After taking three steps forward, the Eden Prairie boys hockey team took a step back on Saturday afternoon.
The Eagles cracked the Metro Top 10 rankings this week, claiming the No. 9 spot after three straight victories in less than a week, including impressive wins over fifth-ranked Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Mahtomedi, rated No. 5 in Class A.
Goaltender Isaiah Paulnock recorded three straight shutouts during the streak, with the high mark at 31 saves in the 2-0 victory against Benilde on Jan. 11.
“Our defense has just been really, really steady,” Eagles head coach Mike Terwilliger said. “And obviously, Isaiah has been playing great, but I think it’s also that the forwards have been helping out and doing a good job in those games to beat Benilde and Mahtomedi, both good teams. And then St. Michael, three shutouts in a row.
“It’s not just the defense playing well, but it’s also the forwards collectively.”
The Eagles took their trio of wins to No. 1 ranked Minnetonka on Saturday, where they faced not only one of the top teams in the state, but a rival whom they will face again on Feb. 15 and, if all goes according to plan, in the section playoffs.
The Skippers (15-0-2) will remain a considerable obstacle for Eden Prairie in the Eagles’ quest for a state tournament berth.
And Saturday, Tonka demonstrated why they hold the top ranking, blanking the Eagles in a 4-0 win.
“They’re a very good team,” Terwilliger said. “And we felt like at times in the game we played really well today. And there’s other times we felt like we got exposed from a few mistakes and a few details that we didn’t pay attention to and so we got to work on those.”
Minnetonka held Eden Prairie at arm’s length throughout the first period, limiting the Eagles to just eight shots and few quality scoring chances.
Meanwhile, Paulnock stopped 21 first-period shots, allowing one goal to slip by. A close-range shot from Tonka’s Luke Garry found its way between Paulnock’s legs at 1:48 of the first period.
But as the game wore on, Paulnock gave nothing away between the pipes, stopping 48 shots in the game.
“I’m just staying focused, not letting anything else bother me,” Paulnock said. “I’m making sure each game I’m dialed in, making sure I’m stopping the first shot before I move on to the second shot.”
Despite a tentative first period, the Eagles trailed the Skippers only 1-0 at the first intermission.
Terwilliger made efforts to settle his team down as they gathered in the locker room before the second period began.
“We told them, ‘Relax, it’s just hockey,’” he said. “‘We can skate with these guys, so have a little more poise with the puck, and we’ve got a lot of really good hockey players.’”
Eagles senior forward Cole Saterdalen admitted that he and his teammates played a bit tight throughout the first period, but they soon realized it was critical they return to their more aggressive style.
“Coach Twigs came into the locker room after the first and just said, ‘Guys, it’s only 1-0. Calm down. Stop making jittery plays; we’re good. Let’s control the puck.’ So we just regrouped and attacked from there,” Saterdalen said.
Eden Prairie put in a much stronger second period, generating more chances in the offensive zone.
But penalties proved costly. Minnetonka took a 2-0 lead during a 5-on-3 power play. The Skippers’ Hagen Burrows wasted no time after the second Eden Prairie penalty, putting away a pass from Garry just 16 seconds into the two-man advantage.
“It’s hard to beat a team if you give them a 5-on-3,” Saterdalen said.
Paulnock made a key save on a second-period breakaway. But another Skippers break in the third period gave Minnetonka a 3-0 advantage.
A Tonka goal just 11 seconds later put the game out of reach with 2:20 remaining in regulation.
“It’s just kind of a disappointment,” junior forward Alex Hall said. “Just because we know we have more in the tank. And we didn’t bring our ‘A’ game.”
Hall scored both of the Eden Prairie goals in the Eagles’ 2-0 victory over Benilde-St. Margaret’s, but he will be the first to tell anyone that success is ancient history. He’s long since moved on, ready to put Saturday in the rearview mirror as well.
“At the end of the day, we got to put this one behind us when we step out of the locker room,” he said. “And you’ve gotta come ready to work Monday.”
Despite the frustration, Hall said that he and his teammates will use the Tonka game as a benchmark for where they are now – and where they need to be by the end of the regular season.
“We know what we can improve on. We know what we can do better to beat these guys,” he said. “We’re not worried about it at all. That team is beatable, and we’ve just got to come ready to go next time we play them.”
The Eagles won’t have to wait long to size up another measuring stick. After traveling to Buffalo on Thursday, they’ll host third-ranked Edina on Saturday night.
The Eagles (10-5-1) came up short against the Hornets (14-2-1) in a 3-1 loss at the Edina Holiday Classic on Dec. 16. But they’re eager to begin a new string of wins as they enter the stretch run of the regular season.
“They’re disappointed, they’re bummed out. For sure. And they should be,” Terwilliger said. “But at the same time, we want to build towards February and get through our section. So, we’ve just got to come with that mentality Monday, ready to work and get back at it.
“We’ve got two big games next week, so you can’t feel too sorry for yourself.”
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