth-ranked Duluth East, Proctor and Grand Rapids again — should be a fine workup.
"Absolutely good tests," Smalley said. "Superior beat us (5-2) last time. Welcome to high school hockey. They deserved to beat us, they played better than us and the kids understand that. When we don't come to play, we can lose to anybody. Right now, it's about doing the things we need to be successful."