Elk River’s Benton Maas (11) scores in the Elks’ 4-1 win over Section 7-AA rival Duluth East on Saturday afternoon. Credit: Peter Odney.
Ben Gustafson can finally smile.
The head coach of the Elk River boys hockey team couldn’t help but grin after his Elks downed Class AA, Section 7 rival Duluth East 4-1 in front of a raucous home crowd on Saturday afternoon.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve seen the rink filled up like this,” Gustafson said after the win. “It was an awesome environment and I think our kids thrived off that.”
After a blistering back-and-forth between the teams in the game’s initial moments, the first period deteriorated into a slogging pace, interspersed with with numerous icing calls that interrupted the game’s flow for the remainder of the first frame.
The unlikely incident that ended the lull was a controversial no-call, where Elk River was disallowed what appeared to be the game’s first goal, which turned into an odd-man rush for Duluth East (14-6-1) and resulted in a 1-0 Hounds lead.
“Ironically, they go down and score right after that,” Gustafson said. “More important than that was how we responded,” Gustafson added. “Really proud of the response.”
That response included senior forward Benton Maas knotting the game just 26 seconds later, and senior defenseman and St. Cloud State commit Nick Perbix scoring the eventual game-winner near the end of the period.
Senior forward Jax Murray and junior forward Tommy Laabs added goals in the third period to cement the win for the Elks (17-4-0), ranked No. 4 in the latest Class AA state coaches’ poll.
Maas credits the familiarity that he shares with the rest of the Elks’ 12 seniors, a group that made state tournament appearances as Peewees and Bantams.
“I think it has a lot to do with the players around me,” Maas said. “We’ve got a great group of guys that have played together a long time, so I think the chemistry is better than it has been in past years.”
Also playing a role in Maas’ comfort has been his recent commitment to the University of New Hampshire, a decision that Maas says took a weight off him.
“It was a good thing to get off my chest (and) I’m glad everything worked out with that,” Maas said. “I’m just looking forward to the rest of the year, and making it last as long as it can.”
Gustafson is also looking forward to the rest of the season, thanks in large part to the team’s veteran leadership, for spending their senior seasons in Elk River sweaters.
“This is why kids stay back to play high school hockey, for games like this,” Gustafson said. “I give a lot of credit to Benton and Nick Perbix and Jax Murray, who might have had the opportunity to leave and go and play juniors but stuck around to play with the kids they’ve grown up with.”
Nick Lanigan of Duluth East beats Elk River’s Benny Meyers on a backhand shot in the Hounds’ 4-1 loss to the Elks on Saturday. Credit: Peter Odney.