A year ago at this time, the idea of goaltender Riley Burnett starting meaningful varsity games for the Mankato East/Loyola boys hockey team seemed pretty crazy.
He was in ninth grade, still in bantams, and the Cougars had an established starter in Caelin Brueske. However, after Brueske decided not to play at the beginning of the season, there was an opportunity.
To say Burnett has made the most of his opportunity would be an understatement.
“We had kind of a challenge early in the year. We rotated goalies quite a bit,” East/Loyola coach Adam Fries said. “His compete level is really high right now. He really wants it.”
For the second time this season, Burnett shut out Mankato West, as East/Loyola downed its crosstown rival 6-0 Thursday at All Seasons Arena. In the first matchup, the Cougars beat the Scarlets 4-0.
While Burnett had great play in front of him all night, he was still forced to make 25 saves, including several key ones. He denied the Scarlets’ Ethan Fox on a breakaway late in the first, and made a nice blocker save on Gavin Brunmeier on a West power play later.
It was Burnett’s second consecutive shutout.
“As the year has gone on, I’ve settled in a bit more,” Burnett said. “It’s way way better than bantams, for sure.”
Special teams tend to be a key in big games, and the Cougars won that battle Thursday.
After Layten Liffrig gave East/Loyola a quick lead at 5:22 of the first, East/Loyola got its first of two power-play goals at 7:37. Jake Kanzenbach fired a one-timer home, and Cougars never looked back.
East/Loyola made it 3-0 when Shae Gavin scored the team’s second power-play goal at 5:18 of the second, a lead the Cougars would take into the third period.
The Cougars’ penalty kill also did a great job, going 4-for-4 in the game.
“Our special teams have to be good,” Fries said. “We thrive on special teams.”
The Cougars scored three times in the third period to pull away, with Hayden Guillemette, Jake Schreiber and Aiden Prochaska each scoring.
While the Cougars have been to the state tournament in two of the past three seasons, they’ve never won the Big Nine Conference championship.
East/Loyola (12-3) has three games remaining and plays Tuesday at Austin. If the Cougars win that game, as well as the Big Nine finale March 13 against Albert Lea, they are the Big Nine champions.
“If we could have the seniors go out winning the conference, that’s a big deal,” Fries said. “That’s the one banner we don’t have up here and (West has) a couple of them.”
West (10-3-2) will host Winona on Saturday at All Seasons Arena.