Just when it seems like Kyle Kukkonen’s has maxed out his otherworldly game, that he can’t possibly crank his intensity up a notch, that there’s no way he can elevate his energy and enthusiasm levels, he goes and has a game like this.
This would be Thursday’s performance in a 3-2 victory against Andover, by far the most competitive game of the season for undefeated and No. 1-ranked Maple Grove (14-0-0). Sure, Kukkonen, who ranks second in the state with 55 points, scored a couple of goals. But it was the way the senior forward celebrated them — his screams of joy had a raw, Mel Gibson-in-the-movie-Braveheart element to them — that tipped off how much the game meant to him.
"I can see where it would be emotional for him," said Andover coach Mark Mannney, adding that Kukkonen's stellar performance was "typical Kukkonen" other than, "maybe the emotion after scoring was a little more animated."
Kukkonen’s extra gusto was born in part from the last time he played at the Andover Community Center, a Dec. 19, 2019 appearance the ended in grisly fashion as he suffered a broken ankle/leg after crashing into the boards. The injury ended his junior season after just seven games.
“This is where he got hurt last year, and it took a lot for him to come out here and do what he did tonight,” said Maple Grove senior goaltender Jack Weineke, who made 33 saves, the most he’s had in a single game in 13 starts this season. “We all knew in the back our head that this was a big night for him. So we wanted to go out there and get a win tonight.”
Kukkonen scored twice in the first period as the Crimson surged to a 2-0 lead before the No. 6 Huskies (13-2-0) answered with two goals in the final 70 seconds to tie it entering the intermission. Maple Grove junior forward Bennett Glad’s second-period goal proved to be the game winner. The Crimson had won all of their previous games by four or more goals, including a 5-1 triumph over Andover on Feb. 4.
While his most obvious attributes are his speed and wicked shot, Kukkonen’s tenacious defense and non-stop hustle were on full display Thursday night, too. He spent much of the night matching up against Andover senior center Garrett Schifsky, a 41-point scorer who ignites much of the Huskies’ offense. Kukkonen’s in-your-face defense helped limit Schifsky’s impact to a single assist, just the third time this season Schifsky hasn’t scored two or more points in a game (he was also held to a single assist in a 5-1 loss to Maple Grove on Feb. 4).
“He had this game last year hanging over his head because … you know what happened here last year,” Maple Grove coach Todd Bergland said about Kukkonen. “You come into this game here … and you think about what happened last year. I’m sure it was on his mind.”
Kukkonen has shown no signs of any lasting physical effects from his broken leg. In fact, Bergland insists his star forward, who was a rehabbing maniac as he recovered from the injury, is stronger and faster than he’s ever been. Kukkonen said his improved speed, strength and scoring — he also led the Upper Midwest High School Elite League in scoring the fall — aren’t necessarily related to his injury.
“I don’t think it has anything to do with getting injured,” he said. “The time in the gym and on the rink pays off, and if you work hard it will show on the ice.”
Kukkonen, who has committed to play at Michigan Tech, admitted his intent Thursday night was to exercise his Andover Community Center demons.
“You don’t forget something like that, that’s something I’ll always remember,” he said. “There was a lot of motivation coming into this one. It felt good to pop a few early.”