Last night was already a historic moment for the Winona girls’ hockey team. After five winless seasons, the squad defied expectations to earn a postseason berth and host its first home playoff game in 10 years. The Winhawks made it all that much sweeter by winning 4-1 over the Austin Packers and punching their tickets to the Section 1A semifinals this Saturday.

“It’s completely beyond anything that I expected at the beginning of the season,” Winona Head Coach Rick Burns said after the game. “I think at our beginning-of-the-year parents’ meeting, I told the parents that I hoped that, looking at the schedule, we would come out with five wins and I would consider it a success. [Tonight] was our ninth win, and now we’re on to the next round of the playoffs, so it’s pretty exciting. It’s fun to watch the growth in these girls from where we started to where they are now.”

The Winhawks faced a tenacious opponent in the Packers, who outshot Winona, moved the puck well, and boasted some talented skaters, including speedy, elusive senior Sarah Wangen. But Winona goalie Aliya Gricius turned aside shot after shot, and an aggressive Winhawks offense turned net-front chaos into goals.

Sophomore Kasja Kovala struck first for the Winhawks midway through the first period. Defenseman Asta Griggs’ pass was deflected right to Kovala, whose shot trickled past Austin goalie Chloe Schaal and put the Winhawks up 1-0.

Austin got its first power play several minutes later, and the Packers wasted no time peppering the net. Gricius made a pair of brilliant glove saves early in the penalty kill and stopped six shots in the final minute of the Packers’ power play. 

“It was just one after another,” Gricius said. “I didn’t think I was stopping them, but no pucks were in the net.”

In the second period, Austin kept up the pressure. Wangen danced into an offensive zone, split the defense, and put a backhand on net from point-blank range that was denied by Gricius. Then Winona’s Kelsi Rose turned the tables on the Packers. When Kovala’s drive to the net was interrupted by Austin defenders, Rose found the puck and unleashed a slap shot that gave Winona a two-goal lead. Moments later, Griggs added to Winona’s lead with a goal of her own on a wrister from the point.

The Packers continued to outshoot Winona, however, and Gricius made more great saves late in the second. After the Winona goalie blocked Wangen’s shot, the rebound bounced straight to an Austin forward, forcing a quick reaction from Gricius to stop the second-chance attempt. Moments later, Austin’s Haylee Silva got in alone in the slot, but Gricius closed the door.

In the final minutes of the second, Kovala got her second goal, and Winona’s Angeles Ana Maria Gomez earned an assist. From the side of the net, at a difficult angle, Kovala’s shot sneaked past the Austin goalie on the short side.

“She played extremely well,” Burns said of Kovala. “She took advantage of her situations and buried a couple pucks for us. She had some jump in her step, which is exactly what I asked of them at the beginning of the game …”

The third period was a physical one as Austin and Winona players collided and the student section roared. With Austin going all out for tying goals, Wangen intercepted a Winhawks stretch pass, rushed into the offensive zone, and lined up a wrist shot that went just high and wide of the top corner of the net. Late in the third, Wangen was finally rewarded. Circling the high slot, she sent a wrist shot through traffic that beat Gricius for the first and only time that night. But while Austin pinned Winona in the defensive zone for the better part of the final four minutes of the game, Winona’s defense broke up the Packers’ passes and ran down the clock for the win.

Burns credited his team with staying calm, protecting the slot, and making the most of their chances. “We really didn’t have many. I think we had 15 shots total, so we took advantage of our opportunities,” he said.

Burns said of Gricius, “She is the one person on this team that I count on to keep us in the game. She is a spectacular goaltender … That is the one advantage we had over Austin is solid goaltending. It would be a whole different game if she wasn’t in the net.”

“It’s just exciting to have a playoff game here,” Burns continued. He pointed out the audience ranged from his own former coaches to little girls barely old enough to skate. “It mattered to a lot of people today, and there’s a lot of people here to support them. It’s good to see the support in this town for a girls’ sport, and it’s nice to know that the girls have earned that respect.”

The Winhawks will take on the Dodge County Wildcats on Saturday at 7 p.m. at Dodge County Ice Arena in Kasson, Minn. The Wildcats won the teams’ last meeting 4-0. “I’m excited to play them again,” Gricius said. She said, “I think if we play well, we have a chance.”