ST. PAUL — Playing the final hockey game at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum, the Stillwater boys’ hockey team captured its first-ever Section 4AA championship on Friday night with a 2-1 victory over Hill-Murray.
History was not on Stillwater’s side while facing the No. 1 seed and a program that has made a total of 26 state tournament appearances, but good fortune shined on the Ponies when Brandon Jungmann’s harmless-looking shot fluttered past the Pioneers goaltender and into the net for what turned out to the be game winner at 4:15 of the third period.
That set the stage for an epic celebration after the Ponies survived a late Hill-Murray surge to reserve their spot in the eight-team state field.
“It’s unbelievable, the first team from Stillwater to go to state in hockey,” Jungmann said. “We couldn’t be happier as a team right now. That’s been our goal since Day 1. The hard work has finally paid off and we couldn’t be happier.”
It was a long time coming for the Ponies after 59 previous seasons of disappointment since 1947 (Stillwater did not have hockey from the 1960-61 to 1966-67).
“We talked about it all year and I thought sometimes we believed and sometimes we didn’t,” said first-year Ponies coach Matt Doman said. “Over the course of the last three weeks we’ve been playing our best hockey and really started to believe that. Beating Tartan the way we did and beating White Bear just snowballed our confidence in ourselves.”
The Ponies (16-10-2) will face top-seeded Edina (22-4-1) in the state quarterfinals on Thursday starting at 6 p.m. The winner of that game will meet either No. 4 Duluth East (21-6-1) or No. 5 Eagan (18-9-1) in the semifinals on Friday. The other half of the bracket features No. 2 Lakeville North (23-4-1) vs. Roseau (20-7-1), followed by No. 3 Eden Prairie (17-8-3) vs. Centennial (16-10-2).
And though most kids dream about scoring a huge goal with a blistering slapshot or slick move on a breakaway, Jungmann’s game-winner was neither of those in execution, but off the charts in importance.
“I got the puck on the circle from the point and just took a shot,” said Jungmann, a senior forward. “It deflected off somebody’s stick and just rain-bowed into the net. I kind of figured it was on its way, but I didn’t see it go in until some of my buddies raised their hands and I figured it went in. I’m pretty sure (the goaltender) was clueless on where the puck was.
“Some things just go your way, I guess. It wasn’t an ideal goal, but however you’ve got to get it done to win.”
Nobody from the Stillwater bench was complaining.
“The hockey gods were looking down on us on that one for sure,” Doman said. “It just makes it that much more special to know the tradition that goes with this building and the games that have been played here over however many years to know we were the last game and came out on top for the first time to ever go to the state tournament. I don’t know if it gets any better than that.”
The Ponies upset conference rival White Bear Lake in the section semifinals and they did not play like an underdog against the Pioneers (24-4), even after falling behind 1-0 on a goal by Mitch Slattery five minutes into the game.
“I think there were jitters of being in the championship game the first period, but we did what we had to do,” Doman said. “We hung in there and kept ourselves in the game, but the second period we really started playing a lot better.”
The Ponies outshot Hill-Murray 13-8 in the second period and Devin Cates evened the score on an assist by John Heddle less than two minutes into the period.
After holding the high-scoring Bears to just a single goal in their previous game, the Ponies were stingy defensively again against the Pioneers, whose best scoring chances were off the mark and stuffed by goaltender Josh Benson in the third period.
“From the start, I was so confident in our team to play D and block shots,” Benson said. “It’s still unbelievable. I can’t really process this right now.”
The sophomore has been sharp down the stretch since taking over the goaltending duties full-time the second half of the season and finished with 24 saves in the biggest game of his life.
“Josh has been lights out for us the last month or month-and-a-half,” Doman said. “We challenged him probably midway through the year about trying to be more consistent with his play and his effort and he responded fantastically. We can’t ask any more out of him.”
Benson also had plenty of help.
“We needed to play well defensively, which I thought we did,” Doman said. “We blocked shots, we took care of the puck. We had turnovers, but limited our turnovers, especially on both blue lines. The big thing is that we were aggressive. We couldn’t sit back and just let them attack us because they’re too good and too skilled. We needed to be aggressive on them and try to take away time and space and play good defensively, which is not always easy to do, but the boys executed that perfectly.
“We were smothering. I don’t care how much skill you have, that’s tough to play against — and we have the skill to back that up. That’s one of the special parts about this team is we have the grit and determination, but we also have the skill to back that up.”
They also have memories, compared to a week ago when they only had dreams to show for their hard work.
“It’s something everybody dreams about as a kid, right up there with winning the Stanley Cup is going to the Minnesota high school state tournament,” Jungmann said. “It was our last chance at it, you’ve got to make it count. I think everybody just pulled together as a team and did it for the guys sitting next to them in the locker room.”
Stillwater 0 1 1 — 2
Hill-Murray 1 0 0 — 1
First period — 1. H-M, Mitch Slattery (Joey Anderson) 5:18.
Second period — 1. St, Devin Cates (John Heddle) 1:43.
Third period — 2. St, Brandon Jungmann (Sam Sagissor) pp, 4:15.
Penalties — St, 2-4:00; H-M, 2-4:00.
Saves — St (Josh Benson) 6-8-10—24; H-M (Sam Illgen) 8-12-5—25.
Setting new goals
Stillwater’s first-round opponent Edina is no stranger to state competition while gearing up for its eighth consecutive state tournament appearance and 25th overall. The Hornets defeated Hill-Murray in last year’s state championship game.
Ending its state tournament drought has been the primary focus for Stillwater, but the players quickly established new goals following Friday’s victory in the section finals.
“Yeah, we definitely talked about that with the boys,” Ponies coach Matt Doman said. “It’s kind of Catch-22 because we don’t want to forget what we did and we need to be able to relive the way we prepared physically and mentally. As much as we enjoyed that, I think we understand that there’s a bigger trophy to be had. We started planting that seed even on Friday night and how cool that (section) trophy is, but that there’s any even bigger one still out there.”
The Ponies are keeping practice as normal as they can this week and should also benefit from their experiences participating in Hockey Day Minnesota earlier this season.
“It’s another playoff game against a really good team,” Doman said. “Whether it’s Edina or Eden Prairie or Lakeville North or any of those teams, our best effort is what it’s going to take.
“Not having been in the state tournament, it seemed like (Hockey Day Minnesota) was something that’s as close to being in the state tournament without actually being there as far as the media and distractions before the game, so I think we learned a lot. We’ve been through that and, obviously, the White Bear game and the game against Hill-Murray so we’ve been through some of those situations. It’s our first time in the state tournament, but we’re prepared to put this distractions to the side and just be ready to play a hockey game. We want them to enjoy the weekend and be ready to be their best.”
And while history was not on Stillwater’s side with regard to the section tournament, three of the No. 1 seeds have lost in the first round in the seven years since state tournament seeding began in 2007. Edina has won two state titles during that time, but was upset both times it received the top seed (2007 and 2009). No. 1 seed Duluth East also lost to Lakeville South in the quarterfinals in 2012.
To see a photo gallery from Friday’s historic victory, check out: www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.815066738508119.1073741856.234304939917638&type=1
Contact Stuart Groskreutz at [email protected]