In a text following Brainerd’s 5-2 Section 8-2A victory over the Bemidji Lumberjacks last weekend, Warriors coach Jim Archibald texted that “It is our turn.”
Archibald and the Warriors believe it’s their turn to win the program’s first section boys hockey championship Thursday night when third-seeded Brainerd faces off against top-seeded and Class 2A’s 10th-ranked Moorhead Spuds at Bemidji for the 8-2A title.
The Warriors believe it’s their turn even though they lost twice to Moorhead during the regular season, even though Brainerd hasn’t beaten Moorhead since Jan. 29, 2000 (or 17 straight games) and even though the Spuds have won 12 section titles since 1992.
“As coaches, the way we see it is, all the pressure’s on Moorhead,” Archibald said. “Obviously, they’ve done very well in the last number of years. (It seems like) they’ve always been in the final for the section, so they’re expected to win.”
Moorhead (20-6-0) beat the Warriors 4-1 on home ice and 4-0 at Brainerd Area Civic Center. Archibald believes neutral ice, as well as a large contingent of Brainerd fans expected to make the trip, could reverse the outcome Wednesday.
“To be honest, I do not feel nervous at all about this game,” he said. “I think we have all the pieces of the puzzle in place, and we’re very confident in our players. And, if they go out and put forth a great effort, we’ll be leaving that building with smiles on our faces.”
Brainerd’s offense, defense and special teams have generated plenty of smiles in a 23-4-0 season.
Start with three prolific 60-point scorers. Mitch McLain leads the team with 36 goals and 67 points. Matt Pohlkamp has contributed 27 goals and 63 points, Aaron Rich 27 and 62.
Brainerd has scored 27 power-play goals compared to the opposition’s 22.
Senior Gaven Motschenbacher anchors a back line that has given up only 38 shots and three goals in two playoff games.
Senior Jared Stearns has a 1.50 goals-against average and .921 save percentage in the playoffs. He was 1.90 and .916 in the regular season.
Saturday’s semifinal win against second-seeded Bemidji was a program milestone — it was only the second semifinal win in program history. The only other was Feb. 26, 1991, when the Warriors beat Thief River Falls 4-2.
Then, on March 1, 1991, Brainerd lost to Roseau 3-2 in double overtime in its only previous section final.
McLain believes the Warriors’ athleticism should help overcome the program’s final albatross – winning its first section title.
“Some guys, in other sports, have been in section championship games,” he said. “But we want this one for Brainerd hockey. We think we will be well-prepared. Coach will have us ready. We’ll have a couple good days of practice and we’ll be ready.”
The Warriors must be ready to face a Moorhead team that plays three solid lines and has no superstars.
In the regular season, Tony Uglem led the Spuds in scoring with 21 goals and 32 points. Nick Uglem and Thomas Carey each added 27 points, Bryant Christian 25 and Logan Ness 20.
In the playoffs, Terry Leabo leads Moorhead with five assists, Carey has five points and Ness four goals.
The Spuds also play solid defense with senior goalie Michael Bitzer their backbone. In the regular season, Bitzer went 18-6-0 with a 2.02 save percentage and .927 GAA. In two playoff games, he has two shutouts against Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake (8-0) and Roseau (3-0).
“He’s a good goalie,” Archibald said. “If he can see the puck he’s going to make the save. We have to get some traffic in front of him. We have to make him move side to side, and we can’t make things easy for him.”
McLain agrees the Warriors must solve Bitzer.
“We need to get bodies in front of him and get shots,” he said. “Playing Moorhead, you have to play a physical game, a defensive style, and capitalize on offense.
“I think the best thing is Jared Stearns is playing with a lot of confidence right now. He’s playing probably better than anyone.”