Hawks throttle Crusaders

by Pete Waggoner

St. Paul, MN - As expected, the opening game of semi-final Friday lived up it’s billing as the Hermantown Hawks and St. Cloud Cathedral Crusaders laid it all on the line for the right to advance to the Minnesota High School Hockey State Class A final. The Hawks pushed their way to a 6-2 win to advance to the state final for the 11th time in school history over 16 trips and are in search of their third state title.  

This morning’s game was a rematch of a hair raising 5-5 tie that played out in Hermantown on January 3rd.  After the Hawks (26-3-4) jumped to a 4-1 first period and then a 5-2 second period lead in that game January game, the Crusaders stormed back with three third period goals to skate to the 5-5 tie.  It was a tough stretch by Hawks standards as they collected three ties in a row against the Crusaders, Grand Rapids, and Cretin-Derham Hall. 

“Early January was a year ago, two years ago, I don’t know, in the life of a high school hockey season, January is like ancient history,” Hawks Head Coach Patrick Andrews said.  “The way these guys have competed their guts off here since that time and the gut check, the gut punch that was that week, even though they were ties and no losses, this team’s pretty good.  When you give up three leads and come up with ties is pretty unacceptable.  These boys keep themselves to a pretty high standard.  They had a good gut check there and doubled down on playing great team-d and just taking care of our own end because the offense is gonna come.  We weren’t taking care of our own end.”

As the Crusaders (27-4-1) worked to earn a spot in the State final on Saturday and defend their title, the longtime Class A power Hermantown Hawks put their foot down early in the first period.  The same script was playing out on Friday morning as the Hawks opened a 3-0 lead with just under 10 minutes remaining in the second period on goals by Cole Antcliff, Blake Biondi, and Cayden Sunde.  

The Xcel Energy Center continued to swell with fans and based on early indications was the largest Class A semi-final round crowd, at least to the eye test.  The first period ended with a dust up that sent a total of nine players to the penalty box to start the second period with emotions fueling the already energized building.   

A goal by the Crusaders Nate Warner with 6:43 left in the second period turned the tables a bit and the feeling of here we go again, began to creep in the minds of those in attendance.  After being outshot 36-12 after two periods, the Crusaders were gathering momentum and making a push to repeat history from their game on January 5th.  Ethan Cumming buried a feed off the back door freed from Blake Perbix to pull his team within a goal at 3-2.  

“We had some momentum swings there,” Crusader head coach Derrick Brown said.  “I thought when we got to 3-2 in the third that we were gonna come back and we had like three or four grade A’s where they got kind of a little nervous.  We could see they were thinking, ‘Oh, here we go again,’ and it didn’t go in and then they responded like they should have.  Good for them and what a wonderful program they have up in Hermantown and it was a great battle today.”

There were plenty of chances and energy generated by the Crusaders but they could not solve Hawks goalie Jacob Backstrom who turned aside 21 of 23 shots for the game.  Eventually, the Hawks took control again and scored a back-breaking goal at 10:54 by Joey Pierce for the 4-2 lead. Pierce was singled out by Brown as to the impact he had on the game as the Crusader coach heaped praise on the junior defenseman. 

“I think the one kid that does not get enough recognition, and I know they love to talk about the Biondi kid, but it’s Pierce,” Brown said.  “It’s Joey Pierce that does everything for them.  I mean, him on the backend, numerous times he’d kill us in the neutral zone.  He stepped up, he made plays, our guys who were used to making plays, he took them out of play.  The blues were his, he kept pucks in.  I told him after the game, he’s their best player.  I was really impressed by him, just an outstanding hockey player.  I thought he was the difference, we could not generate offense when he was out there.” 

Hermantown didn’t look back as they received a pair of goals from Ethen Lund and a short handed empty net marker by Zach Kilen. 

“We didn’t give up much tonight,” Andrews said.  “It was outstanding defensively.  I knew we’d get our goals.  It was just a matter of shutting it down and I think we did a pretty good job of that.”

‘It wasn’t our best game today and that is what it is but I am proud of these guys,” Brown concluded. 

The Hawks are not strangers to final round games.  It is a stage they are comfortable with and have one more hurdle to overcome in the championship game on Saturday against the winner of the Mahtomedi and Warroad game at noon from the Xcel Energy Center.