The regular season is coming down to the wire, and it’s been an adventurous week for the Duluth East boys’ hockey team. The Hounds lost back-to-back games for the first time since 2010, both by one goal, though the situations couldn’t have been more different.
Monday’s loss to archrival Cloquet was a blow to a team that rarely loses to local competition. The Hounds had won 12 straight against the Lumberjacks since a 2008 playoff upset, and while there has been a gulf in talent between the two teams for most of the years since, Cloquet usually played well enough to manage at least one reasonably tight game per season over that stretch. Cloquet coach Dave Esse’s strategy was a straightforward one, but not one that is always easy to pull off with a group of middling high school players: they trapped the Hounds, packed it in, and did all they could to slow up the East attack. They successfully turned the game into a snooze-fest, clogging the neutral zone with bodies and lulling a packed Heritage Center to sleep, but keeping East from adding to an early 1-0 lead. All it took was a single odd-man rush for the Jacks to tie the game, and momentum did the rest. Cloquet, fired up at a chance to beat East, withstood a late Hounds push and escaped with the 2-1 win.
On Thursday night, it was an entirely different story, as top-ranked Lakeville North came to town. This time the Hounds got off to an inauspicious start, as the North top line of the three Poehling brothers struck seventeen second in, and again midway through the first period. After that, though, the Hounds gathered themselves, went back to work, and played North at least even for the better part of two periods. Mr. Hockey Finalist Phil Beaulieu popped in a pair of goals, and the Hounds’ defense adapted to North’s speed and began to dictate the tempo. Things slowly came apart as the Hounds tired late in the third, but goalie Gunnar Howg made enough big saves to force overtime, and East had a few near-misses on tips in front of the North net. The Poehlings finally cashed in again three minutes into the overtime, ending a quality effort on a sour note. It was a reassuring rebound performance, but not quite the decisive statement that would have cemented the Hounds as a frontrunner in a complicated Section 7AA.
It’s hard to know what to make of the section right now. Grand Rapids finally found its stride on Wednesday in a win over Hermantown; while one game does not a season make, the 5-3 win was a step in the right direction for a team that certainly has the talent to make a run at a State Tournament berth. Andover has been on fire down the stretch, with wins over quality teams like Elk River, Maple Grove, and Centennial. They’ll truly put their winning streak next Tuesday when they visit state title contender Blaine. Elk River, on the other hand, has lost three of its last four, though all against quality competition, and may need a win over Centennial on Saturday to hold on to the top seed in the section.
The section seeding will be decided next Wednesday, when the coaches will meet at Tobies Restaurant in Hinckley and design a playoff bracket over sticky rolls. Often, the order is logical; this year, it is a mess, with plausible arguments for most any ordering of the top four. East, Rapids, Elk River, and Andover all have quality shots at winning the thing, which means they’d all have to beat two pretty good teams to win the section, but they may have preferences over who they’d prefer to meet in the semifinals. Nor are all four safe bets to escape the first round; an all-but-forgotten Forest Lake team lurks as a reasonably good probable 5-seed, and then, of course, there is Cloquet, which has obviously shown it can take down giants. The other coaches might be angling for a first-round East-Cloquet battle to perhaps knock the Hounds out of the picture, though if the Hounds take care of business in their last two games before the meeting, it would be tough to make a case that they belong at #3, which would match them up with #6 Cloquet.
So, what to make of these Hounds? We know they’re young, but play good team defense. They aren’t going to blow anybody out unless they get a lot of power plays; in fact, penalties could play a big role in their fate, as their power play and penalty kill are among the best in the state, while they have been rather pedestrian at times at 5-on-5. (Encouraging reminder for Hounds fans: last season’s team was much the same way during the regular season, but found another gear when it mattered.)
When this team runs its systems well, they can skate with anyone in the state; the North game makes that abundantly clear. If they stick to the formula, they’ll be tough to beat, especially in a section that lacks elite teams. The trouble is that the scores of most games will stay close enough that anyone will have a shot at them, and as the Cloquet game proved, it doesn’t take much to unleash a bit of momentum. How will the team react to a blown assignment, a bad call, or a strange bounce? The system work is great, but something unexpected is almost certain to happen at one point or another. East’s best playoff teams in recent years, when faced with such unpleasantness, have simply gone back to work, reasserted themselves, and kept the opposition from really feeding off of one single turn of events. Others have panicked, gone down too early to try to block shots, failed to clear loose pucks, and let the other team dictate play. At this point, it’s hard to know which sort we have on our hands. We’ll find out in the coming weeks.