CLOQUET — Proctor-Hermantown was widely regarded as the Section 7A girls hockey favorite after advancing to the state tournament the previous two seasons.

But when the Mirage played at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton on Nov. 7 in the season opener, the Lumberjacks had other ideas, scoring four goals in the first period en route to a 4-2 victory, sending shock waves throughout the section.

Fast forward to Thursday, and the good vibrations continued as CEC dispatched Duluth Marshall 3-0 in a Lake Superior Conference game at Northwoods Credit Union Arena.

Senior forward Kiana Bender scored a natural hat trick, extending the Lumberjacks’ school-record winning streak to 14 games.

Fifth-year CEC coach Courtney Olin was asked if she expected anything like this.

“I think we … uuuugh, no,” she said after a long pause, drawing a big laugh.

Olin then knocked on wood for good luck (at Northwoods Arena, aka “The Lumberdome,” there’s no shortage of wood to be had).

“We’re really proud of that (winning streak), but I think it’s just a testament to our players,” Olin said. “They’re working really hard and showing up at the rink, even on days we don’t necessarily have practice. They’re being coaches, and they’re being disciplined, and we’re seeing success because of it.”

Olin, the daughter of longtime Lumberjacks boys hockey coach Dave Esse, who now assists her with the girls team, still saw plenty she didn’t like Thursday. Dave’s taught her well. They were sloppy on the power play, could have blocked more shots and had more puck possessions. But coaches tend to be perfectionists. There is always something to work on and get better at. Her team is listening.

“We just have to not let up,” Bender said. “Keep working hard and flying into the zone.”

It was the Lumberjacks’ first-ever win against Duluth Marshall. They improved to 15-2, while the Hilltoppers dropped to 8-8-1.

Senior Maureen Dwyer, filling in admirably for standout Charlesa Prior, who is out due to injury, led Marshall with 32 saves.

“CEC has an amazing squad,” second-year Marshall coach Stephanie Erickson said. “They’ve got a tough team with a lot of raw talent, but if we work as a team we can compete with them. I’m a little surprised by the year they’re having, but it doesn’t throw me for a loop. They’ve got some great players on their squad. That top line is as good as we’ve seen.”

Bender, the younger sister of Minnesota Duluth hockey player Koby Bender, scored on a pair of rebounds, including one in tic-tac-toe fashion on assists from Tenley Stewart and Emmie Ellena, and her other goal came after a nice pass from senior Taylor Nelson in which Bender deked Dwyer by going to her backhand.

It wasn’t Bender’s first natural hat trick, and it certainly wasn’t her fastest. As a sophomore, she scored three goals in a 43-second span against Eveleth-Gilbert, fourth-best in state history.

CEC returned 17 of 20 players from last year’s 19-8 team so there was plenty of talent, but the team had new goalies in freshman Araya Kiminski and senior Lauren Maslowski. Kiminski earned her first varsity shutout with 17 saves on Thursday.

“I’m a little surprised,” Bender said. “I came in not knowing what to expect. I didn’t know how the goaltending was going to go, but it has been going really well.”

Now, this run has the Lumberjacks thinking state tournament. They advanced in Class AA five times from 2002-09 but haven’t been back since, with Olin being part of the final three of those.

“I think definitely this is our year to go to state,” Bender said. “We’ve been working toward that goal.”

Bender is part of a No. 1 line that represents Cloquet-Esko-Carlton well and includes center Dea DeLeon and Nelson.

Nelson, the team’s only player from Carlton, will play hockey collegiately at Bemidji State, while Bender (Cloquet) and DeLeon (Esko) will play softball at Minnesota Duluth and will likely be roommates.

But Bender will always remember this one: a natural hat track in her senior year in the program’s first win against Marshall.

“Yeah, doesn’t get much better than that,” she said.

Duluth Marshall 0-0-0—0
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton 1-1-1—3

First period — 1. CEC, Kiana Bender (Tenley Stewart, Taylor Nelson), 9:29.

Second period — 2. CEC, Bender (Nelson), 1:06.

Third period — 3. CEC, Bender (Stewart, Emmie Ellena), 5:10.

Saves — Maureen Dwyer, DM, 31; Araya Kiminski, CEC, 17.