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Gritty trumps pretty

By Loren Nelson, 01/20/21, 3:45PM CST

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Defending Class 2A champion Hill-Murray at its best when it's on the grind


Hill-Murray goaltender Nick Erickson is off to a 2-0 start in his first season as the Pioneers' starter. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com

Hill-Murray players don’t spend a lot of time working on no-look, behind-the-back passes. Or lacrosse-style goals originated from behind the net. Or any other type of over-the-top trickery, for that matter.

At least not when Bill Lechner, in his 23rd season guiding the Pioneers, is in charge of the whistle.

No, Lechner’s practices are, by design, decidedly drab.

“The very first practice, even though it was January 4th instead of November 9th, we start in our own end,” Lechner said about the defending state Class 2A champion Pioneers’ unceremonious kick-off to the twice-delayed season. “Everything starts in our own end. Tomorrow we’ll go right back to our own end and start again.”

Hill-Murray beat Chaska 3-1 on Tuesday, outshooting the Hawks 54-15 while allowing only a handful of decent scoring chances. Yet, as Lechner said, the agenda for Wednesday’s practice is the same as it ever was. Defense first.

“We talk about getting back to the house, the area between the dots and the crease,” said senior first-line center and co-captain Jared Jensen. “We work on going from the middle out, keeping our butts pointed toward the tendy (goaltender) and going from inside to out.”

The intricacies of Pioneers’ practices may be sleep-inducing to outsiders, but they are the lifeblood of deep playoff runs. Lechner, who has 533 career victories and two state titles in his 29 seasons overall as a head coach, knows this. So each season he goes about the business of getting his players to buy into mastering the details required to dominate the defensive zone.

Jensen, for one, is on board.

“D zone is our main focus,” he said after notching an assist in Tuesday’s victory that moved the Pioneers to 2-0. “Our motto is work on our D done and go out from there. That has been creating offense for us, and we’ve been getting good chances.”

Hill-Murray, which returns star defensemen Joe Palodichuk, Matthew Fleischhacker and Axel Begley, opened the season Saturday with a 2-1 victory over defending Class 1A champion Mahtomedi in which the Pioneers outshot the Zephyrs 32-16. Standout Mahtomedi goaltender Ben Dardis was brilliant in goal, just as Chaska sophomore Carter Wishart was on Tuesday. 

“We hope to execute on a few more of those shot attempts,” Jensen said.

Better execution on offense will come. Lechner is sure of it. But it’s difficult for a team to score if it can’t get the puck out of its own end. So the drudgery of working on defensive tactics continues. 

“It’s hard work, it’s grinding, they don’t love it,” Lechner said. “But hopefully we’ll have success down the road because of it.”


Senior captain Matthew Fleischhacker, left, is a key member of Hill-Murray's veteran defensive corps. Photo by Loren Nelson, LegacyHockeyPhotography.com

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