BEMIDJI, Minn. — Moorhead senior winger Nolan Westra did not know his teammates were going to wear pink ties or that Caden Howell, manager of the Moorhead boys hockey team, would go all out with a full pink suit for the bus ride to the section championship game Wednesday. They did it in honor of Westra's mother, who died in October, after fighting breast cancer since 2011.
"That was pretty special," Westra said. "It's pretty awesome the guys would come together to support me like that."
Westra opened the scoring in Wednesday's Minnesota Class 2A, Section 8 championship at Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minn. The top-seeded Spuds never looked back, topping No. 3 seed Brainerd 3-2 to head back to the state tournament.
"It's pretty indescribable," Westra said. "You work all your life to get to this stage and you finally get there, knowing that it's the last time you can ever be in this game, it's pretty special."
Nothing was decided in the first period, as neither team could find the back of the net. Both teams got prime opportunities late in the period. Mason Kruse got behind everyone for a breakaway with just over a minute remaining, but Moorhead goalie Hudson Hodges got a pad on it and knocked it away.
Moorhead winger Kyler Kleven got free in the final seconds, fired from the left circle, but Brainerd goalie Luke Saiko stopped that and the rebound attempt from Nolan Westra to keep the game scoreless.
"It's such a tight-knit group," Moorhead coach Jon Ammerman said. "They get along so well, they compete so well with one another. They're great kids. Obviously, every team is full of great kids, but they get along so well. They have a lot of fun competing."
Moorhead (21-6-1) poured on the pressure in the second period. The Spuds had a 25-second span in which they scored two goals and had another one waved off. Westra picked off a pass in the Brainerd zone and fired from the top of the slot to open the scoring with 7 minutes, 38 seconds remaining in the second.
Westra and Isaac Henkeymer-Howe thought the two had combined to push the puck by Saiko 19 seconds later, as the puck was rolling loose behind him, but the whistle blew. Thomas Horan made up for it with a wraparound six seconds later to put Moorhead up 2-0.
Horan added another just over two minutes later to make it a 3-0 game. Last season, in the section championship game at Sanford Center, Horan broke his jaw on his first shift and never returned.
"There's so many storylines to this team because of how great the kids are," Ammerman said. "For Nolan, with the year that he's had, to score the first and then Tommy with what happened to him last year, was special. Very fitting for not only the result, but for also the kids who scored."
Horan wasn't even able to drive back with the team last season as he spent the night in the hospital. Wednesday, he scored two goals and was on the bus back to Moorhead with a section title.
"It was a great feeling to get the boys going and start that spark," Horan said. "I just wanted to play my best for my teammates, go out every shift and play as hard as I can."
Brainerd (18-10) called a timeout after the third goal and grabbed back some momentum, as Kruse was able to beat Hodges with 1:59 remaining in the second. Kruse's goal was the first Moorhead had given up in the section tournament.
Brady Anderson's wrister from the right circle with traffic in front cut the Moorhead lead to 3-2 with 10:54 remaining in the third. Horan should have had a goal later in the period off a rebound, as Saiko pulled his glove back from behind the line, but that was also waived off.
Brainerd pulled their goalie for the extra attacker in the final minute, but in the closing seconds, Henkemeyer-Howe reached out to get a stick on the puck to push it out of the zone and allow the final seconds to tick off.
Last season, at Sanford Center, Moorhead lost to St. Michael-Albertville in the section championship. Wednesday was a different storyline.
"We got a bunch of guys that work hard, come to the rink, work hard and we're just determined," Westra said. "Last year losing in the section final, a bunch of us had a chip on our shoulder. We knew we wanted to get back here. We found a way to get back."
FIRST PERIOD: no scoring.
SECOND PERIOD: 1, M, Westra, 9:22. 2, M, Horan (Johnson), 9:47. 3, M, Horan (Gess), 11:57. 4, B, Kruse (W. Andres, R. Andres), 15:01.
THIRD PERIOD: 5, B, Anderson (Laber), 6:06.
SAVES: B, Saiko 9-8-10—27. M, Hodges 7-7-10—24.