Hockey fans from Rochester Century and Owatonna have learned to let their fingernails grow before the Big Nine Conference rivals face off.
The fans know they'll need something to chew on in the third period.
Thursday night's matchup between the top two teams in the Big Nine was no exception to that rule. Few nails were likely left on fans' hands in Graham Arena after Century pulled out a 2-1 come-from-behind victory against the Huskies to tighten its grip on a second consecutive conference championship.
"They're a good team, they have a really good goalie, Zach Wiese, he's a great goalie," Century goalie Tim Pundt said. "It was an awesome game and always fun to play against them.
"For better of for worse, we all know how each other play. We played against each other all the time, on spring and summer teams growing up. We really have the book on all of their players and the same for them with us."
In a battle of goalies, Pundt was brilliant. He made 42 saves and allowed only a first-period goal that came on a scramble in front of his net after he had made a stop on the Huskies' initial shot.
"(Pundt) was really, really good," Owatonna coach Josh Storm said. "He played a very strong game, made some huge saves early to keep them in it when I thought we had the better of the play.
"And Zach played really well for our side. It was a goalie duel and they both played extremely well."
Wiese was equally superb on his end, making 33 saves. The only shots that got past him were good ones, as Century senior forward Gavin Gunderson scored both of his team's goals, in the third period.
"Both of them were outstanding," Century coach Josh Klingfus said of the goalies. "When the momentum was going their way, Timmy was standing on his head, when it was going our way, Zach was standing on his head.
"It was a fun game, a good battle of the goalies. Unfortunately when you have games like that, someone has to lose, but both teams played outstanding. Hats off to Owatonna, they're a good hockey team and it was fun to watch them."
The winning goal came on a highlight-reel play with just 2:32 to go, in which Joey Malugani fed the puck to Gunderson as they entered Owatonna's zone with some speed. Gunderson cut through the right circle and, as he was knocked to the ice by a Huskies defender, spun around and slid the puck into the far side of the goal, past Wiese's outstretched pad.
"I got the puck ... I don't know, I wasn't really thinking that much," Gunderson said. "Against (Wiese) you have to get a lot of shots on him, so I just turned around and shot on net and luckily it went in somehow.
"I don't know what happened. I don't remember, I was so in the moment, and it just happened to go in."
Neither the close outcome nor the intensity with which both teams played were a surprise to many in attendance at Graham Arena IV on Thursday.
It was the fifth consecutive game between these teams decided by one goal. If empty-net goals are removed from the equation, nine of the past 10 games between the rivals have been decided by one goal.
Owatonna has won just two of those nine, but those two were big victories, both coming in the Section 1AA playoffs. That includes last season, when Owatonna beat Century 3-2 in double-overtime in the section quarterfinals.
"Last year, when they knocked us out of the playoffs ... this one (Thursday) meant a lot to us and we came out on the winning side," Gunderson said. "They're always a hard team to play against. They're physical, they play a different kind of hockey than most of the other teams we play.
"They're just a tough team to play against."
The victory is a big one for Century, which improved to 12-0-0 in the conference and 17-4-1 overall. A win for the Panthers in one of their final two regular-season games — at Northfield on Saturday or at Winona next Thursday — would guarantee them at least a share of the conference crown.
One Century win or tie and one loss by Owatonna (10-2-0, 16-5-0) in any of its final three conference games would also give the Panthers at least a share of the Big Nine championship.
Owatonna is the lone team that still has an opportunity to pass Century. The Huskies need Century to lose at least once in order to share or win the conference crown.
Regardless of who wins the Big Nine, Century and Owatonna could well meet in the quarterfinals of the Section 1AA playoffs for a second straight year.
Lakeville South, Lakeville North and Hastings have likely earned the top three seeds, with Owatonna and Century on their heels in the Nos. 4 and 5 spots, according to the QRF rankings, the rankings formula endorsed by the Minnesota State High School League.
Owatonna was listed in fourth in the section after the most recent QRF calculations, which were done prior to Thursday's game. Century has likely earned the No. 4 seed, though, by virtue of sweeping the regular-season series against the Huskies.
"That team, coach Storm has those guys working so hard," Klingfus said. "It's always a close game, it's been that way for a long time, even back when I was coaching with (Bruce) Frutiger. It's always been close with those guys, fun games to watch. Both teams usually bring a lot of energy and both teams work pretty hard."
CENTURY 2, OWATONNA 1
Owatonna 1 0 0 — 1
Century 0 0 2 — 2
First period — 1. O, Tanner Stendel 6 (unassisted) 11:02.
Second period — no scoring.
Third period — 2. RC, Gavin Gunderson 27 (Connor Olson 10, Sam Williams 19) 7:51 (pp). 3. RC, Gunderson 28 (Joey Malugani 29) 14:28.
Shots on goal — O 18-12-13—43, RC 9-13-13—35. Goalies — O, Zach Wiese (L, 14-4-0; 33 saves-35 shots); RC, Tim Pundt (W, 17-4-1; 42 saves-43 shots). Power-play opportunities — O, 0-for-0; RC, 1-for-3. Penalties — O, 5-10 minutes; RC, 2-4 minutes.