Always grinding, always pushing to keep games close, Red Wing came out pushing to tie the game in the third period at the very least. The Wingers skated with an empty-net for just over two minutes, but couldn't crack the Albert Lea defense.
All game long the Tigers defense collapsed in front of the net, making it tough to get many shots from further out through to Tiger goalie Maddie Schneider. Allison Dulitz and Katelyn Steven scored 1 minute, 54 seconds apart to break a 1-1 tie in the second en route to a 3-1 win in a girls' hockey Section 1A first-round game on Wednesday.
Red Wing head coach Nicole Olson said the toughest part of the loss, with how close the Wingers were to forming a comeback, is the having the last postgame speech with the team.
"There's no good way to of ending that conversation knowing you are walking out of the locker room for the last time this year with that group of girls," Olson said. "It'll never be that exact group again. The biggest loss is knowing we aren't going to have the two leaders we had. I think that hurt the girls the most because they're irreplaceable."
Just as the Wingers did after last season ended, two seniors - Meg Grove and Hailey Ehlers - say their goodbyes.
The Wingers started the game with two eighth graders and a freshman on the ice. In total, four eighth graders and two freshman skated in the game for the Wingers. Olson said where the team finished shouldn't be dismissed, but applauded instead.
"Half of our team are eighth and ninth graders," Olson said. "When you sit back and think about that, playing teams that are a majority of seniors and juniors and here we are. We're right there. We're close. We have more work to do, but we're close."
In the opening minutes of the first, the Wingers couldn't quite connect on passes exiting the defensive zone. Chipping pucks along the boards and flipping pucks into the neutral zone became the norm as the Tigers came out aggressive in their puck movement.
Red Wing went on the penalty kill just over 4 minutes into the game, then began skating 4-on-4 after the Tigers took a tripping penalty 6 seconds into their power play. That opened the ice for Steven who scored the first goal of the game at 4:51 of the first.
The Wingers came out determined in the second and were quickly rewarded. Allison Roe came in as the third forward into the offensive zone, watched a puck bounce off Schneider and backhanded it in just past the right leg of Schneider. Roe's fifth goal of the season tied the game 1-1 with still over 15 minutes remaining in the period.
Later in the period, the Tigers seemed to gain momentum from killing off a Winger power play. The Tigers forced the Wingers to ice the puck for breathers and circled the offensive zone until Dulitz scored at 11:55 of the second. Less than 2 minutes later, Steven scored her second of the game to give the Tigers a two-goal edge.
The Wingers had a third-period power play, but didn't capitalize on it. Even in the final minute, the game wasn't truly over until the final 6 seconds.
Olson said the team earned their time. Coaching the younger players, in particular the eighth graders, was a challenge. Yet all season, Olson saw improvements in them from understanding systems to adjusting to the pace of varsity hockey. She added that the loss to the Tigers feels similar to a few of the other losses throughout the season.
"Any mistake we make, team's have capitalized and the pucks don't bounce our way," Olson said of the common theme of the season. "At the end of the day, we have to find a way to put the puck in the net and we didn't do that enough tonight."