ST. PAUL — Anyone who has ever watched hockey knows all about “puck luck,” those crazy and unpredictable bounces that somehow manage to lead that three-inch black disk into the back of the net.
What Cloquet-Esko-Carlton senior forward Kiana Bender threw up in the air Friday at Xcel Energy Center was more like a puck prayer.
Bender’s quirky power-play goal at 3:12 in the third period — ricocheting off the glass, back over the net, off goalie Kendra Nordick and in — lifted CEC to a 5-3 victory over Warroad in the Class A girls hockey state semifinals.
Just like they drew it up.
“When I missed at first I was like, ‘Dang it,’ ” said Bender, who turned 18 on Friday. “But then I saw the puck jump up and then trickle over, I was like, ‘Please go in, please go in.’ I mean, I’ve seen that before, in the state tournament last year, so I was really excited when it went in.”
Yes, it does happen — just not every often.
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, which got a hat track from senior Taylor Nelson and two goals from Bender, continues its magical journey when the third-seeded Lumberjacks (27-3) play top-seeded Breck (24-6) at 4 p.m. Saturday for the Class A championship at Xcel Energy Center. Breck advanced with a 9-1 victory over fifth-seeded Rochester Lourdes.
Second-seeded Warroad (22-5-2) plays Lourdes (19-11) at 9 a.m. Saturday for third place.
“That was a backbreaker,” Warroad coach David Marvin said of Bender’s first goal, which proved to be the game-winner as freshman goalie Araya Kiminski continued her strong play with 25 saves.
Nelson got the scoring started at 12:15 in the first when she wrapped around the net and slid a backhander past Nordick, who slid over to cut the gap but left the far side open.
Three minutes later, Nelson was at it again, with a wicked slap shot from the blue line that hit nothing but net, an impressive blast into the top-left corner to put the Lumberjacks up 2-0 going into the second.
Nelson was asked if she had ever scored on a shot like that.
“In practice I have, but not really in a game,” said Nelson, who added two assists for a five-point performance. “I was just trying to get it on net. I was in a perfect spot. It was pretty amazing.”
Warroad came back to tie it with goals by Geno Hendrickson and Sydney Phaneuf in the second and could have had more, including a potential tap-in for Hendrickson that somehow missed her stick.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Marvin said. “I just don’t think the puck went our way. We had some chances in the third and just missed behind the goalie a couple times, but we didn’t play well enough to win. They played better than us and we know that. You have to play 51 (minutes) to move on, and we didn’t do that. You have to do that against a good team.”
Nelson completed her eighth hat trick of the season at 1:09 in the third on a perfect feed from Dea DeLeon, but Ms. Hockey finalist Hannah Corneliusen answered just eight seconds later by lifting a backhander up and in past Kiminski, knotting it 3-3.
That set up the heroics for Bender, who continues to shine, bad wrist and all, after getting injured in last week’s Section 7A championship game. While Bender saw her goofy goal go in at 3:12 in the third, she didn’t see her next one at all, an insurance goal two minutes later where she was looking west and the puck was going east.
“I was yelling at my teammate, Tenley Stewart, to shoot it, and it hit off my elbow,” Bender said. “I didn’t even see it going in. I just saw my team put their arms up and cheer. It was pretty awesome.”
What a way for Bender to celebrate her 18th birthday. Bender’s goal off the redirection made it 5-3 and that’s how it would stay, as Kiminski stopped nine shots in the final period and Stewart added two assists.
It was only the sixth time this year the Warriors were held below four goals.
Now, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton is one game away from its first state title.
“We’ve been working on drawing numbers,” Lumberjacks coach Courtney Olin said. “Five years ago we went into the middle school asking kids if they knew what hockey was and if they’d be willing to come out. We literally had players who had to buy gear to come out for our JV. Playing in a state championship game is certainly going to help with that.”
First period — 1. CEC, Taylor Nelson (Kiana Bender), 12:15; 2. CEC, Nelson (Emily Litchke), 15:04.
Second period — 3. W, Geno Hendrickson (Sydney Phaneuf), 6:30; 4. W, Phaneuf (Hendrickson, Karlie Meeker) 7:29 (pp).
Third period — 5. CEC, Nelson (Dea DeLeon, Tenley Stewart), 1:09; 6. W, Hannah Corneliusen, 1:17; 7. CEC, Bender (Nelson, Emmie Ellena), 3:12 (pp); 8. CEC, Bender (Stewart, Nelson), 5:02.
Saves — Araya Kiminski, CEC, 25; Kendra Nordick, W, 15.
Breck 9, Rochester Lourdes 1
Senior forward Olivia Mobley had four goals as the two-time defending state champion Mustangs continue to steamroll the competition. They outshot the Eagles 46-16 two days after trouncing Luverne 8-1 (and it wasn’t that close).
“The only state tournament teams we’ve seen have been here,” Olin said. “We hadn’t played anyone who’s made it to the show until now, so what we know is what we’ve seen here. We’re sort of an underdog, Cinderella-type story.”
Mobley, a Quinnipiac recruit and Ms. Hockey finalist, now has 56 goals, matching Warroad’s Corneliusen for the state lead, and has a state-best 93 points.
Eighth-grader Hannah Halvorson added two goals and senior defenseman Emily Zumwinkle chipped in three assists. Breck has won its five playoff games by a combined 43-5.
“We just have to believe in ourselves, try our best and hopefully represent our communities well,” Olin said. “That’s the thing, I’m so proud of our girls because we just work really hard. So regardless of who we’re facing and how we fare, if we work hard, I’ll be proud of them.”
She should be. Things like this just don't happen very often. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton last played for a state title in 2005, finishing as Class AA runner-up.
Grand Rapids-Greenway was the last girls hockey team from Northeastern Minnesota to play for a state title, finishing as Class AA runner-up in 2008.
Hibbing is the only team from Northeastern Minnesota to win a state girls hockey title in 1997.
The current Lumberjacks have certainly gotten plenty of support during their playoff push, from 1,500 coming out for the Section 7A title game against Proctor-Hermantown last week to this week at Xcel.
“We’re fortunate to have such a good community,” Olin said. “We had five sendoffs for our team; there are some programs that didn’t have any.”