Eagan's Cullen Willox, far left, caused headaches for Mason Schneider (17) and the Burnsville defense, not to mention Blaze goaltender Chris Mallon, for much of Tuesday's game. Photo by Loren Nelson
Holding a one-goal advantage in the second and into the third period, Eagan began pushing.
Puck movement galore, shots flying, nets crashing off their moorings. No matter how hard they tried though, the Wildcats just couldn’t find that extra cushioning another score would provide.
Finally, just over three minutes into the third, "Big Willy" stepped in.
Better known as Cullen Willox, Eagan's senior forward stuffed home a rebound goal and then added on a laser-sighted snipe to the upper netting, living up to his name and electrifying a large Eagan contigent at the Burnsville Ice Center in Burnsville.
“Oh geez, Big Willy,” Eagan defenseman Nick Smallidge said with a laugh after the No. 10-ranked Wildcats' 4-2 win over No. 7-ranked Burnsville on Tuesday, Dec. 18. “Fun guy in the locker room and scores goals at key times.”
“That’s his nickname, I gave it to him.”
Up to that point, Willox’s first line hadn’t made a huge impact. The unit had only registered a point off a Zach Glienke assist and were otherwise kept off the score sheet. That’s when Willox decided enough was enough and busted open the game. He and Glienke finished with a combined five point effort.
“Our whole spiel is don’t really lose the third period or anything so we knew we had to come out streaming, come out fast,” Willox said, adding that he felt he needed to lead the team.
Eagan's Cullen Willox, right, lines up against Burnsville's Anthony Rikberg. Photo by Loren Nelson
The scoring burst has become a pattern over the last few games for Willox. After getting shut out against Hill-Murray and Minnetonka, he’s scored seven goals in his last three games and has 10 points in six contests (eight goals, two assists). That total includes a hat trick against Lakeville South and two goals against Bloomington Jefferson. Not exactly easy competition.
“Really in the past couple games, Cullen has taken it to another level,” Eagan assistant coach Todd Carlson said. “He’s got the size and he can shoot but how he sets the tone with how hard he plays on the forecheck, blocking shots, doing all the little things that we need, he’s a kid that’s really emerged.”
Willox is a key cog of this new Eagan squad. Losing a talented core of Michael Zajac, Nick Kuchera, Will Merchant -- Eagan’s three top scorers last year -- plus Eli May and Derick Kuchera, Willox has been forced to step up as one of the remaining players of that group. While some observers might have forgotten about the Wildcats, Willox, Glienke, and defenseman Will Peterson have been carrying the flag.
“I think back to when he was playing with us as a sophomore, just the experiences that he had with that team and how he’s taking all of that and really developed into a leader himself,” Carlson said.
After spending most of last year on the second line and even skating in the past on the third line, Willox is on pace to eclipse his regular season total of 30 points (14 goals, 16 assists) from the previous season and looking to prove that Eagan still has potential as a powerhouse.
“Everyone was looking at last year in particular as the high point and that we were gonna drop off,” Carlson said. “It’s a challenge to those kids ‘you’re not just the leftovers, you’re not just the afterthoughts’ and it helps them play with a chip on their shoulder."
Eagan's Will Peterson works to clear Burnsville's Anthony Rikberg from the slot and out of goalie Andrew Lindgren's line of vision. Photo by Loren Nelson
For the last five minutes of the game, Eagan was pinned deep in its own zone.
After giving up a goal and allowing Burnsville to inch closer in the Wildcats’ 4-2 victory Tuesday, the Blaze peppered sophomore goaltender Andrew Lindgren, especially when defenseman Tommy Muck hit the box for hooking with 3:47 to play.
With Muck serving time and junior defenseman Nick Wolff out with a suspension, the Wildcats were rolling just three defenseman, and suffering.
In the end however, the three remaining blue-liners stuck it out and kept Eagan afloat for the win. It was a nice finish for a group that mostly snuffed Burnsville’s offense and halved the Blaze’s normal scoring output.
“The penalty kill was huge,” senior defenseman Nick Smallidge said. “We just tried to smother it as much as we could, waste as much time. We knew if we could get it off that penalty kill, we could finish it off.”
Between star Will Peterson, Smallidge, Muck, and junior Taylor Karel, the Wildcats’ defense managed to make do. Peterson even scored the second goal of the game with a slap shot from the point on the power play.
“Our ‘D’ I think played really well,” Eagan assistant coach Todd Carlson said. “We talked about getting the puck up quick on these guys on their rushes… I thought that they were key because they were solid on the back check and I don’t know how many blocked shots our defensemen had tonight.”
Stepping up on odd-man-rushes and keeping the puck in the offensive zone at the blue-line, the slick defensemen frustrated Burnsville, who kept trying to make long passes and rushes that were often cut off in the neutral zone. It was an impressive performance for a such a short bench.
“Will Peterson really had to hold it down with Nicky Wolff out for the game misconduct," Eagan forward Cullen Willox said. "Taylor Karel stepped in really well over the weekend.”
Cullen Willox scored twice in the third period, including a beautiful top-corner goal, to push No. 10-ranked Eagan past No. 7 Burnsville in a 4-2 win on Tuesday, Dec. 18 at the Burnsville Ice Center in Burnsville.
Heading into the third holding a precarious 2-1 lead, the Wildcats (5-2-0) took over and glided to the South Suburban Conference victory.
The Blaze (4-3-0) scored late in the third period and turned up the pressure on Eagan but couldn’t make a big enough push in their first home game of the season.
Wildcat freshman Jesse Gabrielle opened up the scoring with a shot from the point on a first period power play just 1 minute, 58 seconds into the opening period. Junior Joe Berg answered quickly for Burnsville, scoring his first goal of the season.
From there, it was all Eagan. The Wildcats controlled the puck and played stifling defense, spending a majority of the game in their offensive zone. Will Peterson, a senior defenseman, put Eagan up by two in the second when he unloaded a seeing-eye shot from the point, also on the power play.
Sophomore goaltender Andrew Lindgren was solid for Eagan, stopping 33 of 35 shots for his fifth win of the year.
Forward Zach Glienke led the Wildcats in points with three assists, and junior Cole Borchardt also scored for Burnsville.
Eagan coach Mike Taylor missed the game attending family matters in California. It was not determined how long he will be gone from the team. Taylor had a record of 161-82-9 coming into his tenth season as a head coach.
1. Cullen Willox, Eagan
Willox effectively ended the game midway through the third when he fired the puck top shelf, putting the Wildcats up 4-1. It was his second goal of the period and dashed any comeback hopes for Burnsville. Willox, a senior forward, has 10 points so far this season (eight goals, two assists) including seven goals in his last three.
2. Andrew Lindgren, Eagan
Just a sophomore, Lindgren was stellar in goal, giving maybe his best performance of the season. After stopping 33 shots Lindgren has now saved 88 percent of shots faced and has allowed 3.08 goals per game. He has five wins so far this year in seven starts.
3. Will Peterson, Eagan
A rock on the defensive end, Peterson was a big part of the effort to hold a team that averages four goals a game to just two. His goal in the second period also ended up being important, putting the Wildcats ahead by two and building a lead that Burnsville couldn't overcome. Peterson has three goals and three assists this season.
Eagan sophomore goaltender Andrew Lindgren. Photo by Loren Nelson