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'A' dream is dashed

CEC's first foray in Class A playoffs ends in semifinal

A slow start proved too much to overcome for the Cloquet-Esko-Carlton boys hockey team Saturday night. Playing in the semifinals of the Section 7A playoffs, the Lumberjacks fell behind early, rallied late against Hibbing/Chisholm. That tied the game at two goals each, but it wasn't enough. The game ended 4-2 and CEC was bounced from the playoffs by the Bluejackets.

Hibbing/Chisholm came out and disrupted the 'Jacks by continually pounding the body and outracing them to the loose pucks in the first period. CEC did not have a shot on goal until nearly 14 minutes into the period.

"I thought we looked a little nervous, and we didn't have the jump we normally have," said CEC head coach Shea Walters. "We knew we needed to set the tone early. I am not sure if the 8:45 p.m. start time had something to do with it, but we seemed out of sorts. They were getting the pucks deep and hitting us early and we struggled to move the puck up ice."

The Bluejackets not only set the tone physically early in the game, but they scored the game's first goal just 1:40 into the contest. That's when Ethan Sundvall found a puck near CEC netminder Jamis Halverson and smacked it home for a 1-0 lead, and that's how things stood after one period. CEC did manage to put a little pressure on Hibbing goalie Rex Walli toward the end of the first period, giving them some hope entering the second period.

"We did sustain some pressure towards the end of the first," said Walters. "But we started flat again to start the second period. We made a couple of adjustments to our lines and that seemed to spark a little more energy."

Unfortunately for the 'Jacks, Hibbing/Chisholm pushed the lead to 2-0 on a goal by Benny Galli at 12:43 of the second period. The Lumberjacks finally got some life with under a minute to play in the second, when Joey Antonutti got free in the slot to pull CEC within 2-1 with just 43 seconds left. He was assisted by Bobby Thornton and Cooper Ellena.

"It was a very big goal," Walters said. "I felt that was the momentum swing that we needed. We seemed to be engaged at that point and seemed poised to have a comeback."

The Lumberjacks tied the game on a magnificent goal by Thornton at the 5:28 mark of the third period as he took a pass from Brody Dushkin and then made two dekes around the defense and goalie to score, drawing even with the Bluejackets.

"It was another brilliant goal by Bobby," Walters said. "He has the ability to do that, and that goal seemed to set us up in a good position to win the game."

CEC then went on the power play, but were unable to get a puck past Walli. Eventually Jace Kampsula scored the go-ahead goal at 12:38 for the Bluejackets. Galli added an empty net goal with 24 seconds remaining to ice the game. Hibbing/Chisholm advances to play in the championship game against Hermantown Wednesday night.

"The loss was extremely tough," said Walters after the game. "We had such a wonderful group of kids and seniors that were poised to make a deep run. The team had everything when it comes to the makeup of a state tournament team."

Knowing that the roster was deep and set up for a potential state tournament run in their first year playing Class A hockey made the loss even harder to swallow for all those involved.

"We, and I emphasize WE, staff included, failed to produce in the biggest moment," Walters said. "I am proud of the players and the season we had. We will begin our journey to get the team prepared for next year's run."

CEC finished with a record of 13-14 overall, but they played a schedule that had more Class AA teams than any other team in the state in Class A. In all, CEC played 18 Class AA teams in the regular season, two more than any other team in Class A.