Hockey, in perhaps one of sport's best metaphors, literally starts every game with a clean sheet. The ice is resurfaced, the scoreboard is reset, and two teams write their own script as it happens. That, to me, is what separates hockey, and sports in general, from the other so-called higher art forms. In even the greatest theater performances, films, operas, etc. somebody already knows what is going to happen. There may be subtleties in a performance that can fractionally change expectations, but ultimately, it's still just a re-run. Even the most moving moments in a performance art lose something because it's just a re-creation of an idea somebody else already had. The beauty and genius of it loses something when it is shared second-hand. It lacks the certain spontaneity of being part of a moment that only the art of competition can provide.
That's why we watch hockey. Because with enough persistence, and a little bit of luck, we can witness one of those spontaneous, beautiful moments where an amazing story unfolds in front of us. We can be a part of a single, magical moment that can never be recreated, but will always be remembered. Tuesday night was one of those nights.
I didn't go to the game between Benilde-St. Margaret's, rated the state's second best team, and Spring Lake Park expecting to see a great game. In six years of playing in the North Suburban conference, Benilde had never lost a game to one of the conference's public schools. Teams in the North Suburban conference are given the option of only playing the Red Knights once during the season in a game that counts for four points in the standings, rather than the standard two games to save those teams the embarrassment of getting drubbed an extra time by Benilde--this game against Spring Lake Park being one such example. The scores of Benilde's first seven conference games this season were: 13-0, 10-1, 7-0, 12-0,11-0, 9-2, and 8-1. The two teams to keep the game within seven goals both swept the season series against Spring Lake Park, so it's not a stretch to say the Panthers were the underdog by more than a touchdown coming into this game.
Still, having only watched Benilde by way of computer a couple times this season, I wanted a chance to see them in person prior to the sectional tournaments, and they were playing just down the road from my home. I figured it was a good chance to get some better notes on a few players. I strongly considered sitting at the end of the rink Benilde was shooting at to see most of the scoring, before settling in near center ice. I assumed there was no chance I'd stick around long enough to hear the final buzzer.
The game started out pretty much as expected, with Benilde not exactly flying, but still taking early control of the play. Spring Lake Park actually had a couple great chances early on: a misplay by the goalie behind the net yielded a shot at an empty net which wasn't converted on, and a one-timer to an open net during an early power play was fanned on, but a good 75% of the play was in the SLP zone. At the time, I thought those missed opportunities by SLP could have helped postpone the inevitability of BSM taking control of the game that much longer.
Finally, SLP converted on a chance when BSM's Patrick Daly misplayed a puck leading to a 2-on-1. It wasn't exactly a textbook conversion, but SLP got the puck to the front of the net, and a charging forward jammed the puck from under the goalie into the goal. The goal seemed to wake up BSM, and just over two minutes later, despite being shorthanded, T.J. Moore out-raced a defender to a loose puck and buried a breakaway to tie the game. That seemed like it would be a turning point, and BSM controlled play the rest of the period, but just weren't able to capitalize and went to the locker room tied at 1.
The second period picked up where the first period left off. Benilde had heavy pressure, but SLP's defense played very conservatively and kept BSM from picking up many Grade A scoring chances. Spring Lake Park played an extremely simple defense, and executed it beautifully all night. Basically, any time a defenseman got the puck on his stick, it was getting fired out of the zone. They would send their off-side winger bursting out of the zone any time they touched the puck, and if he could reach the home run pass, great(which rarely happened), and if Benilde got the puck in the neutral zone, or the puck went for an icing, no big deal(which happened a lot). I didn't keep track, but I wouldn't hesitate to say SLP iced the puck at least 20 times in the game. High school hockey doesn't have same rule about no line changes on icings as higher levels of hockey, which I love, because I think it makes games like this more interesting.
SLP's goalie Brandon Jones was phenomenal throughout the second period, and may have made the play of the game in the second period, when, after Benilde had barely missed open nets twice in a row, and seemed bound to score on a third chance, Jones subtly, but fairly deliberately knocked the net off its moorings while sliding across the crease, killing the scoring chance. He got a long talking-to from the officials, but nobody is ever going to call that the first time a goalie does it. Meanwhile, after a shaky first period, his counterpart at the other end, Justin Quale was solid in his own way. While Jones was busy making stop after stop at one end of the ice, Quale had to endure some very long stretches without seeing any action, and still managed to step up and make a couple quality saves in the second period, including a great sliding save on a 2-on-1.
By the end of the period, Benilde had probably played 15 of the 17 minutes in the SLP zone, but SLP had to feel like they won the period because they went back to the locker room still tied at one.
