Before the season started, the Park Rapids-Menahga-Nevis-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley boys hockey team faced adversity.
The Panthers scored only 79 goals last season with 57 of those against Red Lake Falls (24 in three games), Bagley/Fosston (17 in two games), Prairie Centre (9 in two games) and Northern Lakes (7 in two games). Park Rapids managed to score only 22 goals in the other 19 games during an 8-17-2 season.
Despite the graduation of Mid-State Conference forward Josh Baker (who led the team with 11 goals), all-conference goalie Austin Jerger and all-conference honorable mention forward Shea Alto (who was fifth on the team with 15 points), head coach Derek Ricke was counting on the Panthers to improve their offensive production this season.
In addition to those graduation losses, the Panthers lost three other players when top scorers Bjorn Jorgenson (who had 10 goals and 20 points) and Wyatt Halvorson (who had 16 points) transferred to Bemidji while James Hillukka (one of the team's top defenseman) elected not to go out for hockey this season.
Those losses proved too much to overcome as the Panthers' offense managed only 47 goals in 25 games in finishing with a 6-19 record.
"I'm really proud of the way the guys battled through adversity," said Ricke. "We lost three key players before the season started, but the guys worked hard and improved all season. They put in the effort to get better and that's the goal. Even though our record might not show it, we had plenty of high points. The guys learned a lot of life lessons this season."
For the season, the Panthers were shut out five times while scoring only one goal in five other games. Park Rapids allowed 135 goals with 67 of those in nine games against the top teams (East Grand Forks, Thief River Falls, Warroad, Crookston, Detroit Lakes and Kittson Central) in Section 8A.
In the season opener, the Panthers outshot Bagley/Fosston 25-19 in a 3-2 overtime loss in a section game before being outshot 31-14 in a 5-1 loss to Prairie Centre in the conference opener. East Grand Forks held a 50-8 advantage in shots in a 9-1 victory, Lake of the Woods used a 25-18 edge in shots to spark a 4-1 section win and Detroit Lakes outshot the Panthers 41-14 in a 10-0 victory in another conference game.
The Panthers used a 33-23 edge in shots to defeat Wadena-Deer Creek 3-1 in a conference game and avenged a loss to Lake of the Woods as a 28-21 edge in shots sparked a 3-1 victory.
Park Rapids then went through a eight-game losing streak, beginning with a 5-3 loss to Crookston (as the Panthers were outshot 40-24) and a 6-2 conference loss to Northern Lakes (as the Panthers faced a 42-34 deficit in shots on goal). At the North Shore Tournament at Two Harbors and Silver Bay, Park Rapids was outshot 39-17 in an 8-0 loss to North Shore and 33-27 in a 4-2 loss to Rice Lake. W-DC split the season series by using a 41-15 advantage in shots in a 9-2 win while Kittson Central relied on a 30-20 edge in shots for a 7-1 victory. Thief River Falls outshot the Panthers 32-10 in an 8-0 victory while Crookston used a 30-19 edge in shots for a 7-0 win.
That losing streak ended with a 5-4 overtime victory over Red Lake Falls and a 3-2 overtime win over Bagley/Fosston. Park Rapids outshot Red Lake Falls 49-15 and Bagley/Fosston 40-27 in those two section wins. Despite holding a 48-32 advantage in shots, the Panthers dropped a 7-3 decision to Northern Lakes.
Warroad used a 48-9 advantage in shots for a 10-0 victory before Park Rapids used a 49-23 edge in shots to defeat Wahpeton/Breckenridge 4-3 in overtime. After being outshot 36-24 in a 6-2 loss to Prairie Centre, the Panthers defeated Red Lake Falls 4-3 with a 34-28 edge in shots. Kittson Central used a 37-26 advantage in shots for a 4-2 win before Detroit Lakes used a 34-15 edge in shots for a 6-1 victory in the regular-season finale.
That win gave Detroit Lakes the Mid-State Conference title with a 6-0-1 record. Prairie Centre finished second at 6-1-1 while Northern Lakes was third at 3-3-1. Wadena-Deer Creek was fourth with a 1-6-1 record while the Panthers finished at 1-7.
For the Section 8A tournament, the Panthers received the No. 8 seed and had their season come to an end with a 3-2 loss to No. 9 Red Lake Falls in double overtime. East Grand Forks, the No. 1 seed, defeated No. 3 Warroad 3-1 in the section title game. East Grand Forks (No. 5), Thief River Falls (No. 8) and Warroad (No. 9) were rated in the final state Class A poll.
"I thought our passing improved tremendously and we worked better as a team during the season. Unfortunately, that didn't lead to an increase in goals," said Ricke. "We were playing our best hockey at the end of the season. Unfortunately the season didn't end the way we wanted."
Leading the Panthers this season were seniors Logan Arndt, Jordan Baker, Cameron Hoyt, Brendan Kruchowski, Thomas Melvin, Carter Opheim, Nolan Pederson, Brett Pinoniemi, Jensen Rice and Cody Sagen; junior Josh Kuhlman; and sophomores Joshua Crandall, Brody Hagen, Joseph Huber, Alec Nordin, Caden Opheim, Jaden Powers, Jack Slagle and Kyron Wohlenhaus. Pinoniemi and Melvin served as captains.
Pinoniemi repeated as an all-conference defenseman and received the team's Matt Spangler Award after scoring five goals and tallying five assists for 10 points in 24 games.
Rice received the team's Hobey Baker Award for being recognized as a player who exemplifies character, commitment, teamwork, persistence, selflessness, academic excellence and sportsmanship. Rice played in all 24 games and had two assists.
Also contributing offensively for the Panthers were Slagle (seven goals, 10 assists for 17 points in 24 games), Carter Opheim (five goals, nine assists for 14 points in 24 games), Sagen (10 goals in 19 games), Hoyt (three goals, seven assists for 10 points in 24 games), Melvin (one goal, eight assists in 24 games), Nordin (six goals, three assists in 24 games), Pederson (three goals, four assists in 22 games), Baker (four goals, one assist in 14 games), Caden Opheim (two goals, one assist in 24 games), Kuhlman (one goal, two assists in 21 games), Crandall (three assists in 22 games), Hagen (two assists in 23 games) and Arndt (one assist in 22 games). Huber and Powers played in 23 games while Wohlenhaus saw action in 10 games.
Kruchowski handled the majority of the goaltending duties, allowing 93 goals and making 499 saves on 592 shots for an .842 save percentage. Kruchowski posted a 4-15 record with one shutout while allowing an average of 4.43 goals a game. Arndt filled in for Kruchowski and went 2-4 with 37 goals allowed and 138 saves on 175 shots for a save percentage of .789.
That senior class is going to be tough to replace, but Ricke is counting on a solid offseason to help the Panthers move up in the conference and section standings.
"We're definitely going to miss our seniors. This is the first group I've had the last three years. Watching them develop has been really enjoyable. They've come a long way as athletes and people. They're going to leave a lot of big holes to fill on the ice and with leadership. They were enormous impact players," said Ricke. "Our ultimate goal is to continue to get better. I'm happy with where we're headed with our program. I see a lot of encouraging signs at the youth level. I'm excited about where our numbers are. That's going to make a huge difference. If we want to make progress, we have to continue to refine our skills throughout the year. We have to put the time in over the summer to improve. All the teams we play skate multiple times per week in the summer and we have to be willing to put the time in. We have to have the mindset that every day we need to get better. That has to be our focus."