Setting up a suspenseful section tourney

Eastview's Nora Stepan (left) checks Sydney Johnson of Apple Valley during the third period of Tuesday's South Suburban Conference girls hockey game won by Eastview 4-3 in overtime.

Eastview, Apple Valley girls hockey teams seek top seed

Eastview’s 4-3 overtime victory over Apple Valley on Tuesday night won’t change the outcome of the South Suburban Conference girls hockey race but could make for an interesting playoff seeding meeting this weekend.

Apple Valley clinched the South Suburban title on Saturday and will go into the playoffs next week with more victories than any other Section 3AA team. The Eagles, however, lost twice to Eastview, which could give the Lightning a good case for being the No. 1 seed in the section.

“We’ll be the top two teams,” Eastview coach Herb Harvey said. “They have the better record but we beat them twice head to head. We’ll see what happens on Sunday” when the section playoff pairings are announced.

Before anybody looks at Section 3AA as a two-team competition, it’s worth noting that four of the eight teams will finish the regular season with at least 12 victories, and section newcomer Lakeville North is viewed as potentially dangerous despite having only six victories.

“We have a strong section,” said Harvey, who coached Eastview to the state tournament three years in a row from 2015-17. “In the past there was a top three, maybe four. Now I would say our No. 1 through No. 6 teams, and even our seventh and eighth, are decent teams that have played well against other opponents. You might be the better team on paper, but if you’re not ready to play that night, you might be in trouble in our section.”

Section 3AA quarterfinals are scheduled Wednesday, Feb. 5. Apple Valley is 19-5 with one regular-season game remaining. Eastview (16-6-2), Burnsville (15-7-2) and Eagan (12-10-2) also are guaranteed of entering the playoffs with winning records. Remaining teams in the section are Park of Cottage Grove (9-13-1), Rosemount (9-14), Lakeville North (6-15-3) and Hastings (5-17).

Apple Valley clinched the South Suburban title – the Eagles’ first in girls hockey since the league formed in 2010 – with a 4-1 victory over Rosemount last Saturday. But the Eagles didn’t intend to coast in Tuesday’s game against a rival with which they share a home arena. After falling behind 2-0 early in the second period, Apple Valley scored three in a row to take the lead.

Eastview forward Avery Chesek, who leads her team with 26 goals, scored to tie the game with 5 minutes, 39 seconds left in the third period. Junior forward Mikayla Kelley scored her second of the game and 18th of the season at 6:22 of overtime.

That gave Eastview the regular-season sweep against Apple Valley. Eastview also won 3-2 on Dec. 14.

“We’re two evenly matched teams,” Harvey said. “Anytime we play, you have those tides in the game. One minute we’re up, the next we’re down, then we tie the game and get an overtime goal.”

Eastview defender Nora Stepan scored a power-play goal in the first period. Apple Valley seventh-grader Makayla Moran scored twice, including a goal in the third that put the Eagles up 3-2. Sydney Johnson also had a goal for Apple Valley.

Eastview goalie Lauren Johnson made 32 saves and Apple Valley’s Keni Allen had 26.

Chesek, Kelley and Stepan have 54 of Eastview’s 86 goals this season, including all four of the Lightning’s goals Tuesday. “Those guys get a lot of chances, and I think we played a solid game defensively,” Harvey said. “Our goaltender made some big saves. She’s been steady all year, and we have a lot of kids who contribute and play their roles well. Not everybody has the same role, but you have to do your role well.”

Harvey said the team met to re-examine those roles after a 3-1 loss to Burnsville on Dec. 7 that was the Lightning’s fourth defeat in six games. Since then Eastview is 10-2-2.

“Our kids know when they play well and when they don’t,” Harvey said. “After that loss to Burnsville we met and talked about what we needed to improve. The kids bought into playing good defensive hockey when we need to, not taking chances and not over-stickhandling, things like that. And every team we lost to in the first half of the conference schedule, we beat the second time around.”

Eastview plays host to Prior Lake at 2 p.m. Saturday in its final regular-season game. Apple Valley is at Lakeville South at 7:30 p.m. Saturday.

For the Lightning and Eagles, Saturday is the last chance to tune up for what Harvey says is the real season.

“I tell our kids at the beginning of the year, the first 25 games, they’re just practice,” Harvey said. “The only ones that matter are in the playoffs. It doesn’t matter how many losses you have in the regular season, if you can string together three in the section, you’re going to the tourney.”

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