The North Wright County RiverHawks appear to be back on track, after a rocky start to the month of December.
The Hawks, a favorite to retain their title in Section 8AA, were stunned by the Alexandria Cardinals back on Dec. 3, adding insult to the losses to state-ranked programs like Lakeville South and Class A No. 1 Warroad.
"With the effort we put in, we didn't feel like we deserved to lose, but we couldn't make it happen when we had the puck on their doorstep. They got the one goal, and we couldn't convert on our opportunities," said RiverHawks head coach Tim Hanson.
As a result, the Hawks were staring at .500 for the start of the season with two huge, local rivalries coming up.
The first was the biggest, as the Hawks skated vs. Buffalo last Saturday, Dec. 10.
"Any season that includes a win over Buffalo is a good season," said standout Dani Sibley, who leads the Hawks in scoring.
But that would be a tough task, with the Bison a favorite to win the Mississippi 8.
To get a 'skate up,' Hanson made a tough call, putting in goaltender Alex Lamere, a freshman, over senior Amanda Koep, who had, admittedly, struggled in some games to that point.
"It was a very tough call," Hanson said. "But, I knew Alex was confident. She beat Buffalo last year in Delano while on the U14 team. And she wouldn't get caught up in the rivalry hype that still surrounds this game, seven years after we split the two teams. We're lucky to have a solid group of goaltenders. It's a huge advantage for our team to be able to rotate."
It turned out to be a magical decision, as Lamere stopped breakaways, open shots and shots in traffic for the shutout in a 2-0 victory.
The game winner came off the stick of another freshman in Paige Voight, who has come on strong in her first season. Another member of state championship U14 program, Voight scored her fourth goal of the year when she received a breakout feed from Emily Achterkirch. She used a deke and beat Buffalo goalie Lindsey Hartfiel with a nifty shot. The Hawks held a 1-0 lead at 12:55 in the second period.
"Just executed perfectly," Hanson said.
Sibley would add an empty netter with 24 seconds remaining to create the final margin.
The Hawks followed that performance up with a clutch win at Rogers last night (Tuesday), getting a 4-3 win over a ranked opponent in Class A on their home ice.
Despite a performance that "wasn't as solid as the Buffalo game," Hanson said, the Hawks got some great individual efforts, including 19 saves by Koep, who returned to form.
"She allowed just one even strength goal, and they got two with us shorthanded. We needed her to have that kind of night for us to get the win," Hanson said.
Koep has said, from the outset, she doesn't mind stepping in on a pressure situation. Tuesday night was just that, as each goal North Wright County was able to put up was answered by the Royals.
"I kind of thrive in it," Koep said. "This team has faced so much pressure each season, we kind of all do."
With the game knotted at three, Voight did it again for the Hawks, getting the game winner late in the third period with a wrist shot from the right side.
"She's got the hot hand now, definitely," Hanson said. "She's playing solid hockey each night she comes to the rink, it's not just scoring."
Sibley, Acterkirck and Halie Gudmonson also found the net for the Hawks.
The schedule continues to be tough, as North Wright County will host Thief River Falls and Section 8AA runner-up Roseau Friday and Saturday at the Moose Sherritt Ice Arena in Monticello.
"We're excited to see them and see how we measure up," Koep said of Roseau. "We got them last year. They beat us out the year before. This will be their first year without [now SCSU Husky] Abby Ness, so we'll see how it goes."
The girls skate vs. Roseau at 7:30 p.m. Friday night. Thief River skates vs. the Monticello-St. Michael-Albertville-Annandale club at 3:30 p.m. Friday.