MINOT - Falling 9-0 to top-seeded Bismarck High in the semifinals of the West Region Tournament on Friday, Feb. 15, the Dickinson High boys hockey team would have to defeat No. 6 Mandan less than 24 hours later if it wanted to advance to state for the fourth straight season.
During the regular season, the No. 5 Midgets clobbered the Braves, winning three games by a combined margin of 15-2. As favorable as the match-up appeared on paper, Dickinson didn't have to look too far back to know that nothing is a sure bet in the postseason.
Last year, the Midgets earned a 6-1 upset victory over Minot in the state play-in game after being outscored 17-3 in two regular-season contests with the Magicians.
Playing the role as the higher-seeded squad in a 2019 state play-in game, it was Dickinson on the wrong side of an upset.
After Mandan collected a first-period score, Braves senior goaltender Maysion Mattern denied an equalizer, withstanding a heavy Midgets onslaught late en route to 1-0 shutout from the Pepsi Rink/MAYSA Arena. Mattern stopped all 29 shots fired his way.
"Hats off to Mandan," Dickinson head coach Dallas Kuntz said. "You could tell from the opening puck drop that they were here on a mission, they wanted it. I thought we worked hard, but the little things, Mandan did all the little things right that gets you to the next tournament. They battled, they blocked shots, they worked their tails off. At the end of the day, I wouldn't say that we lost, I'd say that Mandan won the game. Evenly-matched game all the way through, they just made a play or two more than we did."
Assisted by sophomore forward Olin Halstengard and junior forward Colby Kramer, Braves senior forward Jackson Zittleman scored the lone goal of the game off a backdoor play 11 minutes and 33 seconds into the opening frame. That's all the team in black needed as Mandan will make its first trip to the state tournament since 2015.
"It was absolutely huge," Mandan head coach Leif Mattson remarked on playing with an early lead. "We had to get the momentum first. Dickinson has got extreme firepower. With their top line, we just knew that we had to get in front of them. We had to shut down their momentum, they couldn't get anything, and we knew we had to keep it that way."
The Braves nearly doubled their lead in the second period when Midgets senior goaltender Riley Wittenberg dropped the puck as he tried to glove it while standing up. With the puck trickling dangerously close to goal line behind Wittenberg, senior defender Morgan Wardner dashed into the crease, knocking the puck out of harm's way.
Even with the near-gaff, Wittenberg was excellent in his final appearance in net for Dickinson, racking up 21 of his 27 saves in the second and third periods to keep the Midgets in the game.
"He played great," Kuntz said. "I've been around Riley for a really long time, I know really well. He was locked in today ... I'm proud of Riley, he's had a good career. He's been a part of two other state tournament teams himself and I feel bad we couldn't squeak one in there for him."
In the final frame, the Midgets outshot Mandan 10-8, as they produced traffic in front of the net in the hopes of blocking Mattson's vision or scoring on the re-direct.
Early in the frame, senior forward Cody Shepard let loose a wrist shot from the slot, but Mattern made the save. Midway through the period, Dickinson sophomore forward Landon Aman closed in on net, but a terrific poke check from senior defender Tanner Berger ended the threat.
With 3:27 left in regulation, Shepard was sent to the penalty box, and was eventually ejected after being whistled for unsportsmanlike conduct. Forty-seconds later after collecting a turnover in the offensive zone, junior forward Joey Pavek was tripped by Braves junior defender Josh Moee. Shortly after the 4-on-4 became a 5-on-4, the Midgets pulled their goalie, but could not break through.
Dickinson won a face-off in the circle to the left of Mattern with 1.9 seconds remaining, but a desperation shot went wide.
"It felt like an eternity, it felt like another three hours," Mattern said of the end of the game. "I was just waiting for the buzzer to finally go off."
For Mattern, it will be his first appearance in the state tournament, while for Midgets senior forward and captain Ryan Bren, he was this close to advancing to the big dance through all four years of his varsity career.
"Freshman year, I had so many great seniors. Mike McChesney, Jerzy Martin, all of those guys brought me up," Bren said. "Over the years, I've made some great memories, made some great friends. That's not the last time you'll see me at the rink, for sure."
In an emotional scene outside of the locker room following the loss, Kuntz brought out all of his seniors, expressing his gratitude and appreciation for how those particularly kids elevated the program.
"They've set the standard. ... Love each and every one of those guys, they're brothers for life and it's going to be sad to see them go," Kuntz said.
No. 6 Mandan 1, No. 5 Dickinson High 0
M 1 0 0 - 1
D 0 0 0 - 0
FIRST PERIOD: 1, M, Jackson Zittleman (Olin Halstengard, Colby Kramer), 11:33.
SECOND PERIOD: No scoring.
THIRD PERIOD: No scoring.
SAVES: M, Maysion Mattern 12-7-10-29. D, Riley Wittenberg 6-13-8-27.