Feb. 17—To say the Superior boys hockey team has been skating on thin ice this season is a cliche, but it's an accurate cliche.
From starting the year a month late due to COVID-19 restrictions to avoiding a potential season-ending quarantine to rallying for victories in their previous two playoff games, the Spartans have survived various pitfalls to end up where they have been more than any other Wisconsin school: at the state tournament.
"Entering the school year, I didn't think we'd be here with what was going on in the world," Spartans coach Jason Kalin said, "but I'm super happy that we're here with an opportunity to do something that we haven't done in a few years."
Second-seeded Superior (10-5) faces third-seeded Lakeland Union (13-4) in a Division 2 state tournament semifinal at 7 p.m. Thursday at Spooner Civic Center. The winner advances to the championship game at 9:30 a.m. Saturday in Wisconsin Rapids.
It's the Spartans' first state berth since winning a record 13th title in their record 37th tournament in 2015.
"The season has been full of surprises, but I couldn't have asked for anything better," senior goaltender Jamin Durfee said. "I'm just glad I got to play for the high school. Even though we had half a season, had four games canceled and it was a pretty rough year, I'm glad it happened."
This team reminds Kalin of that 2015 squad, which entered the tournament with a losing record and left as champions.
"In 2015, maybe we had a little more top-end talent, but our team chemistry is spot-on with what we had then," Kalin said. "There are a lot of similarities where we're at mentally. If you ask most coaches, you want to go into a playoff run with a team that is chilling in the locker room and on the ice rather than a bunch of guys with a whole lot of (individual) talent. I see them working together every day, and that's what we had in 2015."
Superior chose to play in Division 2 before the first two-class field last year, but no one on the team is diminishing the achievement.
"No one is looking down at it being D2 because there's a lot of great competition in both (classes)," Durfee said. "Winning D2 would be as big of an accomplishment as winning D1 in my eyes."
Durfee posted three shutouts during the Spartans' current seven-game win streak and is responsible as anyone for the team's success.
"He's been playing amazing," junior forward Carter Kalin said. "He really keeps us in those games. I don't understand it, but some of the saves he makes are just crazy. That gives us momentum when he makes those big saves and makes us want to take it the other way and score some goals for him."
That's what Durfee did in the Sectional 1 final. Superior trailed Rice Lake 2-0 after two periods before rallying to tie in the final minute of regulation and win in overtime, but not before the 5-foot-7-inch Durfee made several key saves.
"I do my best to keep the team in it," Durfee said. "If I make a couple big saves (on a shorthanded situation) that will keep everyone in the game. My responsibility as a goalie is to give the guys the best chance they have at winning."
Coach Kalin has spent more time with his goalies and defensemen this season and has seen Durfee mature as the year went on.
"I see a kid with confidence," he said. "He's our best kid in the classroom and has been the backbone of our team all year long. I think he's comfortable and having fun."
Durfee will have even more fun if his younger brother, junior defenseman Trevor, returns for the first time since breaking his wrist Jan. 21 against Duluth East. He has been medically cleared to play but is wearing a cast.
"He wants to play really bad," Jamin Durfee said. "Not many people can say they played (in a state tournament) with their younger brother. This is my last year playing hockey with him, so it would mean a lot.
"I put a lot of trust in him, which is ironic because we are brothers."
That could be said of the entire team right now. Despite the distance needed to be maintained during a pandemic, this group of Spartans has drawn closer together and is having fun.
"I'm having a great time right now," Carter Kalin said. "All the boys are clicking together, and we're working hard. We're just happy to be on the ice.
"We're not scared to lose; we're not worried about it. Coming into the locker room after the second period of the Rice Lake game, none of the boys seemed worried about losing. They were all focused on winning."