CLOQUET - In the 2018 Section 7AA boys hockey quarterfinals, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton goaltender Owen Carlson faced 19 shots and let six of them get past in a 6-4 loss to Duluth Marshall.
In the 2019 Section 7AA quarterfinals, Carlson was nearly perfect. The junior was unflappable Tuesday night at Northwoods Arena, calmly tracking every shot and keeping upset-minded Grand Rapids at bay in a 4-1 Lumberjacks victory.
For goalies - that fickle position that nobody really understands unless they've stood between the pipes - it's often as simple as seeing the puck. Carlson was seeing the puck Tuesday.
"Last year, I was really in my head and didn't prepare the way I would have liked," Carlson said after making 32 saves. "Tonight, the guys in front of me played really, really well."
The result? A rematch in Saturday's semifinals with rival Duluth East, which dispatched Duluth Marshall 7-0 on Tuesday.
Carlson's proficiency was critical for third-seeded CEC (14-11-1), which controlled play early and led 2-0 midway through the first period before the Thunderhawks regrouped. After settling down, they had myriad chances throughout.
"To be honest, I thought we outplayed Cloquet tonight," Grand Rapids coach Chris Marinucci said. "We outchanced them. We just couldn't snipe."
That was especially true in the third period, when the sixth-seeded Thunderhawks (9-17) kept Carlson under duress. During one stretch with Grand Rapids on the power play, the goalie's momentum was carrying him through the crease and, from his knees, he reached his glove back to snare a shot and preserve CEC's 3-0 lead.
"He was seeing the pucks," Lumberjacks coach Shea Walters said. "They were big tonight for him. He's a guy that we depend on, and to see him play the way he did gives us a lot of confidence moving forward."
Landon Langenbrunner scored a pair of goals for CEC, the second of which perfectly underscored the kind of chemistry this group of seniors has established over years of playing alongside each other.
The senior forward brought the puck into the neutral zone before passing to fellow senior Kade Bender on the side boards. Bender promptly gave it back as Langenbrunner crossed the blue line, firing a wrist shot from the high slot past Thunderhawks goalie Carter Clafton with 17.4 seconds to go in the second period. Langenbrunner then celebrated what he called a "momentum goal" by shooting a mock 3-pointer.
Langenbrunner was asked how many times he and Bender have executed a similar play. The give-and-go looked second nature.
"All the time in practice," he said. "Peewees, bantams. This is years in the making. It's nice when it works out."
For the seniors, who came in as part of a heralded sophomore class two years ago, Tuesday marked their final prep game at Northwoods.
"I know it's a cliche, but time really does fly," Langenbrunner said.
He was already thinking about the Greyhounds. Langenbrunner wasn't looking past Grand Rapids by any means - especially considering the Thunderhawks defeated CEC 5-3 a week ago - but he had a hunch the Lumberjacks would get one more crack at their longtime nemesis.
East clipped CEC 2-1 in overtime and 2-0 during their two regular-season meetings.
"We owe 'em one," Walters said. "They've gotten us twice this year."
Trailing 3-0, Maccrea Murphy put the Thunderhawks on the board with a power-play tally from behind the net. That came on Grand Rapids' 30th shot of the night. Too little, too late, especially the way Carlson was grooving.
He said starting the game with a 2-0 cushion helped.
"It cools you down a little and boosts your confidence," Carlson said.
Less than a minute after the Thunderhawks scored, CEC responded when Gavin Rasmussen scored. Rasmussen has 11 goals in his past seven games.
The Lumberjacks got a big lift in their regular-season finale against Hermantown when big senior defenseman Dane Stoyanoff returned from an anterior cruciate ligament injury.
Grand Rapids 0-0-1-1
First period - 1. CEC, Landon Langenbrunner (Gavin Rasmussen, Mason Langenbrunner), 3:40; 2. CEC, Derian Durand (Cole Ketola), 8:00.
Second period - 3. CEC, Landon Langenbrunner (Kade Bender), 16:43.
Third period - 4. GR, Maccrea Murphy (Braeden Holcomb, Jack Peart), 9:51 (pp); 5. CEC, Rasmussen (Christian Galatz, Landon Langenbrunner), 10:48.
Saves - Carter Clafton, GR, 26; Owen Carlson, CEC, 32.