With pause lifted, Blaze skaters get back to business

Burnsville forward Emily Howard carries the puck during the 2019 state Class AA girls hockey tournament.

Burnsville girls aiming for 2nd consecutive section title

High school girls hockey practices began Monday – about two months behind schedule – and Burnsville was one of the teams with reason to be impatient.

The Blaze return most of the roster from a team that reached the 2020 state Class AA tournament. The start of fall practice initially was delayed by several weeks because of the pandemic. That turned into months following Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order in November calling for a pause in youth sports in an attempt to control a coronavirus spread.

The pause was lifted Monday, and Blaze skaters returned to Burnsville Ice Center to prepare for an 18-game regular season and – they hope – another playoff run.

Turns out the players weren’t the only impatient ones. “I feel like I’m coming out of retirement,” second-year head coach Chris Lepper cracked. “It’s been so long since I’ve coached.”

Expectations are high, considering what the Blaze accomplished last year and what they have coming back. Lepper has spent a lot of time emphasizing that what the Blaze did last year will only make opponents more anxious to beat them this year. That starts with Eagan, the team Burnsville defeated 3-1 in the 2019 Section 3AA final. The Blaze will visit the Wildcats in their season opener at 7 p.m. Saturday, Jan. 16, at Eagan Civic Arena.

“The expectations are super-high, and that’s OK,” Lepper said. “We understand that last year was last year and this is a new season. But we think we can get a lot better. Last year we didn’t have a player on our roster who had won a high school playoff game. Now we have a bunch of girls who have played in the state tournament, and they have a better idea of what it takes to compete with the Andovers, the Edinas and the Minnetonkas.”

Burnsville’s strengths, Lepper said, include depth and goaltending. Depth could be particularly important if players have to practice and compete while wearing cloth facemasks, which at the moment are required. Lepper said he believes that will require athletes to be better conditioned than ever.

“In the section tournament, we could be playing three games in a week,” Lepper said. “If you’re trying to roll 2 1/2 lines and a couple of defensive pairings, I think eventually that’s going to catch up with you. I’m very confident we’re going to be able to play at least three lines and five or six ‘D’ (defenders).”

Returnees from a 2019-20 Burnsville team that went 19-9-2 include senior goalie Maria Widen, who was 15-7-1 in 23 starts with a 1.72 goals-against average. Widen is expected to get most of the playing time again this year; last year her backup was Olivia Tilbury, ordinarily a skater for the Blaze.

Junior forward Sami Bowlby led Burnsville with 19 goals and 27 points last season. Returnees Katie Katzmarek, Gabby Gromacki, Hannah Benfer and Emily Howard also scored at least 10 points. Gromacki will also be one of the Blaze’s defensive anchors.

On the ice, those allowed in the rink when the Blaze play will notice their speed, Lepper said. “You can’t teach that,” he added. “Not only are they fast, they’re extremely team-oriented.”

The coach said the team came to Monday’s practice in good shape, considering they have had to train on their own for months. He said he plans to put more emphasis on conditioning because he expects the mask requirement to test it.

Once the whistle blows to start the games, the tests will keep coming. Lepper was asked which teams were the biggest threats to Burnsville’s reign as Section 3AA champion. When he finished he had named almost every other team in the section. “Nothing’s going to be handed to us,” he said.

Burnsville’s first home game is Tuesday, Jan. 19, against Eastview.

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