2/20/2014 3:18:00 PM North Branch lives to fight another day after section win
by CHUCK FITZER
North Branch 3, Pine City/Rush City 2 Just eleven seconds after Pine City/Rush City hit the pipe with a shot, Nick Fairbanks knocked home a rebound of Connor Martineau’s shot with 1:16 remaining in the game to break a 2-2 tie and give the Vikings a 3-2 win over the Dragons in the opening round of the Section 5A hockey tournament. “We finally got the breaks to go our way,” Viking head coach Matt Cottingham said after the game. “We played with a lot of heart, played with skill and got a little luck to go along with it.” The game was played at the Pine City Civic Center arena this past Tuesday, February 18. With the victory, the Vikings earned the right to play top-seeded Chisago Lakes in the section 5A quarterfinals, tonight at 7 p.m. at Chisago Lakes Arena. The Wildcats have already beaten the Vikings twice this season. With 1:27 remaining, a Pine City shot hit the pipe to the left of Viking goalie Tyler Byrkit. The puck ricocheted into the slot. The Vikings got a hold of it and started moving up ice. Martineau carried it into the zone and shot low.
The puck rebounded to a charging Fairbanks, who flicked it into the wide open net. The Dragons pulled their goalie right after the ensuing faceoff and moved the puck into the Viking zone. “We actually worked on that type of play in practice,” said Cottingham. “Taking low shots and driving to the net for rebounds.” With 33 seconds left, Fairbanks took a high-sticking penalty to give the Dragons a six-on-four advantage. The ensuing faceoff was to the right of Byrkit. Pine City won the faceoff and pushed the puck into the low slot. But a Viking player got his stick on the puck, skated away from the net and pushed it toward the blue line. A Pine City player got a piece of it with his stick, but the puck had enough momentum to trickle over the blue line and out of the Viking zone. The Vikings kept the puck mostly out of the zone for the last 15 seconds of the game. When the horn sounded, they swarmed Byrkit, who stopped 45 of the 47 shots he faced. Without a stellar performance by Byrkit, the Vikings would not have been in a position to win the game late in the third period. The two teams played a tight first period. The Vikings scored the game’s first goal late in the period because of hustle. With just over a minute remaining in the period, Nate Runberg aggressively forechecked and kept the puck in the zone.
With 58 seconds left in the period, Joey Courtright scored to give the Vikings a 1-0 lead. Runberg and Damon Holcomb picked up the assists on the play. Pine City owned the second period. The Vikings didn’t even get it out of their own end, except for a couple of icings, for the first seven minutes of the period. At the 8:53 mark, Pine City scored to tie the game at 1-1. They scored again with 1:29 remaining to take a 2-1 lead. By the time the period ended, Pine City had possessed the puck in the Viking end for all but two minutes. They outshot the Vikings 17-4 for the period. Byrkit kept the Vikings from being blown out of the arena with several great saves. “Tyler has played like that in the nets for us all year,” said Cottingham. “The second period was our worst period of hockey of the season, but we came out of it trailing by just one goal.” During the second intermission, Cottingham wrote the number “17” on the blackboard and let the players look at it for a few seconds. He said “I told them ‘this could be the last 17 minutes of your career. There’s no point in holding back. Go out there, play with heart and give it all you’ve got.’”
The Viking’s seemed to respond well to Cottingham’s rousing speech. They came out skating like their breezers were on fire and pretty much kept the puck in the Dragon end of the ice for the first five minutes of the third period. 4:44 into the period, their intensity was rewarded. Fairbanks received a pass in the middle of the left circle and ripped a snapshot past the Pine City goalie and into the back of the net to tie the game at 2-2. Brandon Waldo and Martineau assisted on Fairbanks’ goal. Just over a minute later, Courtright had a partial breakaway down the left side. He shot from the lower left circle, but the Pine City made a nice save to keep the game ties. With 4:15 left in the game, Pine City carried the puck into the Viking zone on a three-on-one. As the center Dragon prepared to pass left, defenseman Brandon Timm reached out and swept the puck away to negate the Dragon threat. Pine City outshot the Vikings 47-19 for the game, but the Vikings made the most of their 19 shots. Cottingham talked about the satisfaction the team got from the win.
“We beat Pine City 6-2 early in the season. A few weeks ago, we played them again and blew a two goal lead late in the third period and lost in overtime. That’s the one game we wished we could have had back and we finally got our chance. And we took advantage of it. Seeing the seniors play their last few games is the toughest part of coaching. You get really attached to the players over the course of the long winter sports season. It will be a happy bus ride back to North Branch tonight. I’m guessing it will seem like the quickest bus ride of the season.”