It’s about 36 miles from Eden Prairie High School to Buffalo, Minnesota. On a sunny afternoon this past Saturday, the Eden Prairie boys hockey team loaded the bus and made the journey north and west.
They arrived to find a packed parking lot and capacity crowd at the Buffalo Civic Center for their regular season curtain closing with the Bison, a team they had defeated 3-2 on Jan. 26 in Eden Prairie.
Buffalo is also a team that found a way to shutout sixth-ranked Wayzata at the end of January, and followed that with a 4-3 win over No. 5 Rogers.
But the Eagles had come all that way and thought, “we might as well try to make something out of it.”
Eden Prairie completed its regular season by playing some of their best hockey of the year. Not just in their 4-1 win over the Bison, but in a 4-3 loss to top-ranked Minnetonka on Thursday night.
“As a team, we’re really coming together,” senior captain Ryan Koering said. “Young guys are starting to contribute more, know their roles, and then play their roles how they’re supposed to be played.”
Koering also believes he and his teammates have found a way to leverage their size to clear their defensive zone and open the door to better scoring opportunities.
“I think we’ve got the best D core in the state,” Koering said. “We’re a big team, especially back at D, so I think we just use that and a couple of big forwards up front and it’s gonna open up the ice for skill guys.”
The Eagles have intensified their characteristically physical brand of hockey over the past few games. It’s a strategy and a tactic that has yielded positive results.
“I like the physical game a bit,” junior forward Andy Earl said. “It opens up a lot of time and space for me, Teddy [Townsend] and Johnny [Kleis] all together, gives them more time and we have the puck on our stick more if we were physical.”
The Eagles opened up space for Dylan Vornwald. His shot from the point on a first-period power play opened the scoring for Eden Prairie.
“We got that power player pretty early in the game,” Vornwald said. “I was up top, Ryan and I kind of switched around; we were moving and then he just passed it to me, I walked in and shot.”
Freshman forward Mason Moe scored for the second straight game. He took a picture-perfect, cross-ice pass from junior Cole Saterdalen at the 10:00 mark of the second period and buried the puck from the left side past Buffalo goalie Max Varner.
“We liked our effort,” Eagles head coach Mike Terwilliger said. “Buffalo is good. They’ve got a really good goalie. So it was nice to generate chances against those guys and put a few in.”
The Eagles led with their physicality to create opportunities. Sophomore forward Chase Klute was a one-man checking crew throughout the punishing afternoon.
“What we’ve been stressing to them is, if you take care of your guy, it’s not your problem anymore,” Eagles assistant coach Tom Gerdes said. “So it’s more of a team effort if we can just seal guys to the side, take the body. That’s what playoff hockey is all about. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”
Eden Prairie opened the third period with another scoring play. Junior defenseman Tate Bloch’s shot from the point blew past Varner and gave the Eagles a 3-0 lead just 2:02 into the final period.
Yet despite the lead, the strong physical play, and the eventual victory, Andy Earl felt conflicted after the game.
“Yeah, it was a lot of fun,” he said. “It was frustrating, but it was a lot of fun.”
When pressed, Earl explained his ambivalence.
“For me and Teddy, we weren’t getting some of our bounces we would have liked,” he said. “We ended up making it work, we had to outwork the bounces to be honest with you.”
Earl and Townsend were killing an Eagles penalty with 10:34 left in the third period, when a bounce brought the puck into Townsend’s possession near center ice.
The Eagles’ junior captain didn’t hesitate. He raced up ice with Earl on his left side. Everything about Townsend’s body language indicated he was going for the net.
“Why not right?” Townsend asked hypothetically. “We have the time and space, so might as well try to make something out of it.”
Townsend made a perfectly timed pass to Earl, who put away a short-handed goal for a 4-0 Eden Prairie lead.
“I’m like, for sure we’re scoring here,” Earl said. “We already had two two-on-ones before that and hadn’t scored yet. So we had to capitalize on that one.”
As for Earl’s earlier frustration, “That’s outworking the bounces,” he said.
Junior goalie Isaiah Paulnock had 19 saves in the win. He was 1:23 away from his fourth shutout of the season, but a deflected puck made it past to put Buffalo on the board.
The 4-1 victory turned out the lights on the regular season as the Eagles finish with a 12-12-1 record.
“We had a good week. Between Tonka and tonight, we liked their effort all week,” Terwilliger said. “The last three days in particular at practice, we were really sharp too. So we’ve got to keep that up. Big one on Thursday.”
The Eagles move to the section playoffs, where they will face Holy Family in the first round on Thursday at the Victoria Rec Center. Puck drop is set for 7 p.m.
“I think we’re doing well,” says Vornwald. “I think we’re on the up rise. Hopefully that carries into sections and we just keep moving forward.”
Holy Family (20-5) defeated Eden Prairie 3-2 on Jan. 12. But the Eagles, tempered by one of the state’s most daunting regular season schedules, have timed their late-season surge to perfection.
“I just can’t wait till Thursday comes,” Koering said. “So yeah, we’re just really excited. We’re gonna be ready to go.”
Might as well try to make something out of it.
Comments aren’t allowed on our site, but we do offer several ways to provide feedback, and have your voice heard. If you believe the story has an error, or would like to get in touch with the author, please contact us. If you would like to respond directly to this article, we welcome and encourage Letters To the Editor. You can find details on how to submit a letter on our contact page.