Lights. Camera. Action.
Making their first appearance in the state boys' hockey tournament will be more than a game 9 p.m. Wednesday when the Little Falls Flyers play the Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers in the Class 1A quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
State tournament week is a rat-race. A banquet for teams the night before play begins. Hordes of media. Playing on an NHL rink. Playing a game on television.
Flyers coach Tony Couture hopes his team isn't overcome by the distractions a team doesn't usually experience.
"I just hope we don't get down there, it's overwhelming and sometimes you forget to play hockey," Couture said, "but I think we've got them focused.
Little Falls Flyers junior forward Robin McGillis (15) and Nick Jelacie of the Brainerd Warriors battled for position Dec. 2 at the Little Falls Arena. The Flyers make their first appearance in the state boys hockey tournament 9 p.m. Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Brainerd Dispatch/Clint Wood
"(The players) are excited about the challenge of playing one of the better teams in the state. I don't think they're unstoppable. I don't think they're any better than some of the teams we saw this year."
The Hilltoppers, ranked fifth in the final 1A poll, are led by senior Scott Kozlak (30 goals, 59 total points after the regular season), senior Chris Connolly (21-53) and junior Andrew Ritts (15-23), who missed much of the season with an injury. Junior goalie Jason Paul has a 17-6-0 record, 2.03 goals-against average and .913 save percentage.
Duluth split a regular-season series against top-ranked Warroad, losing 3-2 and winning 6-2.
Couture watched the Hilltoppers beat St. Cloud Cathedral 6-1 for the Section 2 title. He said Duluth possesses strength and speed, a top goalie in Paul and four skilled defenders.
"People are probably thinking it's between (Marshall) and Warroad to get to the finals," Couture said. "Our game plan is to try and keep them outside and limit the quality of their shots."
Couture said the Flyers have given up too many shots but goalie Jake Kluver has been solid. The junior has a 16-5-0 record, 2.59 GAA and .904 save percentage.
"We do give up some shots, that's something we can't hide," Couture said. "Throughout the season that's been one of our soft spots.
Class 1A state hockey
Who: Little Falls Flyers (20-8-0) vs. Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers (22-6-0).
Where: Xcel Energy Center, St. Paul.
When: 9 p.m. Wednesday.
"Anytime you get to a state tournament, or any big game, it usually comes down to goaltending. Jake's confident, he's playing well. He's our quarterback in football, our shortstop in baseball. What else can you ask for in an athlete?"
The Flyers couldn't have asked for more than what Steven Festler and Mikael Lickteig have delivered. Festler, a senior center, is the school's all-time leading scorer. He enters the tournament with a team-high 72 points (31 goals, 41 assists). Lickteig, a senior wing, has 32-67.
"Mikael seems to have more finesse in front of the net," Couture said. "Steven has a little more natural ability. Mikael has had to work hard to get where he's at.
"Both of them are leaders, both are nice kids. They work very hard. I'm ecstatic for them to go to the state tournament their senior year."
The duo has helped Little Falls score 127 goals while limiting opponents to 79 on their way to a school-record 20 wins. Little Falls has scored 29 power-play goals on 121 chances.
Mike Bialka can be reached at email@example.com or at 855-5861.
Brainerd Dispatch ©2013. All Rights Reserved.