Boys hockey: Willmar Cardinals' game plan: Get physical, get a strong start

Sixth-seeded Willmar has a plan to knock off No. 3 Northern Lakes in the Section 6A playoffs Saturday

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Willmar junior Charles Swart (left) celebrates a goal scored by junior Cullen Gregory (right) against St. Cloud on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, at Willmar Civic Center.
Michael Lyne / West Central Tribune

BREEZY POINT — Jamie Hagen has a good idea what his Willmar boys hockey team needs to do against Northern Lakes.

Get physical and get off to a good start.

Those two aspects were lacking, the Cardinals head coach said, when Willmar lost to Northern Lakes 8-2 on Feb. 11. The two teams play at 6 p.m. Saturday in Section 6A quarterfinals at the Breezy Point Hockey Arena.

Also missing: About a half-dozen Willmar players out with assorted injuries and illness.

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"It (the score) was a little deceiving," Hagen said. "We did have a number of guys out. We were coming off a stretch of two or three weeks where we had injuries and illness. With a small group, it makes it hard."


Hagen said the Cardinals (9-16-1 will be in better shape physically and illness-wise than they were on Feb. 11. However, he said that Northern Lakes (11-14) has more depth and is still the favorite.

That's why getting off to a good start will be important, he said. The Lightning led 4-0 after the first period the last time the teams played in Willmar.

"Northern Lakes is definitely a good team," Hagen said. "We'll have a couple guys out again. It's hard because we felt like we were getting everybody back into it.

"It is what it is. We'll play through it."

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Willmar senior Elijah Van Buren skates the puck in the neutral zone against St. Cloud on Thursday, Jan. 26, 2023, at Willmar Civic Center.
Michael Lyne / West Central Tribune

Henry Michelson is nursing a shoulder injury. Dieken Carruthers has been dealing with health issues.

The Cardinals are led offensively by Cullen Gregory (21 goals, 11 assists), Ethan Stark (18 goals, 11 assists), Elijah Van Buren (13 goals, 13 assists) and Arron Fisher (8 goals, 11 assists).

Mason Thole (6.15 goals-against average, .825 save percentage) is expected to start in goal.

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Top scorers for Northern Lakes have been Logan Verville (19 goals, 12 assists), Easton Anderson (12 goals, 17 assists), Darby Boelter (10 goals, 19 assists), Jerome Martin (14 goals, 11 assists), Isaac Peterson (5 goals, 17 assists), Christian Crutcher (7 goals, 13 assists) and Finnegan Fogerty (10 goals, 7 assists).


Nigel DeSanto (3.18 GAA, .899 save percentage) and Ethan Kunz (3.88 GAA, .856 save percentage) have been the Lightning's main goalies.

"We can't let their team speed take over," Hagen said. "We have to play physical. If we're able to get to them early, especially in their defensive zone, and take the body and take their legs away, we'll obviously have a better chance."

Saturday's winner plays the winner of No. 2 Fergus Falls and No. 7 Prairie Centre at 7 p.m. Tuesday at the St. Cloud Municipal Athletic Complex. The final is set for 7 p.m. 7 p.m. Thursday at the MAC. Top-seeded Alexandria won its quarterfinal game Tuesday by beating Breckenridge/Wahpeton 14-0. No. 4 Wadena-Deer Creek and No. 5 Morris-Benson Area play at 7 p.m. Friday in Wadena in the other quarterfinal.

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