The Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys' hockey team had won six straight games heading into the Monday, Feb. 4, home game against archrival Duluth East, but the Greyhounds put a stop to that skein with a 2-0 win that dropped the Lumberjacks to 12-10-0 on the season.
The Greyhounds (13-6-1) haven't been as invincible as they have appeared in seasons past, but a brutally difficult schedule has placed them against some of the state's top opposition.
That said, the Lumberjacks forced the Greyhounds to shorten their bench to two lines in the second and third periods before they got goals from Jack Fitzgerald and Logan Anderson to win the contest.
"That was good," coach Shea Walters said, "but they wore us down a little bit." CEC was outshot 43-19 for the game and 15-3 in the third period. Owen Carlson stopped 41 shots in goal for the Lumberjacks, while Brody Rabold made 19 saves to earn the shutout for East.
But the Lumberjacks had righted their ship in the two weeks before the East game, winning against Grand Rapids, Denfeld, Virginia-MIB, Superior, Bemidji and Forest Lake to put them on the sunny side of .500 for the first time all season.
"I think the players settled down a bit," Walters said. "We started to be more consistent."
The Lumberjacks have played teams like Lakeville North, an excellent young White Bear Lake team, defending state champion Minnetonka, Maple Grove, Stillwater and a vastly improved Eden Prairie team in its own version of a scheduling obstacle course. That makes CEC's record a bit misleading as well, but Walters offers no excuses.
"We really do need to find a way to play 51 solid minutes every night," he said.
That seems an odd thing to say given the team's track record of success through the youth ranks.
"Yes, it is surprising," Walters added. "These kids have won everywhere they've been, but we still take periods off and you just can't do that at this level against the teams we play."
This means that now more than ever, the team needs to rely on its ten seniors to show the way.
"We have good leaders, good hockey players, good athletes," Walters said. "We just need to impress upon everyone that now is the time to show what we're made of."
The team has three regular season games remaining: winnable games at Proctor (6-15-1) on Friday, Feb. 8, and at Grand Rapids (8-15-0) on Tuesday, Feb. 12, before closing out the regular season at home against Hermantown (16-3-1) on Wednesday, Feb. 13.
But ahead loom the playoffs and, possibly, another matchup against the Greyhounds.
"We wouldn't mind another shot at them because we think we match up all right with them and with Hermantown, too," Walters said. "We hope the outcome will be different if we see them again."