WILLMAR - There was a point Friday night when the Willmar WarHawks had six active defenseman, like just about every other hockey team that laced up skates that night. That didn't last long, though.
Just 14:43 into the WarHawks' 4-3 win over the visiting Wisconsin Whalers, Willmar's top defensive pair saw their night come to an end when Andrew Gilbert injured his shoulder on a vicious hit from Wisconsin's Dan Lienemann. Wyatt Toll took exception and stepped in with fists flying and he was the one sent flying by the referees.
That meant the WarHawks had to use four defensemen for more than 45 minutes.
"The boys are tired," said Willmar WarHawks head coach Chris Blaisuis, following the victory. "It was a gritty win where we had to find a way to win."
Cameron Pries netted the game winner with 5:47 to play following an assist from Riley Dixon. It was his fourth goal of the season and second game-winner.
Blaisuis and the WarHawks had to lean on their four defensemen, including Evan Burke who collected the game-puck for being the game's "unsung hero." Burke, who played as a defenseman last year, has spent time as a forward at various points during this season but found himself back on the blue line with Jacob Takashima on Friday night.
"I'm not sure I've ever played so many minutes," Burke said. "We've been low on forwards so Coach wanted me to play up there and tonight we needed defensemen so I was back there again. It was definitely weird in practice to be skating backwards again but it's fun. I just like helping out the team however I can."
That's exactly what he did, along with Takashima and the other defensive pair of Jonathan Koester and Evan Erdmann. The Whalers tallied 41 shots but Luke Fry was able to turn away all but three shots from Carter Grobstick who finished the night with a hat trick. He now has 13 goals on the season.
Grobstick's third goal came just 3:01 into the third period, giving Wisconsin its only lead of the night at 3-2.
"We just kept positive energy on the bench," Blaisuis said. "We needed this win. Granite City won, New Ulm won, so we couldn't get by with a loss or an overtime loss. We needed both points to keep pace."
A few minutes later, Zach Martin tied the game up a rebound goal that he whizzed past Whaler goaltender Brendan Earls setting the stage for Pries' game-winner.
WarHawks captain Braden Shea also finished the game with a goal, scoring the first goal of the game following some fancy stickhandling and a shot rifled off the far post and in. Max Oelkers assisted on Shea's goal and scored the team's second goal of the game as well, midway through the second period.
Willmar 4, Wisconsin 3
Wisconsin 0 2 1 — 3
Willmar 1 1 2 — 4
FIRST PERIOD — Willmar: Braden Shea (Max Oelkers) 13:23
SECOND PERIOD — Wisconsin: Carter Grobstick (Nick Rogers) 3:19 ... Willmar: Oelkers 12:32 ... Wisconsin: Grobstick 16:55
THIRD PERIOD — Wisconsin: Grobstick (Rogers) 3:01 ... Willmar: Zach Martin (Jordan Cooper, Keegan Bauman) 6:48 ... Willmar: Cameron Pries (Riley Dixon) 14:17
GOALIE SAVES/SHOTS — Wisconsin: Brendan Earls 30/34 ... Willmar: Luke Fry 38/41