Alexis Joyce and Dani Sadek first played in the girls’ Class 2A state hockey tournament in 2010. As eighth-graders on a Lakeville North squad that made a surprise playoff run, both girls were simply “happy to be there.”

“We were just eighth-graders, and we had great seniors and leaders on the team that we really looked up to that helped us along,” Sadek said.

“On paper, we should’ve lost, but we came out with more heart and put games away,” Joyce said.

A lot changes in a few short years.

Now senior captains for the Panthers, Joyce and Sadek are the leaders who’ve helped No. 6 Lakeville North become one of the perennial powers of Class 2A. The Panthers (11-3-2, 7-0-2 South Suburban) are looking to make the state tournament for the fourth time in five years, but that’s not the final goal.

“It’s a different mind-set now,” Joyce said. “We want to win state. That’s the goal. We definitely like our chances.”

Defense leads to offense

Lakeville North faced Burnsville on Saturday, the winner taking over first place in the South Suburban.

The final result is a microcosm of the Panthers’ season thus far: Lakeville North outshot the Blaze 33-11, scored three of its four goals with its first line on the ice, and junior goaltender Abby Cooper, who has a 0.85 goals-against average, finished with her sixth shutout.

Final score: Lakeville North 4, Burnsville 0.

“Our defense, and the way we play defense, is our core,” coach Buck Kochevar said. “It helps our whole team. We get the puck out easier, it helps us transition to the other end, and it helps us put pressure [on the opponent].”

Kochevar often dresses only 13 players. He leans heavily on a four-defenseman rotation, anchored by Sadek, sophomore Katarina Seper, and the Flaherty sisters, sophomore Taylor and eighth-grader Maggie.

There’s a distinct focus on quality over quantity with the Panthers.

“It’s the same on offense,” the coach said. “Our first line is really doing a lot of our scoring, and the other two lines really play their roles really well — they are tough to score on and chip in goals when they can.”

Joyce paces the Panthers with 13 goals. She has 23 points overall, combining with fellow seniors Maddie McGlade (nine goals, 24 points) and Heidi Winiecki (10 goals, 19 points) for a potent trio.

After Sadek’s 17 points, no other Panther has more than six. They’re doing it without Christi Vetter, a top scorer from last year’s team who committed to play at Penn State. She left the program along with her younger sister and joined the Nordic ski team.

“We play with a lot of intensity, no matter what line is out there,” Sadek said. “The other lines are getting there, and everyone is just focused on doing what they need to do.”

A better ending

After missing out on the state tournament as freshmen, Sadek and Joyce watched Minnetonka take the title each of the past two years. Lakeville North finished third last year, losing to the Skippers in the semifinals.

“With the way it’s been the last couple years — we’ve been so close that we just feel like we’re ready [to win it all] this year,” Joyce said. “Whenever we’ve played any top teams this year, we’ve been right with them or beaten them.”

The Panthers beat No. 8 Lakeville South 3-0 on Dec. 19, but they’ve lost two-goal games to No. 1 Minnetonka, No. 5 Benilde-St. Margaret’s and No. 7 Hill-Murray — a tough slate of games that should have Lakeville North battle tested come playoff time.

“That’s what the focus is on,” Sadek said. “We like our chances.”