It was supposed to end last night. Five in a row was quite enough. The Elk River Elks had beaten the Duluth East Greyhounds during the regular season, and whatever the seeds said, everyone knew they’d had a slightly stronger season. The Elks were feted on Hockey Day in Minnesota this year, touted as a team returning to glory. When a star player left midseason, they pulled together. They weren’t remotely intimidated by the hostile environment in Amsoil Arena, keeping the mood light during pregame introductions and controlling the opening minutes of play. Star goalie MacLean Berglove was on top of his game; it took two rebounds for East to finally get a puck past him late in the second period, and the Elks had an immediate response just ten seconds later. It was a tight game at 2-1, but the Elks were in control. The clock ticked down on the Duluth East dynasty, and up in the stands, I was already writing a requiem in my head.
Not so fast.
East plugged away methodically for much of the third period, but despite a widening edge in shots, Berglove held firm. Then, with four minutes to go, a break: a penalty, the first one of the game. The refs had let the teams play, but Dylan Bouten’s takedown of East’s Alex Trapp was a bit too obvious to ignore. East’s lethal power play went to work, but the top unit, which included a wounded Jack Kolar, didn’t generate much. Out came the second unit, a line of three sophomores, including Alex Spencer, a converted defenseman whose primary purpose is to screen the opposing goaltender. Trapp very nearly found Spencer on a long breakaway pass, but the referees called it back. No matter, Hounds: back to work. With 2:08 on the clock, Spencer swatted a back-hander past Berglove to tie the game.
The clock ran out on regulation. Overtime. The Hounds smelled blood. Two minutes in, leading scorer Nick Altmann spotted daylight between Berglove’s pads, and fired his shot. I couldn’t see it from my angle, but I didn’t need to. It was bedlam at Amsoil. Sticks and gloves exploded in every direction, the student section toppled into a black-clad mass up along the glass, while Mike Randolph barreled out on to the ice to hug his student manager. The party went on through the awards ceremony and on into a frigid Duluth night, car horns echoing through the parking ramp and giddy kids hanging out of windows, jawing back and forth. The Hounds will head back to St. Paul for a sixth straight year, and the fifteenth time in the past twenty-one.
The odds had rarely been longer. Yet somehow, this Hounds team that needed overtime to beat an awful Cambridge team in November found a way. Their coach, Altmann said, told them to “deny losing.” The finish was a carbon copy of their stunner over Grand Rapids in 2011, and not terribly far off from an even more excruciating upset of Cloquet in 2005. Randolph’s record in section finals speaks for itself: 15-1, those fifteen wins now tied for second-most in state history, behind only Edina legend Willard Ikola.
They did it with a team with only four seniors, and with only one returning player who had scored more than 15 points last season. Their offensive numbers were hardly dynamic, and the defense, while strong, had its occasional lapses. Goaltending was also a large question mark heading in, yet East got it done all the same.
To be sure, these Hounds were hardly the little sisters of the poor. They were in the top 15 all season long, and defenseman Phil Beaulieu is one of the state’s finest talents. His partner, Trapp, is also an elite high school defenseman, and the Hounds have their customary organizational depth, with no shortage of quality forwards. Yet once again, they are playing in March, while a host of quality teams will watch from the stands.
This East group found its share of improbable heroes, including Spencer and the scorer of the first goal, Bryton Lutzka. While talented, Lutzka prompted his share of head-shaking on my part over the course of the season; on Thursday night, he played his best game of the year. Before the third period, I joked with a friend on whether Beaulieu might just go out there and play the whole period. There was no need for that this season. Randolph had full confidence in his complete bench, and his bench bought what he’d been selling all season long. There are valid critiques that can be leveled at the storied coach, but a man doesn’t stay on the same job for twenty-five years without changing, and the current version of Mike Randolph seems to have struck the proper balance. His intensity is inspiring instead of overbearing, and his wry humor is peeking out more often; more than anything, he is having fun. And when a man can couple a life of hockey knowledge with a confident, fiery swagger, it’s no wonder when the results follow.
The Hounds will learn their opponent for Thursday’s quarterfinal on Saturday morning. For once, East will not be among the favorites; instead, they will head south with nothing to lose. It’s an unfamiliar position, but one in which East could thrive, so long as they stick to their game. While they have a couple of lopsided losses to top teams, they’ve also had a couple of very close games with them, and no one team stands head and shoulders above the rest in this field.
Elsewhere in the state, the playoffs have produced their share of thrillers. Eden Prairie beat Benilde-St. Margaret’s in double overtime to win the always difficult 6AA, while Roseau—whose population is smaller than the enrollment of Eden Prairie High—outlasted Moorhead in a back-and-forth barnburner. There was a fair amount of schadenfreude when St. Thomas Academy, the private school power that had overstayed its welcome in Class A, blew a 2-0 lead and fell to Eagan 4-2 in the 3AA title game. While not entirely unexpected, as the Cadets are a fairly young team, the loss meant at least one of my preseason predictions was right: AA playoffs really are an entirely different story. St. Thomas simply didn’t play deep and physical teams like Eagan in Class A, and beating that sort of team is going to require some adjustments from their default transition game and efforts to set up perfect shot. A few sections were less surprising, as emerging power Lakeville North rolled through 1AA, and an upset loss by Burnsville left Edina with smooth sailing to an eighth straight Tourney.
In Class A, the field may not necessarily be as strong as usual, but it is a unique one with a number of new faces. With St. Thomas in AA and Breck losing a stunner to Orono, only Hermantown remains among the class’s traditional powers. Top-ranked East Grand Forks barely scraped past an excellent Warroad team in double overtime, and another top-five team, Duluth Marshall, was stuck in the same section as Hermantown. That leaves the Hawks and East Grand Forks as odds-on favorites to meet in the final, but there is intrigue elsewhere. Undefeated Luverne rolled through 3A, and while they haven’t played anyone difficult all season long, they do have some talent, and have at least some chance of making some noise. Orono has already proven it can take down giants, and New Prague looks to be a dangerous, physical team as well. The Class A teams will kick off the action at 11:00 A.M. on Wednesday, and after that, it’s four straight days of endless hockey. I’ll have an update on where to find my coverage of the Tourney in the coming days.