Frustrating loss puts Wildcat boys' hockey at No. 2 seed

By Joe Peine
Posted 2/7/24

The River Falls Wildcats lost to the Rice Lake Warriors by a score of 3-2 at Wildcat Centre in River Falls on Thursday. It was a frustrating loss for a team the was in the driver’s seat for a …

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Frustrating loss puts Wildcat boys' hockey at No. 2 seed


The River Falls Wildcats lost to the Rice Lake Warriors by a score of 3-2 at Wildcat Centre in River Falls on Thursday. It was a frustrating loss for a team the was in the driver’s seat for a one-seed going into the playoffs.

The Wildcats controlled the tempo of the game early with multiple shots on goal. Teamwork and puck handling skills looked crisp as stacked up opportunities made Rice Lake’s goalie keep working.

With 9:30 remaining, the Wildcats rattled off their seventh and eighth shots on goal and it wasn’t even mid period. The ninth, 10th and 11th followed over the next 90 seconds, and at 7:56, the Wildcats scored the first goal of the game. Wyatt Hopeful was assisted by Jack Rock and Lars Briese.

River Falls continued to spend most of their time in the offensive zone. Around the 6:30 mark, what would’ve been another call got cited as high sticking and negated the score.

The period played pretty clean, but at 4:40 the Wildcats incurred a 2:00 roughing penalty giving Rice lake an advantage. That didn’t stop the Rappels from driving into the offensive zone and placing two consecutive shots on goal. It started with Hunter Rappel outskating multiple defenders and flipping it deftly at the net. Then Mason Rappel followed it up putting another quick shot on the goaltender, but no joy was had on either attempt.

Ultimately, the penalty kill was successful, and the Wildcats came back to full strength.

As the clock ticked down under 2:00, play seemed to even out between the teams, but the score would remain 1-0 at the end of the first period. The final tally of shots for the opening frame was Wildcats 18, Rice Lake 8.

The second period opened as a continuation of the first. The Warriors looked to be getting outskated, and River Falls kept putting shots on goal.

Less than 3:00 later, the puck was lazily floating into the Wildcats’ offensive zone and Rice Lake’s goalie moved out to intercept it, but misjudged the speed of jack Rock who was closing on the puck. It was a costly mistake for the away team as Rock got behind him with control and slid it into the open net. He was assisted in the effort by Hoepfl and Ben Johnson

As the period progressed, the Warriors got a couple of nice looks at the net, including one breakaway, but Danny came up with the stop each time.

At midperiod, Rice Lake was assessed a minor penalty for roughing giving the Wildcats an opportunity on the power play. Unfortunately, that’s when the Warriors caught a break on an accidental assist by River Falls and they put the puck into the net to make it 2-1 on the shorthanded goal.

As the Warriors came back to full strength, the momentum in the game seemed to have shifted. The Wildcats looked like they were playing on their heels, and Rice Lake became the aggressor.

With the clock approaching the 4:00 mark, an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty put River Falls back on the penalty kill, and they were forced to play the next two minutes shorthanded once again. The home team successfully navigated the temporary loss of a player, but after coming back to full strength, the Warriors pushed into their D-zone and scored on a one timer in front of the next that hit pads and snuck in anyways.

The period ended shortly thereafter, but the damage was done as it was all knotted up going into the break. The two second period goals by the visiting team were especially hard to swallow because they did that on only six shots on goal compared to 17 by the Wildcats.

The third period had almost no sooner begun than a slapshot by the Warriors out near the blue line went in the net, and they took a 3-2 lead with 15:45 remaining.

All the Warriors had to do is play defense and run out the clock, but the Wildcats weren’t making it easy on them. At 9:00, the shots on goal margin for the period was trending in the same direction it had been all game; River Falls had control at 10 to Rice Lake’s four.

With the clock running under 3:00, the Warriors got a tripping penalty. The Wildcats took the opportunity to pull their goalie and go full up tempo slamming shot after shot at the goaltender, but to no avail. At 2:19, the Warriors gained possession and play was stopped.

Thus, River Falls went into the final 2:00 and change with a six on four advantage after pulling their goalie in a last-ditch attempt to tie it up and push the game into extras. They did an excellent job at controlling the puck and continued to manufacture shots on goal while maintaining possession.

With 1:00 remaining in regulation, the Rice Lake goaltender finally managed to cover it up after taking a beating. The Warriors used this opportunity to take a timeout to rest their best players and keep the same four guys out there instead of changing lines.

The Warriors managed to ice the puck with 0:35 seconds remaining giving River Falls one last opportunity to score a goal. Rice Lake came back to full strength, iced the puck and the game went to a faceoff with 0:05 left for the home team to get a shot off, but ultimately, they came up short.

Head Coach Cam Wilken says that he liked their game coming into this, and he still thinks they have a really good hockey team, but their heads were anywhere but in River Falls on Thursday night.

“We didn't show up in the second and third period. We stopped skating and tried to do everything ourselves instead of working as a team,” Wilken said. “They have a good goal tender. That was part of our thing, we can't give them any chances. We were feeling good after the first period, but this was the same thing that happened the first time we played them. We just didn't show up for half the game and we got killed.”

Wilken says they will go back to work this week watching tape and making every effort to clean things up before the postseason, which is right around the corner.

Speaking of the playoffs, the seeding meeting happened on Sunday. Before their loss against Rice Lake on Thursday, they would likely have gotten the one-seed going into the Division 2 playoffs. As it is, they ended up with the two-seed.

The Wildcats will still get home ice advantage for the first two games of the postseason, they will just be against harder opponents. If they win both of these games, they will advance to the sectional final in Somerset.

With this loss, the Wildcats are now 10-12 on the season as a whole and 3-9 within the Big Rivers Conference, which is a mix of D1 and D2 schools. With the postseason fast approaching, the Wildcats have just two games remaining in what will be their final week of the regular season. Both will come on the road beginning on Tuesday at 7:30 when they travel to Eau Claire North and then finish up on Thursday in Menomonie at 7 p.m.

boys' hockey, River Falls Wildcats, Big Rivers