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Minnesota hockey, from ponds to pros.

In NAHL title game, defense, depth and a pair of stars stood out

Hockey, we all know, isn’t an individual sport. Seldom is a game determined by a one-on-one matchup, with teams often rolling four forward lines and three defensive pairs throughout a game. Star power can take over, but more often you’ll see a depth-focused approach – plus solid goaltending – determine the winner.

Tuesday at Fogerty Arena in Blaine, defense, depth and goaltending ruled the night as the Aberdeen (S.D.) Wings edged the Fairbanks (Alaska) Ice Dogs 2-1 to win the North American Hockey League’s Robertson Cup championship. The Wings relied on 27 saves by goalie Matt Vernon and a relentless defensive effort that stymied the Ice Dogs’ attack to win their first NAHL championship.

Also on display for each team in front of a crowd of 1,543 – including Gophers coach Bob Motzko and St. Cloud State’s Brett Larson, among many others – were a couple of college prospects that stood out.

For Fairbanks, that was center Jonny Sorenson, a former St. Louis Park standout who has committed to Minnesota. The 6-1, 175-pounder showed off his smooth skating and always seemed to be around the puck. Although Sorenson didn’t register a point Tuesday, he finished with nine goals and six assists in 10 playoff games, showing a scoring ability that could come in handy in Dinkytown.

“Great, great,’’ Fairbanks coach Trevor Stewart said of Sorenson’s play in the tournament. “He’s high energy, high skill, and he wants the puck on his stick.’’

Sorenson was the NAHL’s rookie of the year after 17 goals and 39 assists in the regular season, and Stewart saw a player growing.

“Just like all our players, he’s gotten better. He wants it,’’ Stewart said. “He’s one of the first guys on the ice and one of the last guys to leave. Most of our players have that mentality.’’

The man keeping Sorenson off the scoreboard Tuesday was Vernon, whose father, Mike, was a standout goalie in the NHL for 17 years and won the Conn Smythe Trophy for the Stanley Cup-winning Detroit Red Wings in 1997. Matt Vernon, who has committed to Colorado College, was the Wings’ workhorse this season, going 40-9-3 in 52 starts. He had a 1.94 goals-against average and .934 save percentage, earning NAHL goalie of the year honors.

In the playoffs, Vernon allowed three goals total in the final three games, all elimination contests, and he was named MVP of the tournament.

“It’s everything we’ve been striving for since we’ve gotten here,’’ Vernon said after the game. “There’s nothing better.’’

Vernon was at his best early in the game, when he stopped 14 Ice Dogs shots in the first period. After Fairbanks tied the score 1-1 in the second, Vernon flashed his glove on a solid save on a Sorenson shot from the slot. Aberdeen took a 2-1 lead on Joey Strada’s goal with 14 seconds left in the second, and the Wings defense took over in the third by holding Fairbanks to three shots on goal in the period. One was a memorable stop by Vernon, who slid across the crease with 3:20 to play to preserve the lead.

“We were on the wrong side of the bounces,’’ Stewart said. “We had the puck a lot, but they always made us skate through five players.’’

The last challenge Vernon and Co. faced was a Fairbanks power play with 1:24 left. The Ice Dogs pulled their goalie for a 6-on-4 advantage, but Aberdeen’s penalty killers kept flipping the puck down to the other end.

“I knew we were going to get it done,’’ Wings forward Jon Bendorf said. “We had the best PK in the league the whole year.’’

That paired well with the best goalie, and the result was a league championship.

“When it hit zero, I can’t even explain it,’’ Aberdeen coach Scott Langer said. “I went numb.’’

Former Wild teammates Niederreiter, Coyle mix it up

Last week, in previewing the NHL’s Eastern Conference final, Carolina Hurricanes winger Nino Neiderreiter looked forward to playing against Charlie Coyle, his former Wild teammate now with the Boston Bruins.

“I’m actually pretty happy to play against him,” Niederreiter said told the Star Tribune’s Sarah McLellan, “and it’s definitely going to be a fun one.”

After Tuesday night, one might wonder if both players feel the same way.

Coyle and Niederreiter – both traded away during the season -- mixed it up a bit late in the first period of Game 3. After Niederreiter poked at the puck after Bruins goalie Tuuka Rask, Coyle took exception and a wrestling match ensued behind the Boston goal. Coyle’s helmet came off during the dust-up, and Niederreiter shot him a glare afterward. Coyle received a two-minute minor penalty for roughing.

Boston went on to win 2-1 to take a commanding 3-0 series lead.

NHL Scoreboard

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