Posted 2/22/22

__________________ The River Falls High School Wildcats boys hockey team trailed by two goals at the end of the first period of their first-round playoff game on Thursday, Feb. 17. Throughout the …

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The River Falls High School Wildcats boys hockey team trailed by two goals at the end of the first period of their first-round playoff game on Thursday, Feb. 17. Throughout the second, third and overtime periods, the Wildcats battled back to earn a 4-3 home playoff win in double overtime to advance to the second round.

The first-round playoff game was a Thursday night matchup between the hometown River Falls Wildcats and the visiting Altoona co-op RAMs hockey organization. The Wildcats went into the game as the #3 seed in the Division 2 bracket and Altoona entered as the #6 seed.

The RAMs wasted no time getting out to an early lead. Just over 30 seconds after puck drop, junior defenseman Isaiah Martin scored an even-strength goal from just inside the blue line to take a 1-0 lead over River Falls. RAM juniors Elijah Schmidt and Evan Gustafson received assist credits for the goal.

With just over 11 minutes left in the first period, the RAMs added another goal to take a 2-0 lead. This time it was the aforementioned Schmidt, who scored an evenstrength goal on a rebound shot. At the end of the first period, River Falls trailed by two goals to the underdog RAMs. Wildcats head coach Cam Wilken spoke about the locker room conversation between the first and second periods.

“We sat back and had that conversation in the locker room like, ‘Hey, if we keep doing what we’re doing here, we’re going to be done,’” Wilken recalled from the locker room conversation. “I said we needed to tighten it up.”

Tighten it up they did. With nine minutes to go in the second period, River Falls junior forward Teddy Norman scored an even-strength goal with an assist from junior forward Matthew Marsollek. The goal made it 2-1 in favor of the RAMs and gave River Falls momentum in the closing minutes of the second period.

Despite being short-handed due to a penalty, Norman again found the back of the net. This time it was with less than four minutes to play in the second. His second goal of the period tied the game 2-2 and completely changed the momentum of the game. Wilken spoke about his team’s play in the second period.

“We completely outclassed them in the second period,” Wilken said. “I don’t remember exactly what the shots were, but they had under six shots, it was probably four. We had two good attacks that ended in goals.”

During the intermission between the second and third periods, the RAMs began to make adjustments. Wilken said the opposition came ready to play to begin the third period and got a quick goal to take a 3-2 lead. RAM junior forward Evan Eckes scored the unassisted goal to give the visitors the lead.

Just when it looked like River Falls may be going home in the first round, one of the two captains took the game over. Wildcat junior forward Wyatt Bell scored with under seven minutes to play in regulation. The aforementioned Norman assisted Bell’s goal and knotted the game up 3-3.

Wilken spoke about what turned the game around, particularly in that locker room conversation between the first and second periods, which he used to credit the offensive spark in the second and third periods.

“I try my best to stay positive, but we got after them a little bit,” Wilken said. “I said, ‘If you guys want to be done for the year and get upset at home, then keep doing what we’re doing. But if we want to go where our story should end, we need to play better in our zone and take advantages of the chances.’” While some coaches would use a majority of the intermission time to speak to the team, Wilken takes a different approach. He will make his comments, try to get his athletes going and then let the studentathlete leaders speak to the team without the coaches present.

“We get out of there and let them talk,” Wilken said. “Wyatt Tschida our captain usually has some things to say. Most of our leaders are juniors because we only have three seniors. The attitude in the locker room was, ‘Hey, let’s not send our seniors out like this. We need to step up and be a team and give them the sendoff they deserve, hopefully in Madison.’” Wilken’s message to the team – as well as whatever the captains said to the rest of the roster behind closed doors – certainly made an impact. It jumpstarted the Wildcats’ offense and helped force what became double overtime.

It was once again Norman, the River Falls junior who scored the game-winning goal approximately five minutes into double overtime. Norman finished the game with a hat trick as well as an assist. His four-point performance helped propel River Falls to the second round of the Division 2 playoffs.

The Wildcats advance to face a familiar foe. They will play on the road against Somerset on Tuesday, Feb. 22, in the sectional semi-final. It won’t be their first meeting of the season. On Friday, Feb. 4, they played the Spartans and lost 6-2. Wilken stated that he thinks the second time around could go differently for his Wildcats.

“They’re a good hockey club, are pretty deep, are superfast and can shoot,” Wilken said. “Defensively they struggled a little bit when you get pucks behind them. Their goalie is good at making the first save but gives up some rebounds and I think we can take advantage of that. Our big thing is we have to play much better defensively than we did a couple of weeks ago. We weren’t working very hard and they exposed us. If we turn that around and have an effort game, I think it can go the other way.”

River Falls is going to have to put together three complete periods of good hockey if they’re going to upset the second- seeded Somerset Spartans. That sectional semi-final game will be at the Somerset Ice Area with puck drop scheduled for 7 p.m.