ELK RIVER, Minn. — When the final horn resounded around The Handke Pit on Saturday afternoon, Elk River goalie Mac Berglove glided toward the black-and-red-clad student section to his left, lifted one padded leg and spun into the glass in celebration.
In a matter of milliseconds, all of his teammates mobbed him in the corner. If not for the outdoor backdrop, it would’ve looked like a state championship raucous.
On paper for a team with those kinds of aspirations, the Elks’ 4-1 win is just another step on the journey.
But this game wasn’t played on paper. It was played on ice. Outside. In front of about 4,000 in-person spectators and a statewide FOX Sports North television audience.
So there’s no reason to downplay the moment, Elk River’s team captain said.
"It was an amazing experience," senior forward Chase Springman said. "I think everybody’s kind of gonna be able to look out now and say ‘there’s the Elks.’ Keep your eye on them."
Coming in scoring five goals per game, Elk River (12-3-0) outskated the Ponies from the outset and relied upon a staunch effort from Berglove. The senior juniors prospect thwarted all but one of the shots he saw on a sunny afternoon that cast shadows across Handke Pit and caused the game’s start time to be delayed about 20 minutes while crews took care of a somewhat-soggy playing surface.
But that was about the only thing that went wrong Saturday for Hockey Day Minnesota 2014’s hosts.
"It was great," said Elk River coach Gordie Roberts, a former North Stars defenseman, two-time Stanley Cup winner and U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame member. "Great weather, great atmosphere, kids played well.
"It’s a little different style out there. You aren’t able to play a little more Olympic-sized, free-wheeling game, but you’ve got to win different ways, and we did."
Four different Elks players scored, and Berglove would’ve notched his first shutout of the year if not for a late Stillwater (9-8-0) tally with the outcome all but decided. By then, goals from Grant Bunker, Andrew Zerban and Springman during the first two periods had given Elk River a commanding 3-0 advantage.
Despite being outshot 20-10 in the second period, the Elks built that lead thanks to a pair of sniper-like shots from Zerban and Springman. Zerban skated in alone and beat Stillwater goalie Josh Benson (24 saves) from the right point, and Jake Jaremko — who knotted an empty-net goal and moved his team-leading point total to 35 — dug a puck out from behind the Ponies net and found Springman alone in the slot.
One of several Elks eyeing either major college scholarships or a trip to the junior ranks following the preps season, Springman smacked it home and drew a rowdy mass cheer from The Pit, a glacier-formed valley in the midst of Elk River with an outdoor rink erected specifically for Hockey Day.
There would’ve been no more fitting conclusion to the town’s time in the spotlight, Springman said.
"(A win) means everything," said Springman, whose team has won seven straight. "I think we . . . made everybody proud."
Even in the midst of the pageantry, the two teams weren’t afraid to get after each other.
No punches were thrown, but a chippy contest saw 10 penalties assessed. Jaremko was hit with a major for unsportsmanlike behavior, and Stillwater leading scorer John Heddle received a game misconduct for checking Jaremko from behind in the second.
That helped quell any comeback thoughts the Ponies may have been entertaining.
"It hurts to lose your leading goal-scorer," coach Matt Doman said matter-of-factly, "especially when you’re down goals."
But while Stillwater’s third loss in five outings hurts, not even Doman acted too upset in its immediate aftermath.
He hopes his players won’t, either.
"It’s tough right after the game," Doman said. "You always want to come out on top . . . but it’s an experience that we’ll never forget."