Certain games require chin straps to be adjusted extra tight. We're talking about matchups best played with heavy duty shoulder pads — the bulkier the better. Smelling salts and extra ice packs are a must.
Rivalry games. The state has several of them, most famously Roseau versus Warroad, White Bear Lake versus Hill-Murray, Lakeville South versus Lakeville North, et all.
Mankato East has a ready-made rival, too, in Mankato West. The Cougars and Scarlets play intense, hard-hitting, competitive games. Always. In an unexpected twist, however, Mankato East has become part of an additional, less-obvious but equally fierce rivalry over the past six-plus seasons.
“This team almost always plays us tough,” Mankato East coach Adam Fries said after Saturday after the Cougars beat Northfield 6-4 at the Northfield Ice Arena. “It’s almost a silent rivalry.”
Fries is right in that Mankato East versus Northfield doesn’t scream blood feud to casual observers. The teams have played out of separate conferences for most of their lifespans, don’t have much of a playoff history and didn’t start meeting regularly, in recent times, since the 2014-15 season.
Despite that lack of rivalry pedigree, matchups between the Cougars and Raiders have all the trappings of the state’s better-known slugfests. They have been highly charged, ultra-competitive affairs typically decided by a goal or two. Saturday’s game fit the profile, as the outcome was in doubt right up to the final buzzer — Mankato East’s Jacob Kanzenbach slid the puck into an empty net with six seconds left for the final margin.
East’s victory was just its second over Northfield in 10 meetings since 2014-15, when the teams, both members of the Big 9 Conference, started playing at least once in the regular season.
“It seems like it has always been a really close game, but they’ve always come through and beat us,” said Mankato East senior Layten Liffrig who scored twice on Saturday. “So that’s huge to get that one against them.”
Northfield doesn’t always win. Three seasons ago, as a sophomore, Liffrig scored the winning goal with 9 seconds remaining as the Cougars snapped a six-game losing skid against Northfield. His two first-period goals Saturday helped stake Mankato East to a 3-1 lead. He leads the Cougars with 13 goals and 28 points and has 80 goals and 165 points in his four-year career.
“He’s really turned it up the last few weeks,” Fries said about Liffrig. “I really thought the Dodge County game (a 4-3 loss on Feb. 13) was the day his maturity changed overnight. He’s right where we want him to be.”
Fries said Liffrig has added a physical presence to his game (he dished out a couple of big hits Saturday). Liffrig said he is continually honing his defense (he was on the ice for most of the tension-filled final minutes).
“You can never be good enough in the D zone,” he said. “That’s how you start your offense. Just getting pucks out and going to work.”
Special teams have played a major role in this sleeper rivalry, too, given that many games have had overstuffed penalty boxes for long stretches. Games such as the one earlier this season, won 3-2 by Northfield. There were 15 penalties for 36 minutes in that one. The teams combined for just six penalties on Saturday, but one of them was a 5-minute major for boarding called on Mankato East’s Daniel Bequette. The penalty was called in the second-period, just after Northfield (7-3-1) had scored twice to tie it at 3-3. Shae Gavin scored shorthanded and Mankato East held the lead the rest of the way.
“We know we always have to have the special teams going when we play them,” said Liffrig, whose second goal, a wicked one-timer from the right face-off circle, came on a power play. “The past couple of games it seems like we are always in the box, or they are, too.”
Liffrig’s decision to return for his senior season rather than to pursue opportunities with junior- or AAA-level teams solidified East’s status as a favorite, along with Dodge County, to reach the state tournament out of Section 1A.
“Huge to the team,” Gavin said. “He’s obviously a huge offensive factor.”
That Liffrig, selected to Legacy Hockey's Preseason All-State Team, has added some considerable grit to his game only adds to his effectiveness, given that the No. 9-1A Cougars (9-2-0) have had just two blowout victories all season.
“I look at our team right now and I feel like we have more gritty games than we should,” Fries said. “We’re a better team than a lot of these scores reflect. Every year we seem to be playing like this, and in the last three years and we have made it to the tournament twice.
“We have a good memory of these games and how to play them when it comes to playoff time, so hopefully that pays off again.”
Memories that will include the scheduled March 4 showdown with Mankato West that could determine the Big 9 Conference champion. And, of course, the season's two meetings with new, secret rival Northfield.