Derek Ricke expected the Park Rapids-Menahga-Walker-Hackensack-Akeley boys hockey team would be competitive this season.

Despite finishing with a 5-13 overall record, the Panthers did put a competitive team on the ice as nine games were decided by a single goal and two other games resulted in losses by two goals.

“Overall, I'm really proud of the steps our team took this year. We certainly didn't finish the year how we wanted to, but when you step back and look at things, there were a number of bright spots,” said Ricke. “In 14 of our 18 games, we were within one or two goals late in the game, giving us a chance to win a lot of games. We didn't pull out as many as we would have liked, but we were consistently competitive.”

After opening the season with Mid-State Conference losses to Northern Lakes (10-0) and Wadena-Deer Creek (5-3), the Panthers pulled off close wins against their next three opponents. Park Rapids followed a 2-1 win over Breckenridge/Wahpeton with a 2-1 overtime victory over Prairie Centre in a conference game and a 5-4 overtime victory over Bagley/Fosston.

The Panthers followed an 8-3 loss to Red Lake Falls with four more close games. Detroit Lakes prevailed 1-0 in a Mid-State matchup before the Panthers edged Prairie Centre 2-1 in overtime. A 3-2 overtime loss to Breckenridge/Wahpeton was followed with a 5-4 loss to Kittson Central.

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Those two losses started a six-game losing streak as the Panthers were defeated by Northern Lakes (10-1), Crookston (4-3 in overtime), Kittson Central (6-0) and Detroit Lakes (6-3).

A 2-1 win over Wadena-Deer Creek brought the Highway 71 Cup back to Park Rapids. The Panthers ended the regular season with losses to Bagley/Fosston (7-4) and Lake of the Woods (3-1).

Those final two losses prevented the Panthers from hosting a Section 8A playoff game. With Detroit Lakes dropping out of the tournament because of COVID, Park Rapids received the No. 9 seed and saw its season end with a 7-0 loss at No. 8 Bagley/Fosston in a play-in game.

For the season, the Panthers averaged 2.1 goals a game while allowing an average of 4.6 goals a night in being outscored 83-37.

Leading the Panthers this season were seniors Alec Nordin, Caden Opheim, Brody Hagen, Jack Slagle and Josh Crandall; juniors Nash Mitchell, Jaxson Lund, Sam Meier, Liam Torola and Collin Hoyt; sophomores Joey Hillukka, Quincy Jantz and Ethan Eischens; and freshmen Sawyer Torkelson, Jaron Pinoniemi and Josh Hillukka.

Mitchell (seven goals, eight assists), Joey Hillukka (four goals, 10 assists), Lund (eight goals, three assists), Nordin (three goals, seven assists), Opheim (two goals, seven assists), Slagle (four goals, two assists) and Jantz (three goals, two assists) led the offense while Hagen (nine assists), Crandall (three assists), Meier (one goal, one assist) and Eischens (one goal) led the defense. Pinoniemi (three goals), Torola (one goal, one assist) and Josh Hillukka (one assist) also contributed in the scoring column while freshmen Quinn Hoscheid and Shad Torola also saw varsity action.

Splitting time in the net for the Panthers were Torkelson (4-9 record, 53 goals allowed, 427 saves) and Hoyt (1-4 record, 28 goals allowed, 124 saves). Torkelson received Mid-State Conference honorable mention honors.

“There aren't too many teams who win three overtime games in a single year, especially with a shortened schedule. There was an eight-game stretch in which seven of them were decided by one goal that was one of the most fun and intense stretches of hockey I've been a part of,” said Ricke. “We finished the year with the Highway 71 Cup after a great win over Wadena, which is always a big deal for us, and we played two pretty great games with Detroit Lakes, who has had our number the past few years.”

The Panthers will have to replace the leadership provided by the five seniors, but Ricke is looking forward to seeing more improvement from his team next season.

“All five of the seniors played important roles for us this year, and most of them have been key players since they joined the varsity team. That's part of what makes high school athletics special though is seeing these kids grow as people and players. I'm grateful to have been able to be a part of their journey, and I hope they're able to apply some of the lessons they learned on and off the ice as they move forward in life,” said Ricke. “As far as looking forward to next year, there are certainly some underclassmen who played huge roles for us this year and give plenty of optimism. Goaltending should definitely be a strength for us next year, which is always a great foundation. We return a big portion of our scoring which is important, and hopefully some of those guys can take another big step in that area because we need to find ways to score more. In addition, our Bantams team won their district title and had the chance to play in a region tournament, so there should be some guys from that team who can step in and play meaningful minutes right away.”