Willmar skates to final
ST. CLOUD -- For a hockey team that got off to a wobbly start, Willmar sure found its edges.
The fifth loss in a stumbling start was a 3-0 setback at Sartell on Dec. 23. Since then, the Cardinals are 15-3-3, including Saturday's 3-2 victory over those same Sabres in the Section 6A semifinals.
The keys to the win were two Willmar scores in the first three minutes and the blockbuster goaltending of Finnish import Christian Yrttimaa.
"We were ready for this. We knew what we had to do," said senior captain Grant Schow, whose pipe shot from the side provided a 2-0 Willmar lead 2:37 into the game. "We just got rolling right away, took the body, got the puck deep and worked the corners."
After toppling the No. 2 seed, No. 3 Willmar meets No. 5 Alexandria (11-15-1) with the victor going on to the Class A state tournament. Alexandria stopped the run of No. 9-seed St. Cloud Apollo, 4-0, in first semifinal game.
At the opening faceoff, Sartell pressed the puck to the Willmar zone, attacking Yrttimaa for nearly a minute straight. Willmar exploded over center ice for the first time with Liam Johnston dealing at the blue line to linemate Cam Swenson. The puck came off a skate back to Johnston, who whipped a blistering 35-footer through Sabres' goalkeeper Alex Halupzok for a 1-0 lead at 1:03.
Ninety seconds later, Gabe Amon dug out the puck in the corner and pushed it to Schow, who walked the end line and snapped the puck off the far pipe for a 2-0 lead at 2:37.
The high-scoring Sabres got right back in it with a power play goal 39 seconds into the middle frame. Christian Murray's shot from high in the slot through heavy traffic found the back of the net.
"I never saw the puck," said Yrttimaa later.
Willmar got the two-goal lead back when Landon Peterson's shot from midway up the slot went in for a 3-1 lead at 7:52 of the second. Schow and Amon got assists.
The Sabres' sustained pressure in the Willmar zone paid off when Matt Husmann scored on a rush along with the team's leading scorer Andrew Deters. The puck found the five-hole and trickled through Yrttimaa and it was 3-2 with 11 minutes left.
The Willmar defense held strong and the flexible Finn made several huge stops along the way before the Cardinals could celebrate their first trip to a section final since 2003.
Though the Sabres clearly held the territorial advantage shots on goal were nearly the same at 31-28 in favor of Sartell.
"They were ready to play," said Sabres' head coach Ryan Hacker. "You can't put yourself in a 2-0 hole against a good team with great goaltending."
Said Johnston, whose family is hosting Yrttimaa: "He was unbelievable; he stopped everything."
Added Willmar head coach Dan Tollefson: "Our seniors made the big plays in the offensive zone. We talked about the opportunity we had after that 1-5 start. Since then, we've just been chipping away."
Willmar hasn't ever been to state in the history of the current boys program nearing the end of its 38th year.
Willmar 3, Sartell 2
Willmar (16-8-3) 2 1 0 -- 3
Sartell (17-9-1) 0 1 1 -- 2
FIRST PERIOD - Wil: Liam Johnston (Cam Swenson) 1:03 ... Wil: Grant Schow (Gabe Amon) 2:37
SECOND PERIOD - Sar: Christian Murray (Andrew Deters) pp, :39 ... Wil: Landon Peterson (Schow, Amon) 7:52
THIRD PERIOD - Sar: Matt Husmann (Alex Omann, Andrew Sova) 5:24
GOALIE SAVES - Willmar: Christian Yrttimaa 29... Sartell: Alex Halupczok 25