ST. PAUL — Stillwater’s golden scoring chances mostly resulted in missed opportunities on Tuesday as Hill-Murray eliminated the fourth-seeded Ponies 6-2 in the Section 4AA semifinals at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum.
The No. 1-seeded Pioneers (24-2-1), who are also ranked first in the state by Let’s Play Hockey, advance to face White Bear Lake in Friday’s section finals. The Bears held off Roseville 3-2 in the second semifinal game on Tuesday. The Ponies finsihed the season with a 10-15-2 record.
Nick Anderson scored on Stillwater’s first shot of the game, but was unable to convert on several strong scoring opportunities before the Pioneers eventually pulled away in the third period. Anderson’s tally came from a tough angle to the right of goaltender John Dugas, but it was the more obvious scoring chances the Ponies failed to convert, including two whiffs at a puck in front of the open half of the net later in the opening period that would have provided a two-goal cushion.
Instead, Tyler Funk answered with a goal at 7:36 and Willie Brown scored the first of his three goals on the power play at 14:16 as the Pioneers moved in front 2-1 to close out the opening period.
“We had an open net where we could have made it 2-0, and even when it was 2-1, we get a breakaway and have two cracks at it,” Stillwater coach Phil Housley said. “The first period they attacked well, they cycled well and they protect the puck well so we spent a lot of energy and they got us back on our heels, but we had the first goal and we had an opportunity to get the second goal. When you miss those opportunities against good teams it’s going to come back to bite you, but I tip my hat to our guys. They played a heck of a game and they gave us an opportunity to win the hockey game and that’s all you can ask.”
Stillwater was outshot 15-4 in the opening period and 37-15 in the game, but few of the saves made by Dugas would be considered routine.
Both teams had goals waived off in the third period, the first on an apparent goal that was disallowed because of what appeared to be a quick whistle. The officials used replay to determine Hill-Murray’s apparent goal with nine seconds remaining in the period was also not a goal.
“I was feeling since we didn’t get that call before that they were going to waive that off,” Housley said.
The Pioneers did increase their lead to 3-1 on Brown’s second goal, which came shortly after Stillwater killed off a penalty midway through the second period.
“We put ourselves in position and we outplayed them in the second, we just didn’t beat them on the scoreboard and that was the important part,” Housley said.
Brown completed the natural hat trick at 9:45 of the third period to build a 4-1 lead for Hill-Murray, but Anderson — who was Stillwater’s most dangerous offensive player — scored on the power play two minutes later to climb within 4-2.
“I was really proud of the way we played,” Stillwater coach Phil Housley said. “We had the No. 1 team in the state on the ropes in the second period. We missed three glorious opportunities and you have to finish those opportunities against a good hockey team because it’s going to come back to bite you. I can’t say enough that we had a team on the ropes and I’m really proud of the way we played. We put ourselves in a position to win the game, unfortunately it didn’t end up that way.”
Anderson’s second goal came shortly after a timeout after the Ponies pulled their goalie with more than five minutes remaining to provide a two-man advantage. The risk paid off on Anderson’s goal, but Hill-Murray received empty-net goals from Zach LaValle and Colton Greeder in the last three minutes to push its lead to 6-2.
“We had them down to three goals in the third period, but we could have been tied at that point,” Housley said. “It could have been 3-3 going into the third period so I’m very proud of the way we played.”
l The typical speculation about Ponies coach Phil Housley and how much longer he will coach at the high school level is perhaps a little stronger this year after he led Team USA to the gold medal in the IIHF World Junior Championships in early January. The 21-year NHL veteran, who ended his career with the most points among all American-born defensemen, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for NHL jobs — most notably the Buffalo Sabres, for whom he spent eight seasons as a player directly out of South St. Paul. After firing 16-year coach Lindy Ruff, the Sabres are being coached on an interim basis by Ron Rolston.
Housley told the Washington Times last week that he had not been contacted by the organization, but has mentioned previously his interest in coaching at the professional level at some point. Housley will return to the broadcast booth to provide analysis for the Class A state hockey tournament next week.
“I’ve got to sort of digest this game,” Housley said following Tuesday’s section loss to Hill-Murray. “Right now, I’m thinking about coming back, if they’ll have me. I really enjoyed this year. It was a very tough year because of what went on the second half, we went into a skid, lost lost players and guys were injured, but at the end of the year I really liked the way we were playing.”
Stillwater 1 0 1 — 2
Hill-Murray 2 1 3 — 6
First period — 1. St, Nick Anderson (unassisted) 2:30; 1. H-M, Tyler Funk (Jacob Olson) 7:36; 2. H-M, Willie Brown (Funk) pp, 14:16.
Second period — 3. H-M, Brown (Joey Anderson) 7:26.
Third period — 4. H-M, Brown (Anderson) 9:45; 2. St, Anderson (Brandon Jungmann) pp, 12:03; 5. H-M, Zach LaValle (unassisted) en, 14:50; 6. H-M, Colton Greeder (Curt LaChappelle, Ryan Black) en, 16:04.
Penalties — St, 4-8:00; H-M, 4-8:00.
Saves — St (Colton Anderson) 13-10-8—31; H-M (John Dugas) 3-6-4—13.