After a season ending 3-2 overtime loss to New Prague in last year’s MSHSL Section 1A semifinals at Rochester Recreation Center, the Northfield High School boys hockey team has been on a mission.
The Raiders’ primary goal for 2022-23 was to gain a return to the Section 1A finals and earn a bid to the 2023 MSHSL Boys Hockey State Tournament, which will be played on March 8-11 at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
Consider it mission accomplished as Northfield claimed the Section 1A championship on Wednesday, March 1 with a bit of sweet revenge thanks to a 6-0 win over New Prague in Rochester. The victory stamped Northfield’s ticket to St. Paul for the Raiders’ first trip to the Class A state tournament since 2017 and it moved the squad’s record to 23-5 while New Prague finished its year at 16-11-1.
“We had a good team last year but we lost a game that maybe we shouldn’t have lost, so to come back this year with a mission and almost 365 days later, against the same team that knocked us out of the playoffs, is really rewarding,” NHS coach Mike Luckraft said. “When we played them (New Prague) in December this year there was this big revenge thing, and I said that was just another game, and if there is such a term that game is coming in March or the end of February.”
He added, “I knew how good they (New Prague) were last year because they played such a tough schedule. They played the same schedule this year and won 15-16 games, so I knew they were going to be battled tested and play hard. But our guys were extremely focused on this game. The other two games of the section tournament were important to get to this point but there was a real focus tonight on winning battles, making plays and playing great in our defensive zone.”
Junior forward Cayden Monson, who scored a hat trick in the win over New Prague, added his comment into the Raiders’ success against the Trojans. “It was a super fun game to play in and all the guys were super focused and confident. Everybody wanted to win this game and after last year that loss had stuck with us since it happened to us,” Monson said.
In a game dominated offensively by Northfield, the Raiders got on the scoreboard early thanks to an unassisted goal by Mike Fossum at 2:10 of the first period. Fossum threw a puck on net from the blue line, which ended up hitting the skate of one of the New Prague defenders. The deflected puck then went between the legs of New Prague goalie Cole Murphy to give NHS a 1-0 lead.
“That’s what happens when you get pucks to the net. It seemed almost harmless but it was a hard shot,” Luckraft said. “We didn’t have anyone in front of the net, so when it hit the defenseman’s skate and it went through his legs all of the sudden there was almost too much energy on our bench because the guys were so amped up.”
The goal definitely swayed the early momentum of the contest and resulted in a 4-0 lead by the end of the first period for Northfield. Monson connected on his first goal of the night at 5:31 before Jake Geiger made it 3-0 with a goal less than 25 second later at 5:31. Assists on Geiger’s goal were credited to Brecken Riley and Griffin Kennelly.
To finish the period, Monson posted another unassisted goal at 14:43 on the power play after an interference call on New Prague’s Eric Berg.
“I thought the last 10 minutes of the first period were the best 10 minutes of the game,” Luckraft said about his team’s first period surge. “I thought we had a ton of puck possession, made a ton of plays and got to the front of the net. We had a really good attack and a good second half of the period of sharing the puck and playing as a team. Of course, when you built a 4-0 lead it makes it a little easier to keep playing.”
Northfield managed to avoid any letdown in the early going of the second period and made a quick strike at 2:50 of the period when Brayden Olsen scored an unassisted goal to push the Raider lead to 5-0. In the closing minutes of the period, the Raiders completed their statement with a power play goal by Monson at 15:57 with assists from Kam Kaiser and Geiger.
The play of Monson, which included his second hat trick of the season, drew praise from his coach after the game. “Mons (Monson) had so much puck control around the net and made some plays tonight . He is just such.a high skill guy who is a team leader,” Luckraft said.
Monson was on the starting line against New Prague along with Will Cashin and Olsen. Earlier in the season when Northfield scored a 3-0 win over New Prague on Dec. 20, Monson played on a line with Geiger and Kaiser. The line up shuffle at midseason helped diversify the Northfield attack and add power to the Raider roster.
“When we played New Prague just before Christmas, we had Cayden on our top line along with Jake and Kam, and we were really getting all of our scoring out of that line,” he said. “We just said we got to create another line, which is going to be a balanced line. They’re going to be super strong defensively, really good in the face-off, and we need the two lines to score.”
The move included shifting Monson to a new line. “Almost immediately, we had a one and 1A line that could both score...and I’ve rotated the starting line between those two lines every other night since then,” Luckraft said.
Monson may have gained the offensive spotlight on the squad, but the sterling play of senior Keaton Walock in goal was another driving factor in the victory. Walock backstopped the Raiders to his 10th shutout of the season, which ranks first in the state for most shutouts by a goalie this year.
He made 24 saves in the contest as the Raiders managed to outshoot the Trojans 35-24 in the game. On the season, Walock ranks second in the state with 23 victories (23-4), sixth in the state with a 1.30 goals against average and 10th in the state with a .929 save percentage.
“There were three really critical plays in the first period when there was some pressure, and also to start the second, where that could have changed the momentum of the game but he came up with the big saves,” Luckraft said about Walock’s work in net against New Prague.
He added, “What was amazing tonight was that he had such unbelievable rebound control that there were no second chances. If anything came in, he was turning it off to the side. He’s just been an elite leader for us for three years.”
Special teams play also shined for the Raiders as they posted a 2-of-5 rate on the power play and improved their season’s power play percentage to an amazing 44.0 percent, which includes 109 power play goals this season. On the penalty kill, Northfield was 3-of-3 in the game. In the game, Northfield was only called for three penalties while New Prague had six.
The limited number of penalties was a positive sign for Luckraft.
“We reached out to our players from 2017 just for some inspirational messages and they were ‘to play your guts out’, ‘this is a once in a lifetime opportunity’ and ‘to stay out of the box!’ And the message about penalties was clearly the message we were giving our guys tonight,” Luckraft said. “We have enough speed and skill that we don’t have to play ultra physical in order to impact the game. We were very aware of how to play in order to stay out of those penalty situations.”
The Raiders will learn their draw in the eight team bracket at the upcoming Class A tournament after all Section finals are completed on March 3. This marks just the second time that Northfield has advanced to the state finals in team history.
Luckraft talked about his team’s pending trip to the state finals and how special of an accomplishment it is.
“As a coach, that is what makes you feel good is that these guys get to go to the unbelievable stage of the Xcel Energy Center.”
Monson also provided his insight into his team’s upcoming trip north to St. Paul.
“I’ve been playing hockey now for about 13-14 years and ever since I started playing for Northfield that has been one of my dreams,” Monson said about heading to the state finals. “After watching them (Northfield) go to state in 2017 and watching those boys ‘celey’ at the X…it’s been one of my dreams for a while now and right now I am on cloud nine. It’s just an unreal feeling.”