A Changing of the Guard in 7AA?

11 Dec

Section 7AA has been Duluth East’s dominion over the past five years, but last night’s result at the Heritage Center—a 3-2 win by 4th-ranked Elk River over the Hounds—has the potential to be a watershed moment.

It was a big night for the Elks in many ways. It was the first win by a 7AA opponent over East since the Elks beat the Hounds in 2010, and only the second since 2008. It was East’s first home loss since the 2010-2011 season (though that comes with an asterisk, as East was the “road” team in their loss to Duluth Denfeld last season). To find East’s last home regular season loss to a section opponent, we have to go back to a December 2006 game against Cloquet. Even without the history, it was a coming-out party for the Elks, who are now 3-0, with wins over state powers East and Edina. They are now the favorites for the section crown.

It was an important win, but it wasn’t the convincing sort of win that erases any doubts. The game went back and forth, with each team tallying once in the first two periods. The Hounds struck first on a terrific move by defenseman-turned-forward Phil Beaulieu, who dangled through the Elk defense before firing his shot; the Elks watched him closely for the rest of the night, making sure the East captain had little space to maneuver. The Elks tied it on a tap-in by Kyle Badger, and took the lead not long into the second on a blast from the blue line by Grant Bunker that nailed the water bottle atop East goalie Gunnar Howg’s net. After a penalty kill, East began to assert itself, and tied the game on a wicked shot from sophomore Ryan Peterson. The game-winner came with four and a half minutes to go, and was very similar to the first; there was a scrum in front of the East net, and suddenly the referee signaled a goal.

The gameplay was fairly even, though the teams excelled in different areas. Elk River’s forwards showed off their skill, beating the East defensive corps on the rush at times; the Hounds, on the other hand, relied on coach Mike Randolph’s signature puck possession system, controlling play for stretches in the 2nd and 3rd periods with their steady cycling and ultimately outshooting the Elks, 30-24. The difference-maker was Elk River senior goaltender Maclean Berglove; both East goals were tough to stop, and while Howg had some solid saves for East, he couldn’t quite pounce on the pucks sitting in his crease on the first and third goals, and the second goal came from very far out.

Recent history warns us from taking too much away from this game. Back in 2010, the Elks edged East 3-2 in the regular season meeting in Elk River, a game in which a veteran Elks’ goalie outplayed his less experienced East counterpart, despite a large edge in shots for East. The two teams met again in the 7AA final, and the Hounds steamrolled the Elks in a 5-1 win. As is the case this season, East was very young that year, and took some lumps in the regular season before putting things together in the playoffs.

But these Elks are not those Elks, and the 2013-2014 edition looks like one of the best teams in the state. Their third line scored twice last night, showing off their depth; they also did a superb job of blocking shots in front of Berglove, making his job much easier. With ten seniors on the roster, they have plenty of experience, and they play disciplined, smart hockey. Their second-year coach, former Minnesota North Star Gordie Roberts, has himself a team with no weaknesses. The Elks’ program seems be in a very good place right now, too. After five Tournament berths in seven years around the turn of the century, they moved to 7AA in 2005-2006, and haven’t been back since. They hit bottom near the end of the 2012 season, when longtime coach Tony Sarsland, a man who made Mike Randolph seem cute and cuddly, was axed by the district. Last season ended in pain, with Grand Rapids tying their 7AA semifinal with ten seconds to go and winning in overtime. But now, having done their penance, the Elks look like a force: their youth program has been on even terms with many of the state’s best in recent years, and the Twin Cities exurb will host Hockey Day in Minnesota 2014.

Still, several teams in 7AA could spoil their party; it’s a deep section, and even some of the weaker teams have shown they can stick around with the two top-ranked squads. East only has four seniors (one of whom is out hurt), and they have some correctible problems to fix don’t really have much of an identity yet. Randolph’s teams tend to improve as the season goes along; over the past nine years, they have a December winning percentage of .699, but up their game to an .857 clip in January and February. They may continue to take some lumps; they don’t have a whole lot of offensive firepower, and as a narrow win over Cambridge showed, East will probably get stuck in some close games against less-than-stellar opponents. But the East program continues to put out quality hockey players, and they’ve already shown that this young group can skate with the state’s best.

All we can say for now, then, is that the 7AA race will be as good as any in the state. Elk River and East are very even and are top ten teams at the moment, and a yet-untested Grand Rapids team has some stars it could ride into the conversation as well. It’s a bit early to be saying much about section seeding, and teams like Forest Lake and Andover won’t be easy wins, but at this point, there’s good incentive to grab the top seed and avoid playing one of the other top three in the semifinals. The Elks now have the inside track for that spot.

For both teams, it’s back to work now. Elk River travels to face a quality Maple Grove team on Thursday in a Northwest Suburban Conference game, while East visits archrival Cloquet. The Elks must be careful not to peak in December, as senior-heavy teams sometimes do; the Hounds cannot take future improvement as a given, and while there were no glaring weaknesses on Tuesday night, there were no clearly pronounced strengths, either. We have a long way to go, and whether East extends its dynasty or another team emerges, it’ll be neck-and-neck to the end.

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