Crookston boys' hockey may not be among the favorites in Section 8A, or even one of the sleepers.
But as the season draws to a close, the Pirates are doing something they're very familiar with doing — peaking at the right time.
"Things are coming together a little bit for us right now," said coach Josh Hardy after a 4-1 win over Lake of the Woods on Friday. " ... We get to the playoffs and everybody's 0-0. It doesn't matter what you've done. We've seen upsets happen before. We've seen the four or the five seed go to the state tournament from the section. November, December, January, at the end of the day it's all practice, right? And we're getting prepared for that."
Crookston's 4-19 season hasn't been one downhill climb — it's been filled with more fits and starts than one would imagine.
In early January, the Pirates appeared to be close to a breakthrough after a series of close losses followed by a 7-2 blowout at Park Rapids. Then, on Jan. 11, Warroad crushed them, 9-0, and second-leading scorer Ben Andringa (Sr., F) went down with a shoulder injury. Accompanied by injuries to Noah Dragseth (Jr., G) and Kaleb Thingelstad (Jr., F), Crookston went into an opportunity-rich section stretch in less than ideal shape.
"We felt like we weathered the storm early in the year when we played our tough teams," Hardy said. "And then we get to the games that are feasibly a bit more winnable for us and we end up getting guys hurt."
Starting Jan. 14, the Pirates dropped five straight games: 4-1 at home to Detroit Lakes. 5-0 to Kittson Central. 9-4 at Detroit Lakes. 7-0 at East Grand Forks and 5-0 at Thief River Falls.
But as the phrase goes, it's darkest before dawn. Crookston exploded for 55 shots on goal in a 7-2 win over Park Rapids on Jan. 31. Then, 41 shots on goal in last Friday's victory. That was followed by an 8-4 win over International Falls on Senior Day on Saturday.
These were the games that even after the deflating defeat in Thief River Falls, Hardy looked to as an opportunity. Crookston had won just two games in mid-January last season and turned it around enough to finish with an 8-17-1 record and host a playoff game. If the Pirates did some of the same here, against two of the lower-ranked teams in the section, they'd be able to solidify themselves as at least a seventh seed in the upcoming section playoffs, and likely a sixth seed.
The return of Andringa didn't hurt. Despite missing nearly a month, he brought his usual mix of speed and playmaking to the ice on Friday. Relentless in the offensive zone, he finished with three assists and picked up another on Saturday.
"It's a very difficult thing to be hurt, especially in your senior year and you miss a month and you feel like things are maybe slipping away from you," Hardy said Friday. "Couldn't have been prouder of the way that he came out and played tonight. I think he was maybe a little frustrated that he didn't score. He had lots of opportunities, but that will come as he just continues to play more games."
Andringa had been playing on the top line before his injury, but in his two games back he's transitioned into something of a super-sub, as Hardy looks for quality between all his lines. Hardy's been able to do that thanks to the continued prowess of Jack Doda (Fr.) and Joey Doda (Sr.), who recorded nine points between them over the weekend.
Everyone's been getting into the offensive act, in fact: Jade Selzler (Sr., D) and Nick Schultz (Sr., F) scored their first career varsity goals against International Falls. Dragseth seems to have returned to pre-concussion form. Simply put, the Pirates are clicking on all cylinders, and that's translated into the locker room too.
"We did a nice job of really handling play for the most part," Hardy said. "Winning can change how you feel about yourself and your mentality."
This isn't necessarily overreacting to a small sample size. Crookston's season has been marked by close defeats, and challenging battles against more skilled opponents. More often than not, it's resulted in disappointment — but right now, the Pirates can smile, knowing that the promised light at the end of the tunnel has arrived.
"The amount of adversity that this team has dealt with this year, I couldn't be prouder of how they've responded," Hardy said. "They keep coming, and then they get rewarded. ... Hopefully we can keep that going here and get a little streak going into the playoffs."
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