- PAUL — There’s something about Hermantown hockey players making snow angels on the Xcel Energy Center ice.
Saturday afternoon, it was Dylan Samberg’s turn to go gliding, arms flapping, gloves and helmets whistling through the air above him. The Hawks senior defenseman had just ended a heart-stopping affair vs. Monticello-Annandale-Maple Lake to cap an unforgettable Class A boys hockey tournament the same way last year’s finished — with Hermantown on top.
Samberg tucked his through-traffic wrist shot just inside the far post with 20 seconds remaining in double overtime to punctuate a dramatic 4-3 win over the unflappable Moose. Samberg never saw his shot skip past goalie Tyler Klatt.
“I didn’t see anything and all of a sudden I heard the thud of the back of the net,” he said of the winner, which came from the left side after Parker Simmons won a draw. “Everyone started celebrating and my mind went into a blur.”
The next thing Samberg knew, he was making like ex-Hawk Kyle Schmidt, whose snow angel after sealing Minnesota Duluth’s 2011 national title in this same building is one of the iconic snapshots in Northland hockey history.
Samberg’s was pretty cool, too — even if he “thought I was going to pass out” amid the weight of so many dog-piling teammates.
“You grow up watching high school hockey when you’re a young kid, and you try to just dream that one day you’re going to be there, let alone score the game-winning goal,” Samberg said.
Teammate Tyler Watkins knows the feeling. Well, he almost knew the feeling.
Earlier in the second OT, Watkins appeared to close it out by following his own rebound and pushing the puck past Klatt. The Hawks erupted, their gear littering the ice. The Moose grieved, heads bowed.
And the officials went to the replay monitor.
Turns out, Friday’s four-goal hero, Ryan Sandelin, had interfered with Klatt. No goal.
Hermantown (29-1-1) had to regroup in a hurry against a plucky first-time tournament entrant.
“Obviously, there was a little bit of an emotion swing, but we just really — we had to find our stuff, first of all — had to hop right back out there and try to take the momentum back,” Watkins, who scored two goals, said.
For all the talk coming in that the Hawks would waltz through the field, they instead spent the week in St. Paul dodging bullets. They played three overtime games in four days, slipping past Luverne in the quarterfinals before rallying from a 5-2 deficit against St. Cloud Cathedral in the semifinals. Another nailbiter Saturday was inevitable. That was the flavor of this tournament, where underdogs turned the bracket upside down.
A year ago, when Hermantown ended a six-year string of title-game defeats, it was little more than an extended coronation. The Hawks won three times by a combined 23-4, which made this tournament all the more gratifying.
“This year we had to scratch and claw for everything we got,” Sandelin said.
MAML (23-7-1), which commenced the week by stunning No. 2 seed Delano, led 2-0 after goals from Casey Chiodo and Ben Ward 61 seconds apart early in the second period. Watkins promptly produced his first goal when he backhanded a rebound off the pipe, the puck ricocheting off Klatt’s skate and into the net.
But Moose star Nick Zwack again made it a two-goal cushion with his top-shelf tally that converted a beautiful two-on-one with Ward 26 seconds into the third period.
Jesse Jacques buried Dylan Kolquist’s cross-ice pass midway through the third, and Watkins tied it on a centering pass from Sandelin with 5:35 to play in regulation.
Much like Friday’s contest against St. Cloud Cathedral, Hermantown controlled play. In fact, Ward’s score pushed MAML’s shooting percentage to 66.7 percent — two goals on three shots. The Moose didn’t disturb Hawks goalie Cade McEwen until 5:11 remained in the opening period.
The Hawks, playing in their ninth state final in 11 years, stuck with it, tired as they were in overtime.
MAML coach Eric Nelson thought Hermantown might falter after having victory snatched away.
“That was my hope,” Nelson deadpanned.
Nelson’s club, all but unknown a week ago, shocked the state with a pair of 3-2 victories to reach Championship Saturday. Casual fans might not have respected the Moose, but their fans certainly did. They were a big reason Saturday’s session drew a record crowd of 9,367.
After Watkins’ goal was disallowed, Hawks coach Bruce Plante couldn’t help but ponder the hockey gods that had been so cruel during Hermantown’s dubious streak. He thought maybe fate was conspiring against the Hawks once again. They beat it back, though, claiming their second crown in two years and becoming the first team in tournament history to win three OT games.
“Well, today it was twice in one game — I’ll take that for sure,” he joked. “Back to back is tough. Doing it again is really a lot tougher than I ever imagined. The teams that have done it, all the respect for them. It’s tough. There’s a lot of pressure on these kids.”