Warroad boys hockey coach Jay Hardwick had a message for his players before Thursday night's game.
"I told the boys, 'You've got to go out and win if you want any sort of chance of having home ice in the playoffs,'" Hardwick said.
The Warriors did that.
Thanks to opportunistic goals in the opening period and a 27-save performance from goaltender Jack Orchard, Warroad beat East Grand Forks Senior High 4-2 on Thursday night in the East Grand Forks Civic Center.
That evens the season series 1-1, which is critical.
Because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Minnesota Section 8A tournament games will be played at the home site of the higher seed instead of at a predetermined site like in a normal year.
Thursday's victory gives Warroad a good shot at hosting throughout the section playoffs. East Grand Forks, which beat the Warriors 3-2 in Warroad on Feb. 2, also is hoping to grab the No. 1 seed for the section tournament, but may need help now.
"Obviously, we knew that was on the line," Senior High coach Tyler Palmiscno said. "At the end of the day, you've got to win a one-and-done game. It's not like we're going to go into an arena on the road into a raucous, hostile crowd. There's going to be 125 for one team and 125 for the other team.
"I thought we played well tonight. I thought Warroad, as always, played extremely hard. As I said at the start of the year, they're the champions until somebody ends their season, so nothing has changed."
Last season, Warroad beat East Grand Forks in Thief River Falls to earn a trip to the state tournament.
"It's always a great game when we play," Hardwick said. "We both match up well because we both try to play the game the right way, we play hard, create chances, play defensive. . . we're both similar teams. When we meet, we know it's going to be a good game."
On Thursday, Warroad used three goals in the first period to take the lead for good.
Eric Comstock scored at 9:48, Carson Reed scored at 14:17 and Anthony Foster ended the frame with a goal with :32 left to give the Warriors a 3-1 lead.
"I thought, honestly, we were kind of slow in the first," Hardwick said. "I wasn't really happy. I told them we needed more pace to our game. The good thing is we did make a couple of real nice plays, and when we had chances, we capitalized on them. I like that we took advantage of the opportunities we had. But I still wanted us to play with more pace, because I knew East Grand Forks was going to keep bringing it."
Senior High used a first-period goal by Brody Schultz and a third-period tally by Tanner Lubinski. Landon Parker assisted on both.
But the Green Wave were stuck at the two-goal mark for the third game in a row, all losses. They lost 3-2 in overtime to Roseau on Feb. 25 and lost 4-2 to Moorhead on March 2.
"I thought Orchard was solid," Palmiscno said. "He did a good job. We definitely generated some chances. Right now, they're just not going in for us."
Last year's Warroad team relied heavily on senior Grant Slukynski to get to state. This year's Warrior team has been relying on Orchard, sophomore star Jayson Shaugabay and defenders Blake Norris and Reed. All of them came through Thursday night.
Shaugabay had a goal and an assist, while Reed had a goal and Norris an assist. Orchard, who stopped 40 shots Saturday at Grand Rapids, made 11 saves in the first, seven in the second and nine in the third.
"He played very well," Hardwick said. "I thought in the third period, he made some big saves to keep it at 3-2 before we could get that empty-netter."
Warroad plays Thief River Falls at 7:30 p.m. Friday, another key game if it wants to grab the No. 1 seed for the section tournament.
"Never take anything for granted," Hardwick said. "We still have four games. We have to finish out strong going down the stretch."