To say the first line for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton girls' hockey team has hit its stride is an understatement.
For the third straight game, junior forward Taylor Nelson scored a hat trick, this one against Superior, as the 'Jacks won 7-0 to improve to 13-3-0 on the season.
CEC, ranked ninth in Class A by Let's Play Hockey magazine last week, figures to rise this week due to a seven-game winning streak that has really turned some heads statewide.
CEC outshot the Spartans 32-12 on Tuesday, Jan. 8, and scored three goals in each of the first two periods, with Dana Jones scoring twice in the first period and Nelson once in the first and twice in the second.
The scoring binge gives Nelson 25 goals on the season, which ties her for eighth place in the state as of press time. Kiana Bender scored two goals and two assists and ranks seventh in the state with 23 helpers on the year.
The first line of Nelson (25 goals-18 assists-43 points), Bender (15-23-38) and Dea DeLeon (5-18-23) have combined for 45 goals and 59 assists for 104 points with one-third of the season still to be played.
"I thought we did a good job producing offense and getting shots on net," coach Courtney Olin said. "We've focused on those things but obviously the scoring we're getting is really pleasing."
Nelson earned special praise for her recent play. "She has taken a leadership role in terms of offensive play," Olin said. "We are very happy with Taylor and her linemates and how they are producing."
The best news, of course, is that all three players are juniors.
"They're all young, and it has been a pleasure to watch them grow," Olin said. "Taylor has been an impact player since eighth grade but they've all been very important to us."
As fun to watch as the scoring has been, the team entered Tuesday's game in the top five in Minnesota defensively. In 16 games, they have yet to surrender more than three goals in a single contest, with senior Elise Lund posting three shutouts and a 1.55 goals-against average.
"This year in particular, we've focused more on cleaning up the zone, and that translates well both into goals against and giving ourselves opportunities when we clear the puck," Olin said.
Coming up, though, is a five-game road test for the team that includes today's game (Thursday, Jan. 10) at 11th-ranked Duluth Marshall, Cambridge-Isanti, 16th-ranked Hibbing-Chisholm, International Falls and fourth-ranked Proctor-Hermantown. The team's last game of the regular season is at sixth-ranked Thief River Falls on Feb. 2.
"At the moment, we're first in the section seedings (which are handled by computer)," Olin said. "But obviously the next five games will have a lot to do with where we finish. I'm happy with where we're at in terms of record, however, we always keep in mind that February is when it counts."
"We're proud to be in the top ten," Olin added. "But we're just hoping to get to state, which is a real goal of ours now, and that's what we're working toward. We focus on how to make each shift better than the last and that's a good mindset."