ST. PAUL — Anyone who has ever watched hockey knows all about “puck luck,” those crazy and unpredictable bounces that somehow manage to lead that three-inch black disk into the back of the net.
What Cloquet-Esko-Carlton senior forward Kiana Bender threw up Friday at Xcel Energy Center was more like a puck prayer.
Bender’s quirky power-play goal at 3:12 in the third period — ricocheting off the glass, back over the net, off goalie Kendra Nordick and in — lifted CEC to a 5-3 victory over Warroad in the Class A girls hockey state semifinals.
Just like you drew it up.
“When I missed at first I was like, ‘Dang it,’” said Bender, who turned 18 on Friday. “But then I saw the puck jump up and then trickle over, I was like, ‘Please go in, please go in.’ I mean, I’ve seen that before, in the state tournament last year, so I was really excited when it went in.”
Yes, it does happen — just not every often.
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, which got a hat track from senior Taylor Nelson and two goals from Bender, continues its magical journey when the third-seeded Lumberjacks (27-3) play top-seeded Breck (24-6) at 4 p.m. Saturday for the Class A championship at Xcel Energy Center. Breck advanced with a 9-1 victory over fifth-seeded Rochester Lourdes.
Second-seeded Warroad (22-5-2) plays Lourdes (19-11) at 9 a.m. Saturday for third.
“That was a backbreaker,” Warroad coach David Marvin said of Bender’s first goal, which proved to be the game-winner as freshman goalie Araya Kiminski continued her strong play with 25 saves.
Nelson got the scoring started at 12:15 in the first when she wrapped around the net and slid a backhander past Nordick, who slid over to cut the gap but left the far side open.
Three minutes later, Nelson was at it again, with a wicked slap shot from the blue line that hit nothing but net, an impressive blast into the top-left corner to put the Lumberjacks up 2-0 going into the second.
Nelson was asked if she had ever scored on a shot like that.
“In practice I have, but not really in a game,” said Nelson, who added two assists for a five-point performance. “I was just trying to get it on net. I was in a perfect spot. It was pretty amazing.”
Warroad came back to tie it with goals by Geno Hendrickson and Sydney Phaneuf in the second and could have had more, including a potential tap-in for Hendrickson that somehow missed her stick.
“That doesn’t happen very often,” Marvin said. “I just don’t think the puck went our way. We had some chances in the third and just missed behind the goalie a couple times, but we didn’t play well enough to win. They played better than us, and we know that. You have to play 51 (minutes) to move on, and we didn’t do that. You have to do that against a good team.”
Nelson completed her eighth hat trick of the season at 1:09 in the third on a perfect feed from Dea DeLeon, but Ms. Hockey finalist Hannah Corneliusen answered just eight seconds later by lifting a backhander up and in past Kiminski, knotting it 3-3.
That set the heroics for Bender, who continues to shine, bad wrist and all, after getting injured in last week’s Section 7A championship game. While Bender saw her goofy goal go in at 3:12 in the third, she didn’t see her next one at all, an insurance goal two minutes later where she was looking west and the puck was going east.
“I was yelling at my teammate, Tenley Stewart, to shoot it, and it hit off my elbow,” Bender said. “I didn’t even see it going in. I just saw my team put their arms up and cheer. It was pretty awesome.”
What a way for Bender to celebrate her 18th birthday. Bender’s goal off the redirection made it 5-3 and that’s how it would stay, as Kiminski stopped nine shots in the final period and Stewart added two assists.
It was only the sixth time this year the Warriors were held below four goals.
Now, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton is one game away from its first state title.
“We’ve been working on drawing numbers,” Lumberjacks coach Courtney Olin said. “Five years ago we went into the middle school asking kids if they knew what hockey was and if they’d be willing to come out. We literally had players who had to buy gear to come out for our JV. Playing in a state championship game is certainly going to help with that.”
Cloquet-Esko-Carlton 5, Warroad 3
First period — 1. CEC, Taylor Nelson (Kiana Bender), 12:15; 2. CEC, Nelson (Emily Litchke), 15:04.
Second period — 3. W, Geno Hendrickson (Sydney Phaneuf), 6:30; 4. W, Phaneuf (Hendrickson, Karlie Meeker) 7:29 (pp).
Third period — 5. CEC, Nelson (Dea DeLeon, Tenley Stewart), 1:09; 6. W, Hannah Corneliusen, 1:17; 7. CEC, Bender (Nelson, Emmie Ellena), 3:12 (pp); 8. CEC, Bender (Stewart, Nelson), 5:02.
Saves — Ayara Kiminski, CEC, 25; Kendra Nordick, W, 15.