The Brainerd-Little Falls girls hockey team showed why they're a tough team to eliminate in the postseason with a 3-1 win over Alexandria on Tuesday night.
The Warriors (17-9-1) are looking for their third straight section championship and a shot at redemption for their state championship loss last season. Despite the Cardinals (17-7-3) pushing them to the brink, their team speed and puck control was the difference-maker down the stretch.
"We knew they were tough," Alexandria head coach Molly Arola said. "They're a great team, section opponent and (Central Lakes Conference) rival. We knew this was going to be a dog fight, and there weren't going to be any pretty goals. We knew it was going to come down to the wire, and it did."
B-LF got on the board first with a power-play goal early in the first period. Molly Hagelie beat Alexandria goalie Jordan O'Kane on a second-chance shot in front of the net to give the Warriors an early lead.
O'Kane continued to shine in her first postseason stint. She made 21 saves, including several high-quality shots that kept the Cardinals in the game in the first two periods.
When Alexandria needed a spark, Marki Oberg delivered. With under two minutes left before the second intermission, Oberg's shot deflected off B-LF goalie Breya Sawyer and up in the air. The puck came down and hit Sawyer in the back before barely crossing the goal line and tying the game.
"Obviously, you're disappointed giving up a goal like that," B-LF head coach Jack Freeman said. "We were having a tough time on our defensive-zone faceoffs. (Oberg) was really good on the dot tonight. She won a lot of draws clean for them. They went to the net hard and got the goal they needed."
The tie was short-lived. B-LF's Sophie Robinson regained the lead with a one-time shot that beat O'Kane on the glove side under three minutes into the third period.
Alexandria tried to generate quality offensive chances to tie the game, but the Warriors played tight defense in their zone. B-LF clogged the passing lanes and blocked shots to prevent any clean looks the Cardinals could get.
One of the components that makes B-LF a threat to win the section is the skill on its top line. Lindsey Booth, Gabbie Smith and Josie Kramer controlled the pace offensively. However, Alexandria limited the damage they ultimately did for most of the contest.
"We needed to stay with them and move our feet," Arola said. "We played hard, and we were with them the whole way. We needed to find a way to get more pucks on net tonight, and we weren't able to do that. But we were right with them stride for stride."
For most of the season, B-LF had a different line combination. Before the section playoffs, Freeman made some changes in an attempt to increase scoring. After the Cardinals kept them in check for 50 minutes, Booth finally beat O'Kane with an insurance goal in the final minute.
"We made the change late in the year, but we used to have Lindsey and Gabbie on different lines," Freeman said. "They play with a ton of pace, and they're very fast. When they're all moving, it's a pretty dynamic line that's tough for teams to defend against."
This year, the Warriors have the experience that the Cardinals didn't. B-LF is the power-house team in Section 8AA with 10 seniors, while the Cardinals made strides with a young roster. Not only did Alexandria give B-LF a run for its money on Tuesday night, but they have the attention of other teams for the next handful of years to come.
"The future is bright for Alex, and it's not just their high school program but also the youth programs," Freeman said. "Boy, those girls were prepared today. Each shift they are tough to play against. Our kids had to earn everything against it. There's nothing easy about playing Alexandria, and that's not going to change for a while."
A season-ending on a loss stings for every team. For Alexandria, Arola hopes that it drives her girls to get further next season. The Cardinals lose only four seniors and bring several of their top scorers back next winter.
"Of course everybody wants to win," Arola said. "This was our first year in (Class) AA, and we went through a lot this year on and off the ice. We are proud of the way they put our program a step further in the right direction. It's a great start for us, and we are proud of the overall effort our team and program had this year."