NEW ULM - Last year, the New Ulm Eagles boy's hockey team saw their season close with a 3-2 loss to Hutchinson on the Section 3A semifinals.
This postseason, the Eagles are hoping to take their journey two steps further in the Section 3A tournament.
New Ulm, seeded third, will face Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato at 7 p.m. Thursday on the regulation size rink at the New Ulm Civic Center.
"We played Litchfield twice this season," New Ulm coach Erik Setterholm said. "We beat them twice (2-1 and 5-1). It's never an easy game."
Setterholm said that the Dragons will be tough to beat because of their goaltending.
"They have a good goaltender (Braden Wahl, 754 saves) and in the playoffs a hot goalie can be the difference," Setterholm said.
He thinks that his team has steadily played better.
If New Ulm wins Thursday, it would probably face second-seeded Willmar at 8 p.m. Saturday at Gustavus Adolphus College in a semifinal game.
"Willmar beat us 4-3 in Willmar during the season," Setterholm said. "But we have Litchfield coming to New Ulm (on Thursday) and we need to focus on that game.
RECORD NOT A SURPRISE: Setterholm said that his team's 15-10 mark is about where he thought its would be.
"Looking at our schedule, I was thinking that we could be a few games above .500 and that was maybe a little better than I thought we would be," Setterholm said.
From game one (a 6-2 nonconference loss to Orono) until Thursday's regular season closing game with Fairmont, Setterholm said that the biggest improvement he has seen in his team's play on offense and defense.
"I really cannot pin-point one thing," he said. "We have done everything a lot better now than we were doing in the first 10 games."
Going into the playoffs, Setterholm said that he does not have any concerns.
"These players know that if we do not show up things can go wrong like last year against Hutchinson (in the sectional semi-finals), we woke up late in the game," he said. "We were trying to play catch-up and once that final buzzer goes that is it."
QRF RANKS NEW ULM LOW: The latest QRF rankings for Section 3A gave Luverne at 23-0-1 first followed by Willmar (9-10) Hutchinson (11-11) and then New Ulm.
"I had not even looked at the (QRF) rankings," Setterholm said. "We did do a section coaches meeting last Sunday here in New Ulm and all of the (section) coaches were here with the exception of Worthington. We went around the room and each team stated their case for what seed each team should get."
LUVERNE TOP TEAM: Luverne is currently the only unbeaten boy's high school hockey team in Minnesota at 23-0-1.
The Cardinals have had 14 games where they have had "running time" in the third period with a six-goal lead or more. They are ranked 11th in Class "A".
"I cannot remember any team in the section being unbeaten," Setterholm said. "And the last team that entered the state tournament unbeaten was Hermantown. It is tough thing to do to be unbeaten at this point of the season. You can say what you want about strength of schedule, it is still tough to win all of those games."
Setterholm said that being unbeaten can be a double-edged sword.
"First you are playing with a tremendous amount of confidence but in the back of your heads you hope that your kids do not feel the pressure of we can't lose a game now in the sections," he said.
Of New Ulm's 10 losses, five have come to ranked teams.
CARDS HAVE TOP SCORERS: Luverne is led by a sophomore and an eighth-grader in scoring. Sophomore Chaz Smedsrud has 32 goals and 44 assists for 76 points. Eighth-grader Jaxon Nelson has tallied 26 goals and 33 assists for 59 points. Nelson also runs the power play for Luverne.
The Cardinals have the top six scorers in the section - just two are seniors.
New Ulm is led by juniors Jon Kopacek with 21 goals and Brandon Helget with 20 goals. Senior Judd Davis leads the team with 36 points (16-20).