The first and last minutes of periods weren’t kind to Benilde-St. Margaret’s last season.
Downright disastrous, in fact.
The way Red Knights coach Ken Pauly figures it, his team could have won four or five more games last season had it shored up its defense or generated some timely goal scoring in those crucial , momentum-turning stretches.
So when Hermantown’s Zam Plante scored in the closing seconds of the third period Friday night to beat Benilde-St. Margaret’s, it was an uh-oh, here-we-go-again moment for Pauly and the Red Knights.
“That was that's what broke our back last season, and yesterday, too,” Pauly said on Saturday after Benilde-St. Margaret's beat Eden Prairie 3-2 on a late Tristan Sarsland goal in the second round of the Champions Cup at the St. Louis Park Rec Center. “I mean, it's a big thing for us. One of the factors we need for success is we need to be a plus in the first and last minute of periods.”
Sarsland’s goal, set up by a feed from Drew Stewart, came with 32 seconds remaining and put an oversized plus in Pauly’s all-import ledger. Oh, and it also secured a victory over an Eden Prairie team that looks remarkably formidable despite losing a bus load of high-end seniors from last season’s state Class 2A championship squad.
Sarsland, a senior defenseman who is likely to appear on the short list of Mr. Hockey candidates, plays a lot like some of those elite-level Eagles seniors from last season, guys like Luke Mittelstadt and Mason Langenbrunner, each of whom are Division I commits and NHL Draft picks.
“My goal is to just slow down the game for everybody, make it easier for everyone to do their job,” said Sarsland, grandson of Tony Sarsland, the retired Elk River coaching legend. “And to pitch in offensively and lead by example.”
Sounds like a big check list. Especially for someone still recovering from surgery this fall to repair a fractured leg. Pauly estimates Sarsland, who de-committed from Colorado College after the program underwent a coaching change, is operating at about 90 percent.
Still, the puck-rushing Sarsland at 90 percent is better than 90 percent of the state’s defensemen. He also scored in the first period to tie it at 1-1.
“Yeah, that’s the thing with him,” Pauly said about Sarsland's effectiveness. “He’s got some percentage points to give.”
The Red Knights, No. 5 in Legacy Hockey’s Class 2A preseason rankings, are 2-1-0 after playing three of the state’s most high-powered programs in Hill-Murray, Hermantown and Eden Prairie. With Sarsland and forward Adam Marshall, a senior who is also likely to be in the Mr. Hockey discussion, Benilde-St. Margaret’s has some high-end veterans to go with a superb sophomore class featuring Stewart, Ben Norris, Michael Risteau and Brendan McMorrow, each of whom rank in the team’s top five in scoring.
“It’s great having all those young guys,” Sarsland said. “They bring the energy on the bench and everywhere else, too. They’re scoring goals … it’s awesome.”
They're preventing goals, too.
Mason McElroy, another sophomore, made his varsity debut in goal after winning a state Bantam AA championship with Wayzata last season. After allowing two goals on nine shots in the first period, he was flawless the rest of the way, finishing with 21 saves on 23 shots.
McElroy’s best work came during a stretch late in the second period when he made a couple of clutch saves on close-range shots just minutes after stopping Eden Prairie sophomore Connor Crowley on a breakaway.
“He was a little nervous for his first varsity start, but he started playing great,” Sarsland said. “He made that awesome breakaway save, and he kept us in in the game the whole time.”
Eden Prairie, which got two goals from Jake Luloff, had no shortage of scoring chances mixed among its abundance of grit and tenacity. The Eagles (0-2-0) started the season ranked No. 16.
"We've got a ways to go, but you can't be upset with our effort,” Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith said. “I feel like we hold up pretty well (against the state's top teams)."