The start to the Holiday season was not promising for Delano.
Black Friday saw the Tigers fall hard to Warroad, followed the next day with a listless shutout at the hands of East Grand Forks.
As the Tigers returned home from their trip north with their tail between their legs, having been outscored 12-3 and outshot 77-25 Thanksgiving weekend, they looked in the mirror and came to a simple solution.
Practice harder and grow up faster.
“Those losses kind of got to us, and we knew we would have to practice a lot harder if we wanted to get to where we thought we could be,” sophomore forward Dan Halonen said. “I think we’re a different kind of team now, and we’re having fun.”
As Halonen and fellow sophomore forward Jacob Perlich cheerfully handed off the Chicken hat - a special honor Delano reserves for players to wear while being interviewed - that dark weekend might seem to the sophomores like a different time, with a different team and different players.
Because headed into Christmas, Delano is the hottest team in Class 1A.
“This was really a big week for us, and now we’re on a bit of a roll,” Tigers coach Gerrit van Bergen said. “The guys are playing with a lot of confidence.”
Delano is unbeaten in December and surging, the height of euphoria coming Saturday afternoon in a 5-0 shocker against St. Cloud Cathedral.
Delano’s learning curve and execution have been nothing short of exceptional. Since their troubles in November, the Tigers have been scoring about four goals per game, figuring things out on the fly, and troubleshooting their way into the win column. Four of their previous five victories came in overtime, including a 2-1 win Thursday against No. 4-1A Mahtomedi, the defending state Class 1A champion.
Against No. 2-1A ranked Cathedral, Delano played structured and disciplined, using an "everybody on board’ approach to slowing down the Crusaders’ speed. Offensively, the Tigers were especially effective in the low slot where they cashed in on the greasy spots to build and maintain their lead.
The play of Halonen, who has four goals and eight points through nine games, is one factor in Delano’s growth, van Bergen said, along with fellow sophomore Perlich, who assisted on the Tigers’ first goal.
Last winter, Halonen and Perlich were playing at the Bantam level. Now they are key contributors on the varsity. Van Bergen says their quick growth is helping move the team along.
“I think understanding what this level requires is a big part of it,” van Bergern said. “The game is so different for them now than it was in Bantams. Dan had an incredible season last year, had a ton of points, and he had become accustomed to things coming to him a little bit easier. Time and space was easier, playmaking was easier, so was puck retrievals.
“Now, the game is coming more naturally to these guys, they’re figuring some things out, and it’s making our team better.”
Delano's roster is littered with mostly underclassme. Van Bergern said the 10 players who saw their first real varsity game against Warroad are different players now, and their growth shows on game nights.
“Since then, we’ve come a long way as a group, and guys are growing their game, and into their roles,” van Bergen says.
Perlich seconds that.
“Yea, it was a lot faster than what I was used to,” Perlich says. “There is a big difference in speed and physicality. It took me a minute to get into it, but we’re feeling pretty good now.”
Red-hot Delano rode its surge into the Christmas break with a 5-0 shutout victory over visiting St. Cloud Cathedral on Saturday afternoon at Delano Area Sports Arena.
Winners of seven straight, the Tigers (7-2-0), No. 10 in the latest Legacy Hockey Class 1A rankings, jumped out early with a pair of goals in the opening period, and blew the game open with three goals in the third period as No. 2-1A Cathedral (7-2-1) was left chasing the entire the way.
Since losing two games on its season-opening trip north to Warroad and East Grand Forks in November, Delano is unbeaten and averaging nearly four goals per game.
Senior goaltender Ethan Engelmann earned the shutout with 30 saves, and sophomore forward Dan Halonen led the way with a goal and two assists. Markus Kansas and Joseph McCabe also finished with two points each for Delano.
Cathedral outshot Delano 30-22.