Mar. 21—WILLMAR — The River Lakes girls hockey team has been dominated in the final period of its last three meetings against Willmar.
That was, until Saturday's Section 6A Championship.
The Cardinals have outscored the Stars 7-1 in the third during that stretch.
Willmar won again the third, but this time around, River Lakes captured a bigger prize: its first trip to state.
Senior forward Myckenzie Cremers put home the game-winner with 6 minutes, 49 seconds remaining to lift the Stars to a 3-2 victory from the Willmar Civic Center.
"To beat Willmar, it feels so good because that was our No. 1 goal this season and to go to state," Cremers said.
River Lakes was the second seed while Willmar was the top seed. The Stars avenged a 5-1 loss to the Cardinals during last season's section title game and a pair of regular-season losses this season.
"I'm just overwhelmed right now from the grit and integrity that our girls had," River Lakes co-head coach Alexis Klatt said. "It was a tough and physical game. They bared through, did their jobs and buried the puck. They came out with the 'W,' they earned it tonight."
Cremers' game-winner came on a wrist shot from the right circle in the offensive zone and was assisted by senior forward Aubrey Griffin. Cardinals sophomore goaltender Halle Mortensen had traffic in front of her, which may have shielded her view of the shot. Either way, the puck hit the back of the net.
"Brey Griffin was going down the right side and I saw Madison Garberding on the other side, and I knew she was going hard towards her," Cremers recalled. "I called for a drop pass and right there I had a good shot. I ripped it to the net.
"Honestly, I had so much adrenaline and I was so happy."
From there, the visitors skated on their heels due to penalties.
Junior defenseman Kianna Roeske was whistled for tripping with 4:36 left in the game. Just as River Lakes killed off that penalty, freshman defenseman Aubree McDonagh was sent to the box for tripping with 2:37 remaining. Late in the second power play, Willmar pulled Mortensen for a 6-on-4 advantage, but the road team did not allow the equalizer.
The Stars killed off all seven of their penalties.
"It was very stressful, but we spend a lot of time on our special teams," Klatt said. "So with the girls we were able to put on the ice, we had absolute confidence in them."
Getting off to quick starts, River Lakes was the better team on the ice through the first two periods, outshooting Willmar 19-13 with one period to go.
The Stars jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first. Getting a helper from senior forward Hannah Zimmer, Griffin beat Mortensen with a top-shelf wrist shot 5:11 into the game. Griffin and Zimmer earned assists on a goal from eighth-grade forward Sophia Hess late in the first.
Willmar didn't get going until the third. Garberding made it 2-1 when she flashed in front of the net and tapped in a pass from senior forward Bailey Olson with 11:47 left. Olson tied the game three minutes later after emerging with the puck from a battle in the corner and beating Stars eighth-grade goaltender Kaydence Roeske with a wrist shot in close.
The Cardinals put forth a valiant effort, but fell short in the end.
"They battled hard," Willmar head coach Eric Setrum said. "We know it would be a tough game and it's always tough to play someone three times in a season. (River Lakes) was fired up and came out hard, but we knew it would be like that. We never gave up and battled back in the third period; it shows the heart that those girls have."
Kaydance Roeske stopped 24 shots in net to take the win. Mortensen collected 23 saves in the loss.
The Cardinals' defense of their 2020 section title ended with a 12-7-2 record. Eight seniors skated on their home ice for the final time.
"All of the success that we're having comes from that senior group," Setrum said. "Whether they are playing or not, they are all leaders and have done such a great job to promote the program. ... They've been the heart and soul, and we have to find somebody to step into their place."
Section 6A championship
River Lakes 3,
River Lakes (13-5-2) 2 0 1 — 3
Willmar (12-7-2) 0 0 2 — 2
FIRST PERIOD — (1) RL: Aubrey Griffin (Hannah Zimmer), 5:11 ... (2) RL: Sophia Hess (Griffin, Zimmer), 15:24
SECOND PERIOD — No scoring
THIRD PERIOD — (3) W: Madison Garberding (Bailey Olson), 5:13 ... (4) W: Olson (Kessa Mara), 8:35 ... (5) RL: Myckenzie Cremers (Griffin), 10:11
GOALIE SAVES/SHOTS — River Lakes: Kaydence Roeske 24/26 ... Willmar: Halle Mortensen 23/26