With high-scoring top line, rookie netminder, Spuds face familiar foe at state hockey tourney
The fourth-seeded Spuds play No. 5 seed Andover (22-5-1) in the Minnesota Class 2A state tournament quarterfinals at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center
MOORHEAD — Entering this season, the Moorhead boys hockey team was in search of a starting goaltender. The Spuds didn’t return a single minute of varsity experience in net.
Three were in contention for the open spot left by Will Kunka, who played all 1,142 minutes for the Spuds last year. Sophomore Kai Weigel eventually won the job.
Weigel, who played Bantams last year, was third in the rotation. He saw his first varsity action on Dec. 3 and stopped 36 of 37 shots in his debut to lift Moorhead to a 6-1 victory over Andover. After an 0-2 start, the lopsided win was Moorhead's first of the season.
"It was a wide-open competition, but Kai played well in that game and came back and played well a couple more times throughout the month of December and won the job," Moorhead head coach Jon Ammerman said.
It took Weigel some time to adapt to the pace of Minnesota high school hockey, but the sophomore backstopped the Spuds (21-6-1) to their fourth consecutive Section 8AA title, and 18 other wins this season.
“In the biggest games of the year, Kai has been very good,” Ammerman said.
The fourth-seeded Spuds play No. 5 seed Andover (22-5-1) in the Minnesota Class AA state tournament quarterfinals at 8 p.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The 5-foot-11, 170-pound Weigel will make his state tournament debut between the pipes against the team he held to one goal in his first varsity game.
“I'm ready to go. I'm excited,” Weigel said. “Obviously as a kid everyone dreams about this and talks about the Minnesota state high school tournament.”
Weigel is 19-3-1 with a 2.37 goals-against average, .898 save percentage and four shutouts. He made 23 saves in Moorhead’s 8-4 section championship win over Elk River-Zimmerman last Thursday that lifted the Spuds to their fourth straight state tournament trip.
“We’re lucky in the fact that it's a familiar opponent,” Ammerman said of the quarterfinal matchup. “Sometimes you go down there and you have no idea what to expect; teams maybe don’t look exactly the same on video as they do in person.”
The Huskies were missing one of their top-line forwards when Moorhead and Andover squared off early in the season. Ammerman anticipates a much closer contest on Thursday.
“I think we’ll both be bringing in two different teams,” junior wing Aaron Reierson said. “The first time we played them, I don’t think they were at their best. So this second time, I think we’ll be playing a whole different team from what we did earlier in the season.”
Andover is familiar to Ammerman in more ways than one. Huskies assistant coach Brett Barta and Ammerman were defensive partners in high school and college teammates at St. Cloud State. They both graduated from Moorhead in 2005. Andover’s head coach Mark Manney is also a former Spud. Manney graduated from Moorhead in 1979 and played collegiately at the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado.
Andover will be making its third straight state appearance, and will be bringing two NCAA Division I hockey commits and a Frank Brimsek Award finalist to the Xcel Center. Huskies senior goalie Austin Brauns (19-5-1) has the seventh-best goals-against average in the state at 1.72 and the 10th-best save percentage at .927.
The Huskies are led by a pair of 60-plus point scorers. Junior center Cayden Casey, who is committed to St. Lawrence University, has 46 assists and 67 points. Junior right wing Gavyn Thoreson is a point behind with 25 goals and 41 assists. The Huskies were ranked No. 7 by Let’s Play Hockey in the Feb. 23 coaches poll.
The Spuds are led by a dynamic top line of their own, which is centered by Mr. Hockey finalist Gavin Lindberg. Carson Triggs and Harper Bentz are wings on the line that has combined for 182 of Moorhead’s 347 points this season.
Bentz, a junior, is Moorhead’s top scorer with 37 goals and co-leader in points (64) with Lindberg. Lindberg, whose 43 assists are tied for the ninth-most in the state, tallied nine points in Moorhead’s three section tournament games. Triggs, a senior, has 23 goals and 54 points for the Spuds. Altogether, the dangerous Bentz-Lindberg-Triggs line has scored 62% of the team’s goals.
“Our top line has scored an unbelievable amount,” Ammerman said. “I think the biggest question this week is can we get secondary scoring? We got it in the section final and we’ve gotten it at times.”
Reierson, the right wing on Moorhead’s second line, has 14 goals and 25 points for the Spuds, who were ranked No. 4 in the latest Let’s Play Hockey poll. Ammerman said that if his team can score three goals, he likes their chances.
The Spuds, who will make their 19th state tournament appearance, are still searching for that elusive first state title. Moorhead is 0-8 in state championship games in school history.
The Spuds played five of the other seven Class AA state tournament teams in the regular season and picked up wins in three of those matchups. In addition to the 6-1 win over Andover, the Spuds beat Edina 2-1 on Dec. 28 and Prior Lake 4-2 on Dec. 30. Moorhead lost 5-2 to third-seeded Maple Grove in the second game of the season and to top-seeded Hill-Murray in overtime in the final game of the regular season.
“We’re gonna know how to handle ourselves down there more than we did last year,” Reierson said. “Last season definitely helped a lot.”
Moorhead returned just one player with a full season of varsity experience last season and had to rely on a lineup of young and largely inexperienced players. But those who were thrown into the fire returned with valuable experience this year.
“We’re just a more mature team,” Reierson said. “Coming in last year we were young, we were unprepared, we didn’t know what to expect.”
Moorhead’s regular season was highlighted by a 15-game unbeaten streak, which included a string of 11 straight wins. Hill-Murray ended Moorhead’s streak in a 5-4 overtime thriller on Feb. 19 and handed the Spuds their first loss since a 4-1 setback to Minnetonka on Dec. 18.