To give you some idea of how the third period went, they obviously didn't count the final 30 seconds of the game, but official shots for the third period were listed at 21-0 in favor of Benilde. But Jones just kept making save after save after save, and more than a few great chances ended up just wide of the goal. With 2:24 left in regulation, after a long shift with many narrow misses, SLP had to call a timeout because their team was completely gassed. They ran two lines all night long, with the top unit playing way more than the second line. It looked like desperately hanging on for a tie would be the best case scenario.
Then with 26 seconds left, Benilde was regrouping at their own blueline and going for one last line change in regulation. A defenseman fired an errant pass towards the bench. A BSM forward had already jumped over the wall, while the forward he was replacing, hadn't made it over the boards yet. The puck hit the forward that wasn't over the wall yet in the skates, stopping it. It's really tough to call a penalty in the neutral zone with 30 seconds left in a tie game, but I think the officials had to call that one for two reasons: 1. The entire SLP bench and fan section called it out immediately as it happened, drawing attention to it and 2. If that player hadn't stopped the puck, SLP probably would have gotten possession of it, whereas this would have allowed Benilde to keep possession of the puck.
So thanks to a lot of good fortune, and a lot of Brandon Jones, it was a 1-1 hockey game with 26 seconds left and Spring Lake Park on the power play. Of course, outside of the game's first power play, SLP hadn't done much in the way of generating offense with the man advantage, and had given up a shorthanded goal.
After a weak shot from the perimeter was cleared by BSM, Spring Lake Park took one last rush up the ice, got the puck just over the blue line, and AJ Fossen took a slap shot from the right point through traffic. Quale made the save, but the rebound fluttered to the left side of the net. What happened next was one of those beautiful moments where time slows down to the point of almost stopping. The puck was just sitting there, with a wide open net in front of it, and SLP's Nick Turbitt the closest player to the puck, and every single person inside the arena simultaneously thinking for the very first time, "They're actually going to win this game".. In hindsight, the whole thing developed much quicker than that, with a BSM defenseman diving and perhaps getting a stick on it, but Turbitt got enough of the puck that it fluttered pass a diving Quale. I turned to the clock: 0:02 left.
The celebration after the goal, and then after the final puck drop was an incredibly organic moment of sheer joy. In the grand scheme of things, maybe this game result doesn't mean much. But there's very few moments in life that can make a group of people that deliriously happy together. I couldn't have given you the name of any Spring Lake Park kid prior to picking up their roster when I walked in the door of the arena that night, but by the end of the game, it was difficult not to feel some sort of attachment after watching that group of kids leave so much of themselves on the ice. It's an unforgettable thing to be a part of, and a beautiful thing to watch.
As for individual player thoughts, Benilde still has a lot of kids that are probably going to move on to a higher level of hockey after high school, and Spring Lake Park still has few, if any. But it just seems wrong not to start with a couple SLP kids after the way they played.
Brandon Jones-Just an amazing, amazing game. He's only a junior, and his numbers aren't stellar, but he had to have put himself on somebody's radar with this performance. He's a big butterfly-style goalie that essentially took away the entire lower portion of the net the entire night.
Max Corrigan and Nick Auman-The top two defensemen for SLP. They barely left the ice all night.
AJ Fossen and Nick Turbitt- SLP's top two forwards. They're maybe borderline NAHL players if they can add a little muscle and meanness over the summer.
And for Benilde...
Patrick Daly-Just a nightmare of a game. Aside from the mistake that led to a goal, he gave up three or four other 2-on-1 breaks that SLP couldn't do much with. It's very hard to imagine him stepping into the WCHA and being successful next season. The upside is that he's got incredible feet, and with some refinement at Wisconsin, he could develop into an excellent defenseman. While not quite on the same level, he reminds me a bit of Jake Gardiner, who I didn't think was super solid in his senior season at Minnetonka because of the way he'd often get lost running around the ice, but developed into a great defenseman once he learned how to play the position.
Christian Horn-Horn had never overly impressed me when I've seen him in the past, though based on his track record, that was likely more me seeing him on some off days. I thought he was the best player on the ice last night, though that unfortunately meant he was also the most snakebit. He did a great job of using his body to control the puck through traffic. Just couldn't find that happy medium between the goalie's stomach and a foot wide of the net.
Jake Horton-Played on the top pairing with Daly and had a pretty solid game. Definitely a player to watch for next year.
Pat Steinhauser-Very quick, with some decent hands. His speed will probably make him an effective junior hockey player somewhere.
T.J. Moore-Pretty good game, including a nice finish on his breakaway. He's still just a sophomore so he's got a lot of time.