The Waconia girls hockey team got off to a strong start to the Herb Brooks Holiday Classic, defeating Marshall 3-1 Dec. 30 while out-shooting the Tigers 38-20.
“They played really great, it was really fun to see them step up, play against a team our level, take some chances and score some goals,” coach Leah Johnson said.
The Wildcats got on their opponent early and often, spending much of the first two periods in the offensive zone. Waconia controlled the flow of the game while peppering the net with scoring chances. The ‘Cats had 27 shots over the first 34 minutes, compared to just 11 from Tigers, leading to a 3-0 edge on the scoreboard.
“We have strengths working as a team,” forward Isabella Wozniak said. “Once we get going and we’re in their zone, we’re good at getting it around, passing it and having a person up high.”
After hammering the net for much of the early going, Waconia finally got on the board 9 minutes in, when Mia Kelley sent the puck from the wing to the front of the net. Kendall Miller’s shot just barely got saved by a late kick from the goalie, but Mallory Vacek pounced on the rebound to put Waconia up 1-0.
“I just saw an opportunity to score and I really wanted our line to score so we could win the game,” Kelley said.
Vacek was again involved in the scoring when Waconia doubled their lead in the second period, setting up a score for Madelyn Sullivan, who had the Wildcats again pouncing on a rebound for fortuitous results.
Wozniak then gave Waconia some breathing room as the second period concluded, somehow slipping the puck past the goalie for the Wildcats third goal (assisted by Annika Mielke and Maya Lindstrom) and the first of three for Wozniak at the tourney.
“The pass deflected off and I took a quick shot,” Wozniak said. “I didn’t know it went in until everyone went ‘Ahh!’”
Down 3-0, the Tigers dug deep in the third period and started to test the Waconia defense. Freshman goaltender Abigal Elveback was stout behind her senior-heavy defense (Meghan Battis, Skyler Siddons, Madeline Charbonneau and sophomore Kendra Borland), making 19 saves on 20 shots. The .950 save percentage was made all the more difficult as the Waconia offense had Elveback mostly inactive for the first 34 minutes. The freshman goalie only faced 11 shots over the first two periods before having to make a string of saves to start the third.
“She made some really great saves,” Johnson said. “It’s always tough as a goalie to not have a lot of shots, especially that first period, then they’re coming down on you. So it was good to see her make some good sliding saves - that showed she focused all game, which is what we need.”
From all aspects, it was a great win for the Wildcats. Waconia’s movement on offense led to a nearly 2-1 ratio of shots (38-20) and the Wildcats did not commit a penalty all game as they moved on in the winners’ bracket.
“I thought we played a good game,” Kelley said. “We had a good first game. I’m glad we won.”
Waconia also capped the tournament with a 5-4 shootout win over Evelith-Gilbert to take third place at the Herb Brooks Holiday Classic. In addition to their senior leadership on the back end (five of Waconia’s six seniors are defenders or goaltenders), Waconia showcased the explosive youngsters that are looking to put Waconia hockey on the map. Five players tied for the team lead in points over the three-day tourney, four of them underclassmen. Eighth graders Mia Kelley and Annika Mielke both had three points (both had one goal and two assists), freshman Isabella Wozniak had three goals, sophomore Madelyn Sullivan had one goal and two assists and the lone senior forward Mallory Vacek had two goals and an assist.
“We lost some really great players last year, especially skill-wise, but these younger girls are stepping up and they’re getting better everyday,” Johnson said. “They just improve so fast and they’re gaining confidence.”
Waconia’s lone loss of the tournament came to a 10-5 River Lakes team that had defeated the ‘Cats in the season opener. The margin of defeat was the same (7-3 this time, 6-2 the first game), but the Wildcats did improve in their second meeting. Waconia was out-shot by nearly 30 in the first outing (41-12) but narrowed the margin to 12 Dec. 31 (32-19). And if you take away the rough start Tuesday, Waconia played the Stars even. River Lakes scored four goals in the first period before both teams scored three each in the final two periods. And in the final 17 minutes and 1 second, Waconia outscored River Lakes 3-1.
Kelley scored a goal with 1 second remaining in the second period to put Waconia on the board, assisted by Sullivan and Battis. Siddons and Vacek then scored back-to-back unassisted goals 41 seconds apart in the third to put the final score at 7-3.
After a 2-1 third place finish at the tourney, Waconia plays against Wright County Conference opponents in eight of their last nine games as the regular season wraps in January.
“If we come out of this tournament strong, then we’re going to have confidence going into big conference games coming up this month,” Johnson said after the first win of the tournament.
In their second year, the Waconia girls hockey team is making strides toward becoming a strong program. And over the holiday break, the Wildcats made their biggest step forward thus far, winning a shootout to earn the program’s first trophy while placing at the Herb Brooks Holiday Classic.
“It’s a huge deal because we are having a lot of firsts this year,” forward Annika Mielke said. “We’re having a lot more wins, we have our first trophy and a lot of firsts.”
