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'Jacks end regular season early, but on a high note

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 The regular season has come to a premature end for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls’ hockey team.

Scheduled games against Hibbing-Chisholm and Chisago Lakes Area on Monday and Tuesday nights were both postponed by extreme cold weather which closed the schools — and due to lack of available dates on the remaining schedule, neither one will be made up.

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“That’s going to give us some time off,” CEC Coach Lance Horvat said.

The team won’t be in action next until its first playoff game Feb. 6, so the ’Jacks (6-14-2) will go into the playoffs enjoying a two-game winning streak earned in their last game, a 4-2 win at the Heritage Center in Duluth over the Northern Stars

last Thursday, Jan. 23.

“We thought we had a chance to beat [Duluth],” Horvat said. “The kids on the teams know each other well from summer programs and we didn’t play well the first time we played them [a 5-0 loss in Cloquet on Jan. 4].”

This time around, CEC trailed 2-1 after the first period and came roaring back to win. Cassandra Inman scored the team’s first two goals, with Jade Alvillar and Rachael Macaulay adding goals to help win the game.

Sydnee Hietala, who took over in goal for the injured Stacy Nelson in the team’s 4-1 win at Superior on Jan. 21, stopped 30 of 32 shots she faced for the win.

“Sydnee is a good technical goaltender, fundamentally sound,” Horvat said. “She’s also very much a competitor and wants to win, and it was great to see her play well.”

More important, though, was the fact that some pucks finally went into the net for the ’Jacks.

“We were intense, inspired against Duluth,” Horvat said. “And we started scoring the goals that we haven’t had before. Confidence is so important and right now the girls have it.”

The team also played well in a 3-0 loss at Grand Rapids/Greenway and in a 2-1 loss at Proctor/Hermantown, as part of a six-game losing skid snapped at Superior.

“You look at those games against Rapids and Proctor and we won them everywhere except on the scoreboard,” Horvat said. “Name the statistic, we won it, but we just didn’t score. Both the opposing coaches told us that, but we just couldn’t get the goal we needed. We put those things together against Superior and Duluth.”

Horvat says that the team taking to the ice at the end of the season is markedly better than the team that started the year.

“We’ve seen big improvements from the first day to now that I have been very pleased to see,” he said. “The kids are working very hard and we’re no longer ramming the puck off the boards to get it out of the zone. We’re going D-to-D to open up the other side of the ice, and pulling the puck back and regrouping if the play isn’t there. We’re a lot more patient and that’s totally different from the beginning of the year to now.”

Horvat says he hopes the team can earn a sixth seed in the upcoming section playoffs, which will probably mean a trip to Grand Rapids.

Unlike many sections across the state, Section 7 does not use the computerized QRF rating system to determine section seedings.

“Every year we look at it (QRF) and every year the coaches vote it down,” Horvat said. This year’s seeding meeting is Monday in Cloquet.

The team also played nine of its final 12 games of the season on the road.

“Looking at how well we’ve played on the road the last few games, we’re OK with the road,” Horvat said. “With the exception of Benilde (a 9-0 loss Jan. 11), which was a buzzsaw, the road hasn’t affected us at all. I hope it’s a confidence builder.”