There’s only so much development you can squeeze into four weeks. On Tuesday, Crookston girls’ hockey found that out the hard way.
It’s not that the Pirates’ surge since Dec. 6, in which they won four of five while averaging 3.8 goals per game, wasn’t for real. Against East Grand Forks, it was obvious how far the Pirates have come since their 8-0, season-opening loss to the Green Wave. In stark contrast to November, they moved the puck, controlled the offensive zone, created their share of chances.
Instead, Tuesday showed what the next step of Crookston’s development is.
And it might not be too pretty.
East Grand Forks won, 5-1, scoring four straight goals in the second and third periods. The Green Wave’s goals were mostly the product of physicality and more will than skill — the end result of extended stretches of pressure on Grace Koshney (Jr., G).
Koshney was impressive most of the night, making 39 stops for an 88.6 save percentage. The problem was that she had to make that many. The Pirates just couldn’t clear the puck out of their zone.
“When they were down in our zone, they would get a shot on net and then there would be a rebound, and Grace's flopping all over the place trying to save everything,” said Pirates coach Tim Moe. “You get scrambles where they get four, five shots on net at a time.”
Moe was pleased with his team’s 20 shots on goal, an improvement from past meetings with the Green Wave. But they were usually one-and-done attempts at the net — quick jabs vs. East Grand Forks’ fists of fury.
“We oftentimes will have one kid doing really good things, but then we just can't get there a lot of times,” Moe said. “Part of that is, maybe we're not aggressive enough yet and don't understand what to do yet. I think a bigger part of it is they have some big strong defensemen who've been there before, who know how to play the game.”
That’s something that the young Pirates still lack for the most part, despite dynamic playmakers such as Nora Peterson (Jr., F), who scored their lone goal. They can carve out chances in open space, but in the gritty areas of the ice where strength reigns supreme, they had no chance.
And for as frequently as Moe has stressed getting “bigger, faster, stronger,” he understands that that part of the process won’t happen overnight.
“In the third period they were just outmuscling us,” Moe said after the first East Grand Forks game. “I think we’re talented enough to get in the right positions, but whether or not we’re strong enough yet to finish those plays is a big thing.”
Over the last few weeks, Moe has been proven correct. The Pirates are talented enough to get to those positions, and confident enough to try to against anyone.
Confidence can come from a big win like Crookston’s 4-0 shutout at Bemidji. That’s a developmental milestone the Pirates’ already passed.
But all the confidence in the world couldn’t change the fact that eighth-grader Brynley Coleman, who stands just five feet tall, had to anchor the Pirates’ third line as an indirect result of Aleah Bienek (So., F) being at home with a 102-degree fever.
“She did admirably for the two periods she could play, but she’s just not very big,” Moe said. “In a physical game, she can't do everything that you need her to do.”
The scoreline aside, the Pirates agreed that they competed better, played better the second time facing East Grand Forks.
“We definitely had the first game jitters that first game,” Peterson said. “I think at this point in the season, we're getting past that, and I think we're just coming out knowing what we need to do, more or less.”
But knowing what needs to be done isn’t the same as actually doing it. Coleman might have been the most poignant example, but it was on display all night long.
The Pirates faded down the stretch in both games against the Green Wave. Moe chalked the first one up more towards demoralization. That’s not what Tuesday night was — Crookston scored just three minutes after East Grand Forks’ first goal, but was physically — not mentally — worn down the rest of the way as the Green Wave’s deluge began.
“We knew we could come back,” said Kenzie Epema (Jr., D). “It’s just one goal, we just needed to keep our heads high.”
In the end, though, it did little to change the outcome.
In November, Crookston left the arena defeated, deflated and bruised. Tuesday night, just defeated and bruised.
There’s no doubt that that’s progress. But until the Pirates are capable of bruising the Green Wave back, it will be a while before they leave victorious.
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