The Christmas lights are up, Lake of the Isles has iced over, and a new high school hockey season is starting to take shape. In the AA field, eight teams have emerged ahead of the pack, locking down their places at the top of the rankings. The most anticipated regular season game has already come and gone, as Lakeville North took down the team that beat them in last year’s state title game. The Panthers’ top line of Poehling, Poehling, and Poehling gets the headlines with their unmatched chemistry, and goalie Ryan Edquist, a Shattuck import, stood tall against the Edina onslaught. But the real key to victory last week was the defense, whose three veteran seniors let them take control early and did enough to hang on as the game wore on.
Another team making an early move up in the rankings, Hill-Murray, follows a similar script, with four top-flight defensemen. These teams that control the blue line are often the ones left standing in the end, and while the two-time defending champs have no shortage of quality defenders, they don’t have anyone who can control games quite in the way of Jack Sadek and Matt McNeely of North, or Jacob Olson and Davis Zarembinski of Hill. Edina still has the depth to win it all, but Curt Giles must find the right ways to utilize it, or the run will come to an end. North is now the team to beat, and one senses that Hill, after two title game disappointments and a flop in sections last season, may be due to get their swagger back.
The remainder of the top eight includes yet-untested St. Thomas Academy and high-scoring Elk River, plus the usual slate of 6AA talent. Wayzata looks a bit more potent than years past, and if they can couple that added offensive push with their usual lockdown defense, they may be back at State for a second time in three years. Eden Prairie, despite the loss of two Mr. Hockey finalists, has reloaded overnight, with young gun Casey Mittelstadt leading the charge. Benilde-St. Margaret’s, meanwhile, has plenty of depth, but no superstar scorer as in recent years, and the defense once again is a bit too loose, with a host of flashy puck-moving prospects but no one to lock down in front of their own net.
The Duluth East Greyhounds are not among the teams off to a speedy start, and enjoyed the delights of a 6 AM bag skate this morning. The slow start isn’t entirely unpredictable, even on a team that returns four of its top five forwards from last season. They aren’t healthy on defense, and the defense was inexperienced to begin with. It will take time for a few freshmen to adjust to the speed of varsity hockey, though they didn’t look overmatched in the season-opening 3-0 loss to Wayzata, which is cause for encouragement. Similarly, new toy Luke Dow, the Duluth Marshall transfer who was declared eligible just this past week, may take a little while to adjust to a new system and level of competition. And, of course, slow starts tend to be the norm on East teams not blessed with overwhelming top-end talent. This is life under Mike Randolph, as December results are sacrificed for system integrity come February.
Even so, the bag skate suggests Randolph is hardly pleased with the results so far. Most concerning, perhaps, are the blown 2-goal leads in each of the past two games. When the Hounds stick to their formula, they should be wearing teams down late and grinding them into submission, not giving them lifelines. This is still an interesting team, one that should be fairly deep defensively once everyone is back, and has potential for two potent offensive lines. Goaltender Gunnar Howg is an asset no one else in the section has, and can steal a game when at his best. This team has potential for a seventh Tourney berth in a row if they can adapt to the old East formulas and add their own little wrinkles on top.
Section 7AA’s pecking order is slowly coming into shape, with the pressure on the Hounds’ dynasty greater than ever before. Elk River’s offense, as expected, is lighting the lamp at an incredible pace—one that may only be matched by the speed with which the Elks give up goals. They will presumably settle on a goalie in time, but winning 7-5 is not a championship formula, and Elk River will have to tighten up to survive a long playoff run. Grand Rapids was chugging along at a similar offensive pace before a loss to Warroad on Saturday; a battle with Lakeville North this week will give us a better idea if that Swiss cheese defense of a year ago really has improved. Andover, fresh off a tie with Duluth East, isn’t deep but has a few stars, the newest of which is goaltender Maddie Rooney, a UMD women’s recruit who stopped 40 shots against the Hounds. Rising St. Michael-Albertville makes the trek to Duluth this coming weekend, but not before the Hounds face off with archrival Cloquet, ever a threat even with the Jacks limping in on a four-game losing streak.
Things are usually a bit more rigid atop the rankings in Class A, but even the small schools aren’t quite as clear as usual at the start of this season. The usual suspects are all still there, but Hermantown has dropped a couple of games despite its unmatched depth, while Breck isn’t quite hitting on all cylinders yet, either. Defending titlists East Grand Forks are loaded up front but thin on defense, and even Luverne, undefeated in the regular season a year ago, took a tumble against St. Paul Academy. The teams making some noise early include Duluth Marshall, which has been stout in back despite a spate of departures over the summer, and Mahtomedi, whose ceiling may be the highest it’s ever been.
At this point, of course, nothing is set. Some will improve, some will stagnate, and there will be some late-season surprises that throw everything off. Time to sit back and enjoy the ride.