The Pirates' first home playoff game in five years was worth the wait.
Coming back from an early two-goal deficit, Crookston girls' hockey beat Detroit Lakes, 3-2, in the play-in game of the Section 8AA playoffs on Thursday night, advancing to the section semifinals on Saturday and ending the Lakers' season.
The Pirates improved to 12-13 on the season, while the Lakers ended their season at 4-20-1. The win was also Crookston's first playoff win since a 6-2 win over Park Rapids in 2015.
"It feels amazing," said Kenzie Epema (Jr., D). "Since I've been on this team it's been loss after loss after loss. Just to feel it myself is a mix of emotions."
Added Aleah Bienek (So., F): "We will obviously take it all in and realize what we can do, because we can do a lot of great stuff with each other."
Underdog Detroit Lakes got off to a dream start in the first period. After the Lakers won a face-off in the Pirate zone, Hadlee Justesen’s shot went up and off of goalie Grace Koshney’s (Jr., G) stick into the net behind her 4:23 into the game. Ella Hess made it 2-0 on a breakaway three minutes later, throwing a puck off Koshney’s pad and putting home the rebound.
But Crookston settled down quickly. With 5:32 to play in the first, Rylee Solheim (So., D) skated down the left flank and fired a perfect centering pass to Nora Peterson (Jr., F), who unleashed a vicious one-timer for her 17th goal of the season.
"Nora made the momentum catch back up to where it needed to be," Epema said. "Coming into the locker room after that period we regrouped and we knew that we needed to come out strong."
The Pirates controlled the second period in its entirety. Their second goal, though, came in fortunate fashion: Kylee Meier (Sr., F) threw a puck on net from the side, but the puck ricocheted off a Laker’s skate and into the net behind goalie Leah Honer to tie the game.
Crookston got a power play midway through the second period and wasted no time. Epema delivered a pass to Aleah Bienek (So., F) in the slot, and Bienek beat Honer five-hole for a 3-2 lead with 7:20 to play in the period.
Neither team found the net the rest of the game, despite several close calls in the third period. Many of them came from the Lakers, who had two power plays in the final minutes, but the Pirates held on thanks to Koshney (20 saves) and the rest of their defense.
"We just needed to stay calm and know that we could play our game," Epema said. "We knew we've played them before and we knew what we needed to do."
Crookston outshot the Lakers 35-22. Shots were even after the first period and 25-15 at the end of two.
UP NEXT: The Pirates play No. 1 seed Warroad (19-4-2, 6-0) in the section semifinals on Saturday at 4 p.m. in Thief River Falls. The Warriors, ranked second in the state, beat Crookston, 10-0, in Warroad on Dec. 4.
"We end up having to take on the number two team in the state, but if we're going to get to where we need to be, we need to be playing in this game," said Crookston coach Tim Moe. "We need to be in these pressure situations with bands playing and a lot of fans in those seats."
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