Being a new program in the state of hockey can be tough, with a lot of more experienced programs holding a significant edge. But during the three-day tournament that spanned Dec. 30 through Jan. 1, Waconia was able to compete against similar teams and show their skills and potential to get closer to the top programs. The Wildcats finished the tourney with two wins and a loss to earn third place and the program’s first trophy.
“This is such a good confidence boost for us being a new program,” coach Leah Johnson said. “This is our first trophy, so I think the girls are really proud of that - starting their legacy here. It’s a big confidence boost and it’s something to be proud of and take home to our community.”
Playing against similar teams, Waconia also got to be in competitive games. Even wins for Waconia had been lopsided, with only one game this season prior to the tournament being decided by less than three goals. The Wildcats capped the string of good games with an overtime thriller against Evelith-Gilbert, winning in a shootout after a 4-4 tie through 59 minutes of play.
“It was fun because we were in the game mostly, when we’re not usually,” Mielke said. “So it was fun to play a team that we’re close against.”
The game ended in celebration but started off rocky. Just 8 minutes into the game, Waconia found themselves down 2-0 after a pair of goals 1 minute apart. But Waconia refused to let the early deficit get them down, clawing their way back to eventually take the lead.
“That was tough to come back from, and historically we’ve really struggled with coming from behind, especially against good teams,” said Johnson. “So I think that showed a lot about our team and the grit that we have and that we are capable of coming back and not giving up.”
Shortly after falling behind 2-0, Mia Kelley and Madelyn Sullivan worked the puck around the back of the net, leaving Sophia Beix open in front for a shot on goal, drawing Waconia within one heading into the second period.
The Bears would put the lead back to two goals before Isabella Wozniak continued her strong tournament play to get Waconia back even. With time winding down in the second period and the ‘Cats down 3-1, the freshman forward broke free and scored on a breakaway unassisted, then worked with Kendra Borland and Mielke to slip the puck past the keeper for her third goal of the tourney, knotting the game at 3-3 early in the third period.
Down the stretch, it was a pair of players making big plays that displayed the interesting makeup of this Waconia team that features six seniors and seven players in eighth or ninth grade.
Mielke, an eighth grader, took the scoring load on her back late in the game, giving Waconia its first lead of the game with 5 minutes left to play. The young forward went the length of the ice, speeding past the defense for an opportunity on goal. Mielke got the puck in Waconia’s defensive zone, then flipped it past the defender at the blue line for a race with the final defender in the open ice. Getting to the puck first, Mielke went in on goal with the defender trailing before tricking the goalie for an easy backhander after sliding across the front of the net.
“There was a girl coming in, so I knew I couldn’t deke it out or have a good shot, so I just tried to hold it as long as I could until I found an opening,” she said.
While the Bears ultimately forced overtime with a late power play goal, Mielke would get another chance to boost her team following a scoreless 8 minutes of extra play.
“I asked who felt confident for the shootout and she said she felt confident, and sure enough she was when we needed her,” Johnson said. “She’s another one of our eighth graders we’ve been talking about. We’re really excited to have her on our team for these years. And watching her develop over this season, she’s become a really key player.”
Mielke took Waconia’s first shootout attempt and again beat the goalie with the backhand after slipping across the face of the goal.
“I knew that the goalie was slower on the ground, so I always know to deke,” Mielke said. “That’s what I always practice.”
Mielke’s shootout goal was all Waconia needed to win the best-of-three battle, thanks to an effort from senior goaltender Kylie Kurtz.
“It was really nerve wracking, but I knew my team would be OK with whatever happened, with whatever outcome, because it was a really fun game,” Kurtz said. “I was just really nervous, I didn’t know what to do, but I knew if I listened to what my coach said and stayed out and was confident, I would be able to [pull through].”
Kurtz did exactly that and was perfect when it mattered, overcoming what she felt was a sub-par game. Kurtz had 25 saves during the first three periods and overtime, but did not feel she played her best after allowing four goals. But the senior goalie played her best when it mattered, shutting out the Bears on all three attempts.
“I definitely didn’t play as well as I hoped during the game, so I was glad that the outcome was better than the rest of the game,” Kurtz said.
Kurtz’ perfect shootout ended with a lunging glove save that robbed the Bears a chance at extending the game.
“She was awesome, those saves, she really stayed calm, she did what she needed to do,” Johnson said. “That last save, that was all her, stretching out and getting that save. So we’re proud of her.”
The shootout win was the perfect end to a strong showing from Waconia at the Herb Brooks Classic and a fun way to end a tense game that saw multiple lead changes.
“We went in to the locker room before the third period and the tension was kind of high because it was going back and forth, so our goal the third period was just to go out and have fun,” Johnson said. “I think the ending with that fun shootout, great goal, great saves, sealed the whole deal of what we were going for.”
It also meant Waconia would be taking home their first trophy after placing third at the holiday tournament.
“It means a lot for us because it is our first placement,” Kurtz said. “It means that we are building our program up and getting better overall.”