62-1, and history made; Dramatic hockey playoff win was Ely’s first ever against I-Falls

by Tom Coombe -

The clock finally struck midnight for the Ely Timberwolves, but only after one of the biggest wins in program history.
In what was dubbed the “Miracle at the Border,” the high school hockey team shocked International Falls 4-3 Saturday night - beating the Broncos for the first time in school history and scoring the program’s first playoff win in 11 seasons.
Second-seeded Duluth Denfeld ended the Wolves’ season three nights later in Duluth’s magnificent Heritage Center, but even the 9-0 Section 7A quarterfinal defeat couldn’t put a damper on what was arguably the best week in two decades for the high school hockey team.
Ely finished 5-16-2, but its fifth and final win of the season caught the attention of the high school hockey world and ended a losing streak to the Broncos that extended back decades - and 62 games.
Luke Olson turned a Bronco turnover into the game-winning goal with 19 seconds left and the Wolves hung on, stunning the hosts and perhaps even themselves.
“I think that’s a win they’re going to remember for a long time,” said Ely Head Coach Ben Johnson. “After the game, our guys were singing and hooting and hollering. You get a win like this and it puts a positive spin on the entire season.”
Ely’s last playoff win came in 2008 and the Wolves hadn’t defeated a section opponent since Jan. 8, 2013.
The Wolves went into the playoffs seeded last among 10 teams in 7A and lost 8-0 to International Falls in a January contest at the Ely Arena.
Those numbers all went by the wayside as Ely jumped out to a fast start.
Senior captain Nick Mattila scored five minutes into the game, and Olson beat the Bronco goaltender later in the period for a 2-0 Wolves lead.
“If we can score first, we’re in the game and it sorts of cracks that egg,” said Johnson. “It gives us energy that’s for sure.”
International Falls trailed 2-0 after one period despite outshooting the Wolves 14-8.
In the middle frame, the Broncos stepped up their game and dominated, peppering Ely’s Chase Sandberg with 20 more shots.
Only one, a power-play goal by John Boerger, went in.
The tally cut Ely’s lead in half but momentum had clearly shifted.
Sandberg, who finished with a whopping 52 saves, was keeping Ely in the game.
“Chase played phenomenal,” said Johnson. “He made some great saves, some breakwaway saves. He obviously kept us in there.”
International Falls continued to take the game to the Wolves as the final period began, but even Sandberg was being worn down.
A deflection tied the game at two while Boerger’s shot from the left circle put International Falls ahead 3-2.
By the time 10 minutes elapsed in the third period, International Falls had a 51-14 advantage in shots on goal and the Wolves were badly in need of a spark.
“We could kind of feel the wheels coming off,” said Johnson. “The momentum had shifted and we had to get it back somehow.”
Enter Mattila.
The senior’s 25th and final goal of the season was no doubt his biggest. After a faceoff, Mattila had a burst of speed, split two defenders and fired the puck past the Broncos’ Mitchell Nemec.
All of a sudden the game was tied and the Wolves looked to have fresh legs.
“That energized us,” said Johnson. “Of all the years of Ely hockey, we can play well but sometime if we get behind we don’t have the depth to climb out of it.”
This time, the Wolves knotted it back and Nemec turned away potential game-winners from Mattila and Olson in the last three minutes.
Johnson put his two big guns out there after a timeout and the move paid off with the puck in the Broncos end and the teams seemingly headed toward overtime.

“For them to skate the last two minutes is a kick in the bucket,” said Johnson. “They’re in shape and we wanted to give them a chance to win it in regulation. Nick Mattila came in and put pressure on that guy and it kind of popped and Luke was right there and he came around the net and buried it five-hole. That was quite a feeling.”
The Broncos took a timeout and pulled their goalie, but Ely won the ensuing faceoff and the hosts wouldn’t get a shot in the final 19 seconds, securing the Wolves’ improbable, history-making win.
Olson and Mattila had two goals each, while Olson and Dalton Schreffler each had an assist.
Tuesday’s game was controlled by the Hunters, who scored 44 seconds into the opening period and never looked back.
Griffin Lehet scored twice for Denfeld (14-8-2), including a shorthanded goal midway through the first frame that made it 3-0.
It was 4-0 after one with Denfeld holding a 20-3 shots on goal advantage.
The Hunters added a pair of second-period goals and sored three times in the third period, which was played in running time.
Junior goalie Shawn Easty notched 15 saves en route to the shutout while Sandberg and senior backup Tyler Housey combined for 39 saves.
The game ended the prep careers of five Ely seniors: Mattila, Housey, defenseman Dean Boese and forwards Austin Meskill and Jeremiah Kaercher.
Denfeld advanced to meet Virginia in tonight’s semifinals, at Duluth’s AMSOIL Arena.