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State boys hockey: Healthy and rolling, White Bear Lake is confident it can make some noise at the X

This is Chris Anderson’s first year as head coach for the White Bear Lake boys hockey team, but he has been on the Bears’ staff for 16 years in total.

And he’s never seen a season like the Bears have experienced in regards to their health — or lack thereof — this season.

Anderson rattled off six varsity players who missed multiple games during the regular season. That includes junior first-line winger Jack Stanius and top-tier defenseman Blake Eckerle.

It’s difficult to be at your best without your most productive players. It’s also tough to establish cohesion when the lineups are, out of necessity, constantly shuffling.

“When Stanius got hurt, I swear I had a different line every single week,” White Bear Lake senior center Nolan Roed said. “Because we were trying to find something that would fit.”

Still, White Bear Lake managed to finish atop the Suburban East Conference standings alongside Stillwater. But it wasn’t until late in the season, right before the sectional tournament, that the Bears truly felt they started to hit their stride. Specifically, that moment came when Stanius returned to the lineup.

“He kind of created a spark the last week. So getting healthy was the turning point. And then the guys, at the same time, they were buying into our system, buying into our process,” Anderson said. “But now, with Jack back, understanding the focus goes up at the end of the year. Between getting healthy and buying in, and then just enjoying the process, that’s kind of been the turning point. It came late. It’s what you want. You want to peak at the right time, and we’re starting to do that.”

White Bear Lake was a wrecking ball in the Section 4 tournament. The Bears won their two most recent games, against Stillwater and Hill-Murray, by a combined score of 8-1 to get to state, where they’ll open as the No. 4 seed with a quarterfinal date at 8 p.m. Thursday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul against fifth-seeded Grand Rapids.

Hill-Murray outshot White Bear Lake, but Anderson noted a majority of the Pioneers’ shots came from the outside. That’s a product of White Bear Lake’s deep, talented defensive core which, when healthy, can truly limit an opponent’s Grade-A chances.

“And you add Leo in there, it really makes it difficult for other teams,” Anderson said.

Leo, of course, is White Bear Lake junior Leo Gabriel, one of the state’s top netminders. Gabriel pitched a 35-save shutout against Hill-Murray.

“Obviously with Leo in net, we have a chance to win every game,” Roed said. “I think everybody in the state and on our team knows that, so that gives us a lot of confidence.”

Anderson said every year White Bear Lake’s expectation is to reach the state tournament. That was true this year, as well, even after the Bears graduated such a talented senior class from a year ago.

Roed credited this year’s group for buying in and carrying a high-level want factor. That, he said, is why the Bears will be at the X on Thursday.

Confidence is something the Bears are bursting with heading into state. As (seemingly) almost everyone knows by now, White Bear Lake has dropped 19 consecutive state quarterfinal games in this event over the years. But the stars seemed to have aligned for the Bears to make some real noise this weekend in downtown St. Paul. The defense and Gabriel are playing lights out. The offense has hit another gear with Stanius back in the lineup.

The White Bear Lake team right now is simply on a different level than the one that competed earlier this season. And everyone in the state will get a reintroduction to this group on Thursday.

“It’s a team that is confident they’re finding ways to win. They bought in, they’re playing for each other, they’re playing for the right reasons,” Anderson said. “And while they don’t have any state tournament experience, they’ve got a ton of game experience now. Now that we’re healthy, they’re going to make a good run.”

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