Viking boys knock off Tigers

NB hockey falls in second round

While the North Branch boys hockey team was able to edge out Pine City/Rush City during the first round of Section 5A play last Tuesday, the Vikings hit a wall in the second round with top-ranked Chisago Lakes, falling 13-0 to the Wildcats.

During the first game against the Dragons, ninth-seeded North Branch grabbed an early lead with the help of senior Joey Courtright, who scored with less than a minute to go off passes from junior Nate Runberg and senior Damon Holcomb.

The home team, seeded eighth, soon responded halfway through the second period with a goal from junior T.J. Gross. Sophomore Colby Pavelka and senior Casey Lucht recorded the assists on the play. The Dragons then took a 2-1 lead seven minutes later when sophomore Coltin Malchow assisted senior Colton Brant on the go-ahead goal.

But North Branch came out fighting in the final period. Ninth-grader Nick Fairbanks put away the game-tying goal just five minutes in off passes from sophomore Brandon Waldo and junior Connor Martineau. Fairbanks struck again with less than 1:30 to go in the game with the winning score. Martineau earned the assist.

Senior Tyler Byrkit put on a show in goal with 44 saves, while Pine City’s goalie earned 17 saves.

Head coach Matt Cottingham said Byrkit has been a stronghold all season.

“Tyler is a gamer,” he said. “This shows what he is capable of doing when situations are tough. He’s just a gamer who makes the saves he should and then makes some plays he shouldn’t.”

The Dragons closed their season at 5-20-1 overall, 3-8-1 in the Two Rivers Conference and 2-8 in Section 5A.

Next for the Vikings was the No. 1 seed, Chisago Lakes, who came out with a purpose in the first period by rattling off three goals to earn an early cushion.

The Wildcats were unstoppable, recording five goals in both the second and third periods to advance in section play.

Byrkit was busy between the posts again, recording 46 saves on the night.

Cottingham said he was proud of the Vikings’ performance against the elite team.

“We knew it was going to be an uphill battle, they were top seed for a reason, so we took that underdog route and said we were going to give them everything they had,” Cottingham said. “They just wore us down with their depth by playing three or four lines.”

Overall, Cottingham said his squad fought through adversity this season but never gave up.

“Obviously it was a tough season, but the kids are warriors and they battled through every game and every period,” he said. “Don’t judge them on the wins and losses, but judge on the character they build and how they appear on the ice. I’m proud to coach that team and can’t wait to coach the majority of the kids next year.”

The Vikings will graduate four seniors: Byrkit, forward Joey Courtright and defensemen Holcomb and Brandon Timm.

Cottingham gave both defensive players credit in being leaders by example.

“Holcomb is one of the improved defensemen,” he said. “He goes along and does his business, doesn’t complain, wants to get better and holds himself accountable — you can’t ask for anything more of the kid. And Brandon led by example, is one of the hardest workers on the ice and never gave up. He was out there every PK, power-play and just has a lot of talent.”

As for Courtright, the forward missed much of the season but still played a key role.

“Joey is a good leader and puts the team before himself,” Cottingham said. “He missed a lot of time with concussion issues and illness, but every time he could, he came to the game and cheered on his teammates — he was a great offensive threat every time he was on the ice.”

The Vikings finished the year at 4-22 overall, 0-11 in the Mississippi 8 Conference and 2-8 in Section 5A.

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