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Girls Hockey: Willmar, River Lakes ready for playoffs

Top-seeded Cardinals and the second-seeded Stars have big semifinal games Thursday. Willmar plays Northern Lakes and River Lakes faces Fergus Falls. The winners meet Saturday at the highest remaining seed. Last year, that was Willmar and River Lakes.

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River Lakes junior defensemen Kianna Roeske (15) and Willmar freshman defensemen Makenna Larson (18) pursue the puck during a Central Lakes Conference game on March 6 from the Koronis Arena in Paynesville. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

The Section 6A tournament is down to four teams after Tuesday’s slate of first-round games.

Willmar, the defending section champion and this year’s top-seed, plays No. 4-seeded Northern Lakes at 7 p.m. Thursday from the Willmar Civic Center. On the other end of the bracket, No. 2- seeded River Lakes takes on No. 3-seeded Fergus Falls at the Koronis Civic Arena in Paynesville.

Each matchup is a rematch of last season’s semifinal round. The Otters and Stars split a pair of games during the first half of this season while the Cardinals and Lightning meet for the first time in 2021.

Following a pair of 7-3 victories over Northern Lakes during the 2019-20 regular season, Willmar had to mount a rally to move past that same opponent in the postseason.

“I say it every year: playoff time is a different thing,” Cards head coach Eric Setrum remarked.

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The Cardinals trailed 4-2 entering the third period before goals from Madison Garberding and Nina Dawson sent the game into overtime. Tanna Christensen delivered the game-winner in double overtime with a shot from the point following a faceoff.

“We definitely can’t underestimate them,” Cardinals senior forward Madison Garberding said. “I know last year, we played them in the regular season and it was like: ‘Yeah, they aren’t as good as us.’ This year, we got to go into it thinking that we got to work hard and anything can happen.”

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Used to the pressure

The Lightning roster has some differences from a year ago. The squad is without its three point leaders from 2019-20 in Caitlyn Gutzman, Hayden Boelter and Alyssa Kosloski. Its two top returners are junior Riley Fogarty and sophomore Rose Aldridge.

Forgarty paces the team in points, according to the Minnesota Girls Hockey Hub, with 17 goals and 12 assists. She scored once and dished out five helpers in Northern Lakes’ 7-0 win over No. 5 Prairie Centre on Tuesday. Aldridge has produced 25 points (12 G, 13 A).

Sophomore goaltender Kate Stephens is also back. The netminder has an 8-10 record with a 3.17 goals-against average and an .884 save percentage.

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What’s also different between this year’s semifinal meeting and last year’s is that Willmar won’t be stepping onto the ice after a long layoff this time around. After the 2020 regular season ended, that squad had an 11-day lead-up to the semifinal. With all the time in the world to think, the players admitted they felt the pressure of being the top seed and trying to end the program’s 17-year state drought.

Now, with the drought a thing of the past and being just five days removed from their last game, the players are a bit more relaxed.

“You can tell that the emotions aren’t as high, everyone is more calm and collected, and we feel more ready than we were last year,” Garberding said. “Last year, we didn’t know what to expect going into the sections, but having all the success that we’ve had, I think that’s good that we have it under our belts and it's going to be good this year going into sections.”

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Willmar freshman forward Becca Dawson (2) skates around Bemidji senior defender Lexi Leitner (8) during first-period action of a Central Lakes Conference game on Jan. 21 from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

Despite losing 5-2 to Alexandria in its regular-season finale, Willmar feels satisfied with how it has played leading up to this point.

The team had a 7-5-1 record following an 8-0 loss at Brainerd/Little Falls. However, the Cardinals responded with four straight wins. Defeating River Lakes and Fergus Falls in that stretch, Willmar clinched the section’s top seed and its first Central Lakes Conference title in 19 years.

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“We feel like we’ve made a lot of headway the last week or two weeks,” Setrum said. “It’s been since a strange season. Every team goes through a mid-season slump and I think we did for a little bit. ... The girls are coming together pretty well, they seem to enjoy coming to the rink again, which is good, and they’re excited. What they’ve waited for since last year is right in front of them.”

Finding a better flow

The Stars also feel like they’ve found some answers after an up-and-down second half of the season. They went 4-4-1 in their final nine games after starting 7-1-1.

River Lakes’ biggest issue has been lighting the lamp. The squad scored the fewest goals among the section’s four remaining teams from Feb. 16 to the end of the regular season.

However, with an 8-0 win versus Prairie Centre on Mar. 11 and a 3-1 victory over St. Cloud last Friday, co-head coach Alexis Klatt feels like her group is trending in the right direction.

“We’ve been struggling to put the puck into the net. Going off those last two games, I think that showed that we found out how to do that again,” Klatt said. “We found some success and we’re going to keep that rolling.”

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Klatt, co-head Bryce Savage and the rest of the coaching staff have been encouraged by the players’ movement within the offensive zone. In turn, the players have done a better job of working together to create scoring chances.

“Recently, we’ve been using our teammates a lot,” junior defensemen Kianna Roeske said. “Our passing has gotten way better and we’ve cleaned up our games a little bit. We’re not just throwing the puck around and we’re making a pass with purpose.”

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River Lakes junior defenseman Kianna Roeske (15) gets ahead of the Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato defense during the first period of a non-conference game on Feb. 9 at the River Lakes Civic Arena in Richmond. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

Roeske had no trouble scoring in River Lakes’ first meeting against its semifinal opponent on Jan. 16. She had a hat trick in the Stars’ 6-0 win.

However, in a game where Klatt says Fergus Falls took away key players in areas of the ice where they’re most effective and “got in our heads,” River Lakes fell 4-1 to Otters on Feb. 2.

Roeske, the team’s leader in goals (12) and points (18), did score in that game, but was outdone by junior forward Piper Andrews, who scored twice that night.

Andrews is tied with senior forward Ellie Andersen for second on the team in points. Each player has 14 goals and nine assists. Sophomore forward Maddie Hulter tops the Fergus Falls with 27 points (16 G, 11 A).

“They’ve got girls that we’ll keep an eye on, but we like to not focus on those girls that much and just focus on the game as a whole,” Klatt said. “I think when we focus on their stud players, we take our minds off of the jobs we need to be doing.”

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River Lakes senior Brooke Lemke (7) gains control of the puck over Litchfield/D-C senior Cassy Justison during a non-conference game on Feb. 9 at the River Lakes Civic Arena in Richmond. Joe Brown / West Central Tribune

If the job is to continue its recent scoring pace, the Stars will be focused on peppering whoever Fergus Falls decides to start in goal.

Ana Jyrkas has seen the most time for the Otters. The ninth-grader is 5-4-1 with a 2.56 GAA and a .906 save percentage. Fellow freshman Lexi Metcalf has similar numbers (5-4, 2.22 GAA, .900 SV%) and earned a shutout in the squad’s 7-0 win over Morris/Benson Area on Tuesday.

“Statistically for every 10 shots (on goal), one goes in,” Roeske said. “I think we can beat that stat out on Thursday by get a lot of shots and a lot of goals by keeping the puck moving around. I think that will help us a lot.”

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Willmar senior forward Bailey Olson (7) skates around Bemidji senior defender Lexi Leitner (8) during first-period action of a Central Lakes Conference game on Jan. 21 from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

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Willmar senior forward Bailey Olson (7) skates around Bemidji senior defender Lexi Leitner (8) during first-period action of a Central Lakes Conference game on Jan. 21 from the Willmar Civic Center. Patrick Bernadeau / West Central Tribune

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