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Boys Hockey: Raiders end the Wingers' run

The Red Wing boys' hockey team reacts after losing 3-2 in the Section 1A championship game to Northfield Wednesday at the Rochester Rec Center. (Republican Eagle photo by Kyle Stevens)1 / 6
Red Wing's Seth Cushing gets ahead of Northfield's Lane Dornbusch (15) and Jimmy Fischer (6) during Wednesday's Section 1A championship game at the Rochester Rec Center. (Republican Eagle photo by Kyle Stevens)2 / 6
Red Wing's Cam Blue (left) and Northfield's Jack Fox vie for possession of the puck along the boards during Wednesday's Section 1A championship game at the Rochester Rec Center. (Republican Eagle photo by Kyle Stevens)3 / 6
The Red Wing student section filled the stands during Wednesday's Section 1A championship game. (Republican Eagle photo by Kyle Stevens)4 / 6
Red Wing's Teddy Lillico keeps the puck away from a Northfield player during Wednesday's Section 1A championship game at the Rochester Rec Center. (Republican Eagle photo by Kyle Stevens)5 / 6
Tyler DeFore (12) and the Red Wing boys' hockey team celebrate after a third-period goal by DeFore in Wednesday's Section 1A championship game at the Rochester Rec Center. (Republican Eagle photo by Kyle Stevens)6 / 6

ROCHESTER – Red Wing never said die.

Through the Section 1A playoffs, the Wingers managed to survive double overtime against Albert Lea and another overtime versus Rochester Lourdes.

Looking to end a 15-year state drought against top-seeded Northfield Wednesday, Red Wing's season extended even further with another double overtime game to decide the section champion.

“Everyone knew it was coming. I told the guys this game was going to overtime,” said Wingers goaltender Zach Harding. “We knew it was coming. We knew we'd have to beat them in overtime to get to state.”

Red Wing's persistence got the team to the section finals. But Grant Sawyer's persistence in front of the net for a second-chance goal 20 seconds into the second overtime sent the Raiders to state for the first time after a 3-2 win over the third-seeded Wingers at the Rochester Rec Center.

“Northfield lost in the section final last year and they did not want to lose this time,” said Red Wing senior defenseman Teddy Lillico. “We couldn't take a shift off. We knew we couldn't give up, no matter what.

“We gave it our all and the puck didn't bounce our way the last time.”

Things looked extremely promising at the 2:05 mark of the first period when Tyler DeFore got behind the Raiders' defense and snuck the puck past goalie Ryan Bielenberg for an early 1-0 lead.

For the rest of the first period and into the second period, the Raiders weren't letting Red Wing get anymore chances at a rush. With a forecheck that seemed to stop every pass in the neutral zone and an offense that managed to keep the puck inside the blue line, Northfield out-shot Red Wing 28-5 over the first two periods. Tyler Blaha rewarded the early efforts with a goal at 10:16 of the first period off a Geoff Runningen assist.

“Northfield's very skilled defensively and we didn't get much room to breathe out there tonight. We expected that,” DeFore said. “We should have gotten the puck deep and forechecked hard. We had to find a way around them.”

But even with that much of a disadvantage in shots, the Wingers and Raiders were tied after two periods thanks to another wall-like showing for Harding, who finished the game with 45 saves.

“I don't know if we would have gotten there without the guy in the mask,” Red Wing co-head coach Anthony Boser said of Harding. “He probably had his best game of the season tonight and thank God he did. Otherwise, we would have never gotten to that second overtime.”

Northfield's domination of puck possession paid off 38 seconds into the third when Jackson Cloud connected with Sawyer with a perfect pass along the net to make it a 2-1 Raiders lead. The Wingers stepped up on defense with timely poke checks that halted some of the Raiders' opportunities after the Sawyer goal.

“They allowed me to see the puck the whole game,” Harding said. “That helps a lot as a goalie. For them to throw away every rebound I gave up, it was a great game.”

And in an effort to give the offense a shot in the arm, Red Wing reunited its top three scorers – Cushing, DeFore and Cam Blue – on the same line. And at 11:19, the plan worked as Cushing dropped a pass back to DeFore, who whipped a wrist shot that ricocheted off Bielenberg's glove into the top corner to make it a 2-2 game.

“Bielenberg is really good on his glove. I'm pretty fortunate that ended up going in and tying the game,” DeFore said. “It was tough to keep battling against them because they're such a good defensively-skilled team.”

Both teams had a few more chances in regulation, but overtime seemed like an inevitability for two teams that needed an extra period to make it to the section finals.

“One thing about our guys is they don't get rattled. We knew we were going to be in for a dogfight. That was no surprise. It was no big surprise we would be in trouble at times against a team like that,” Boser said. “Our guys honestly didn't get nervous. We just had to clean up on our end and get out on the rush.”

DeFore had a pair of prime chances in the first overtime, with the puck missing a wide-open net and a one-on-one opportunity that Bielenberg stopped with his leg pads.

Northfield had the first chance on offense in the second overtime, and it was Sawyer who put the Wingers away for good with the unassisted goal.

Hearts were broken. Tears were shed. While it was hard to digest after seeing a state trip taken away, the Wingers became a completely different team in the second half of the year to reach the section final. Sitting at 4-6-0 when the calendar flipped to 2017, Red Wing went 13-4-0 in the new year and was riding a eight-game win streak before Wednesday's loss.

“With this team, we've never stopped moving our feet and we've never given up on each other,” Lillico said. “There's something special we had together.”

Said Boser, “They were the heart-attack kids. Just a very tough team. I'm proud of the effort. To be as resilient as they were for so long, to play in that many high-tempo, high-pressure games and come out on the right end was miraculous. I couldn't be more proud of our guys.”