Completing a championship game site trifecta, Thief River Falls beat East Grand Forks 3-1 Thursday in the 2016 Section 8A boys high school hockey tournament title game at the Civic Center Arena – the Green Wave home rink.
Tournament finals traditionally rotate between Thief River Falls, Warroad and East Grand Forks. Since that system has been in place, the Prowlers have won title games at The Gardens (2006, 2012), the Ralph Engelstad Arena (2011) and now the Civic Center.
The results sends the 22-6 Prowlers to the Class A state tournament while ending a three-year section championship run for the Green Wave, who won back-to-back state titles in 2014 and 2015.
This one featured the goaltending of Thief River Falls senior Kade Nelson. The Green Wave, after falling behind 1-0 in the first period, controlled the game over the next 34 minutes, out-shooting the Prowlers 35-20 on the night and 30-8 in periods 2 and 3. But Nelson withstood the assault, surrendering a second period goal by Tanner Tweten that halved a 2-1 Thief River Falls lead. It was the only goal he’s given up in three post-season starts.
“I can’t say enough about Kade,” offered Thief River Falls coach Tim Bergland. “He’s played well all year. Tonight was his best game of the season. He’s a leader for us. We don’t often name goalies one of our captains, but he showed tonight why he is.”
The building was packed and it was loud – creating an electric atmosphere that heightened the energy level for players and fans alike.
Thief River Falls out-shot East Grand Forks 12-5 in the first period and took a 1-0 lead when Blair Lindholm scored on a rebound to the right of East Grand Forks netminder Jarod Reak at 14:25 – one second after a Green Wave penalty had expired.
No coach will turn down a goal, of course, but an early lead can at times have consequences, according to Bergland, who watched the Prowlers fall into a protective mode instead of pushing the attack.
“I thought we played a very good first period,” said Bergland. “Getting that first goal is big. But then we sat back on our heels and kind of went into a shell trying to protect that lead. It’s human nature.”
Despite being out-shot 16-5, that 1-0 edge was still intact, thanks to Nelson, when the horn sounded for the second intermission.
The Prowlers broke out of their defensive pattern when Ethan Johnson got a step behind the Green Wave defense to make it 2-0 at 4:44 of the third period. The Thief River Falls single-season goal-scoring record holder stayed just ahead of his closest pursuer and was able to smack a backhand into the upper corner of the net.
The two-goal difference lasted all of 62 seconds. Nelson made a save on a shot from the point by Grant Loven, but Tweten’s rebound trickled across the goal line at 5:46.
Johnson iced it, though, with a shorthanded empty-net goal at 15:44. Reak left the net for a 6-on-4 skater advantage, but within seconds, Johnson latched on to a loose puck at center ice and was off to the races.
Beating East Grand Forks a third time this winter was a major accomplishment, acknowledged Bergland. “Give them credit,” he said. “They were down 2-0 and came back. They pushed us to the end.”
The Green Wave finished 15-11-2.
It will be the first state tournament for all the Prowler players, but Bergland will be making his fourth trip to St. Paul as a head coach (Fergus Falls 2003, Thief River Falls 2011, 2012, 2016). “It never gets old,” he smiled.
First period – TRF, Blair Lindholm (Christian Larson), 14:25. Third period – TRF, Ethan Johnson (Brendan Bushy), 4:44; EGF, Tanner Tweten (Grant Loven), 5:46; TRF, Johnson, 15:44.
Goalie saves – TRF, Kade Nelson 5-16-13–34; EGF, Jarod Reak 11-5-1–17.