GF Central holds off upset-minded Bismarck High to set up shot for three-peat

Grand Forks Central players Brandon McGarry, Tucker Hodgson and goalie Aaron Nielsen react to their semi-final win over Bismarck High as the Demons' Caleb Petrie reacts at the end of the game. Eric Hylden / Forum News Service
Grand Forks Central players Brandon McGarry, Tucker Hodgson and goalie Aaron Nielsen react to their semi-final win over Bismarck High as the Demons' Caleb Petrie reacts at the end of the game. Eric Hylden / Forum News ServiceEric Hylden / Forum News Service

FARGO -- In a season full of blowout victories, the Grand Forks Central boys hockey team needed a nail-biter to get back to the North Dakota state championship game.

Central senior forward Lucas Kanta scored two goals, including the game-winning goal with 4 minutes, 9 seconds remaining, to lift the Knights to a 3-2 win over Bismarck High on Friday night, Feb. 22, in the state semifinals at Scheels Arena.

Central (24-0-0) will play Fargo Davies in the state championship game. The game will start 30 minutes after Saturday’s 4:30 p.m. girls championship game.

The Knights, who played in a one-goal game for just the second time all season, are looking to become the first back-to-back-to-back North Dakota state champions since Grand Forks Red River did it from 1996-98.

“They threw everything at us,” Kanta said. “They hit, forechecked, backchecked, grabbed, tripped. Everything they could get away with, they did. Credit to them. That’s how you beat a good team. We were fortunate enough to get one at the end. I’m ecstatic about it. This is what we’ve been playing for all season.”

With the help of Quinn Ackerman’s 38 saves, the Demons (19-5-1) gave the heavily favored Knights their biggest scare of the year.

“We’ve been talking about Central all year long,” Bismarck coach Mike Peluso said. “We have been preparing for this exact game.”

The Demons lost to Central 10-1 during the regular season, but Bismarck High was playing without a handful of key players.

“If you want to look at it like Texas Hold ‘Em, we knew we had a good hand but we didn’t play it right away,” Peluso said. “We put all the chips on the table tonight, but we didn’t get the break.”

Peluso and the Demons are the last in-state opponent to beat Central, a victory that came in the 2016 state semifinals.

This year, the Knights had an answer each time the Demons came charging.

When Bismarck’s Landon Fischer scored the game’s first goal at 10:12 of the first period, Central needed just 23 seconds to respond.

As was the case for Central in a state quarterfinal win over Mandan, the Knights’ fourth line provided the first goal. Sophomore Braden Panzer scored on an assist from freshman Cole Spicer to tie the game at 1-1.

Central answered even quicker in the third period. The Demons cranked up the atmosphere by tying the game at 2-2 on a Kadin Sullivan goal at 12:38 of the third.

Only 13 seconds later, Kanta scored when he redirected a Hunter Bjorge shot from the point.

“Tremendous response,” Central coach Grant Paranica said. “(Kanta) was a workhorse. He was a leader and that’s what we needed him to be. That was a classic state hockey semifinal.”

Bismarck was never able to set up for an extra-attacker final push, as the Knights were able to maintain late possession and clear enough pucks to milk the remaining clock.

GF Central 3,

Bismarck High 2

First period -- 1. BHS, Landon Fischer (Caleb Petrie, Dain Sardelli) 10:12; 2. GFC, Braden Panzer (Cole Spicer) 10:35; 3. GFC, Lucas Kanta (William Lawson-Body, Hunter Bjorge) 11:45

Third period -- 4. BHS, Kadin Sullivan (Petrie) 12:38; 5. GFC, Kanta (Bjorge) 12:51

Goalie saves -- GFC: Aaron Nielsen 6-10-3 -- 19; BHS: Quinn Ackermann 14-12-12 -- 38