The Duluth East boys’ hockey team has played twelve of its twenty-five regular season games to date, and with a 9-3 record to date, and are #9 in Class AA in my latest rankings. After losing twelve seniors off last season’s squad and having only four this season, the 2013-2014 Hounds might have been expected to endure some growing pains. Indeed, it hasn’t all been smooth skating; they were upset by a decent Centennial team, had a narrow escape against bottom-feeding Cambridge, and aren’t exactly scoring in bunches. But so far, the positives far outweigh the negatives: they’ve knocked off powers Wayzata, Eden Prairie, and Breck, and played well in a narrow loss to section frontrunner Elk River.
The winning formula looks similar to the one used by last season’s Hounds squad, which also overachieved in the eyes of most pundits. Their anchors are their two big defensemen, Phil Beaulieu and Alex Trapp; both log loads of ice time but handle it well. Beaulieu darts about the ice playing pond hockey, practically without a position; for his efforts, he’s been rewarded with a scholarship to Nebraska-Omaha, where he’ll join former teammate Jake Randolph. Trapp, meanwhile, is as steady as they come, maintaining his discipline and dishing out the heavy hits. Despite the heavy reliance on the top pair, there is some depth on defense; senior Joey Marinac anchors the second pairing, and a steady supply of players have rotated through the other spots, with hard-hitting Bryton Lutzka and 6’4” sophomore Alex Spencer enjoying the bulk of the playing time.
Up front, the top line of Nick Altmann, Brian Bunten, and Jack Kolar has carried most of the scoring load, with Altmann in particular lighting the lamp with regularity. While not as prolific as the top line last season, this group—which was together last season as well—has good chemistry and can at least hold its own against most of the state’s better lines. The second line hasn’t produced a ton of points yet, but—much like the Altmann-Bunten-Kolar line last year—they are a young group featuring two sophomores and a junior, and have generated plenty of offensive zone time. Ash Altmann and Ryan Peterson accounted for two of the three goals in the Eden Prairie win on Saturday, showing their offensive potential.
The third line, on the other hand, remains unsettled. The Hounds lead the state in defensemen converted to forwards, as several D have taken turns at the wings of junior center Maysen Rust. There is potential here, but they have yet to match the level of the all-senior checking line the Hounds put out last season. East may not have the firepower of many of the other teams in the top ten, but they’re good enough to skate with all of them, and if they play smart defense, they don’t need to pile up tons of points.
Smart defense is, of course, Mike Randolph’s specialty. The Hounds’ coach has had some very different types of teams over his quarter century at the helm, but there are constants throughout: puck possession and cycling in the offensive zone, and their ability to forecheck aggressively clog up the neutral zone when they don’t have the puck. The former makes for some very pretty hockey; the latter, on the other hand, is no one’s idea of sexy hockey. But when properly executed, it protects narrow leads and wins tight games, and so far, this young squad seems to be buying in and following the gameplan as well as any. Sure, East might score a little more if Randolph turned them loose a bit more often (and he does throw in some wrinkles from time to time), but they’d also give up a lot more, and this isn’t the sort of team that’s going to do well in a shootout.
A few other things could foul up the formula. The first, of course, is goaltending: junior Gunnar Howg seems to have grabbed the starting spot with his acrobatic saves, but he’s still learning on the job, and has had a few forgettable moments so far. East’s defense doesn’t allow many scoring opportunities, but when they do, they are often good ones, and East goalies will need to be in good form down the stretch. Another mild concern is an occasional lack of discipline; it’s not a persistent problem and the penalty kill is solid, but they’ve taken a few more trips to the box than usual this season, and a few have come at inopportune moments.
Lastly, there is that matter of other teams who will have a say in the Hounds’ fate. Elk River has its best team in some time, and with a narrow win over East in December, they already have a leg up for section seeding. That Elk River team also lost to Grand Rapids, whom the Hounds visit this coming Thursday. East has owned the Thunderhawks in recent years, and they are certainly the deeper squad. But Rapids has one of the state’s best goaltenders in Hunter Shepard, and their collection of talented forwards doesn’t need many chances to make other teams pay. A loss on Thursday would make a top-two seed unlikely, a fate that hasn’t befallen the Hounds since 1999. And while they aren’t nearly as talented, an offensive outage from the Hounds could certainly give teams like Forest Lake, Andover, and even Cloquet a shot at a playoff upset.
And so the Hounds head into the second half, and as usual, the schedule is one of the toughest. In addition to the Grand Rapids game, they also play rival Duluth Denfeld this coming week, and will look to avenge last season’s embarrassing loss. They will also face a powerful Blaine team and Lakeville North, the state’s first half darlings who came out of nowhere to beat many of the elite. More often than not, one can predict the Hounds’ destiny based on the way they play over the second half; if they win the games they’re supposed to win and at least play top teams tough, their playoff prospects are excellent; if they struggle in games they should win comfortably, they might have peaked a little too soon. Time to see what this young team can do.