The midway point of the high school hockey season finds me in Duluth, home for a week that conveniently lines up with three crucial home games in Duluth East’s schedule. I’ll write more about these new-look Hounds and their search for an identity—and, oh yes, a seventh straight State Tournament berth—at the end of the week. In the meantime, here’s a tour of the state scene at the moment.
Among the AA schools, two undefeated teams remain. One is no surprise: Lakeville North’s team of destiny has dismissed all challengers. The three Poehling brothers remain a well-oiled machine, while the stellar defense in front of goalie Ryan Edquist holds the keys to the lock that any other title contender will need to crack. The Panthers have allowed just fourteen goals in their eleven games since a season-opening hiccup against Farmington, and with only one top-ten team—and a borderline one at that—left on the schedule, it’s time to unleash the hype machine. This group has a chance at a perfect season, and might be the best team since the Bloomington Jefferson dynasty of the early 90s. The pressure will mount, though, and they’re already starting to see uncommon efforts from the opposition, as limping Eagan gave them a run this past Saturday. The past fifteen years have produced a full graveyard of these so-called great teams that couldn’t close the deal, and we’ll soon learn what these Panthers are made of.
Right on North’s heels are the Cadets of St. Thomas Academy, senior-loaded in their second year in AA and also undefeated—albeit against a somewhat easier schedule. (The Schwan Cup Gold, usually the toughest holiday tournament out there, broke fortuitously for the Cadets, as Edina, Hill-Murray, and Eden Prairie all stumbled before they had a chance to meet the eventual champions.) They’re a well-balanced group, and while they may not have quite the star power of North or the depth of Edina, they have enough of both to beat the top teams if they can soldier through.
Edina, meanwhile, lurks there rounding out the top three, with Curt Giles’ scowl threatening to once more cast its pall over the State scene come March. Yet again, he has a Hornets team in his image: feisty, in-your-face, and there not just to beat the opposition, but to wear it down and bury it in a relentless assault. Their lone loss was a close-fought game with North, though they do also have a couple of ties against two of their bigger Lake Conference rivals. They continue to dodge bullets with penalties, and the defense lacks the game-controlling stars of the past few seasons, but they have the depth, they have the firepower, and they have those Hornets on the front of their jerseys. All three of the big guns are heavy favorites in their sections, and the top three seeds at State are theirs for the taking.
Section 6AA is its usual powerful self, with six of its seven teams in the top 25 in the state. What it lacks this year, however, is a certain state title threat. Wayzata is almost there, but doesn’t seem to have quite the identity of a clear frontrunner yet, and one of the many other contenders could easily derail them. The Trojans are slogging their way through what might be the toughest schedule the state has ever seen, and are good in many departments but not quite great anywhere yet. Eden Prairie is explosive but erratic, while Benilde-St. Margaret’s is deep but hasn’t lived up to the hype quite yet; Holy Family is thin but has some real talent, while Hopkins has a goaltender who can steal a big game. Minnetonka also came to crash the party over the Holidays, tying Edina and beating Eden Prairie to announce its return to relevance after a year-long detour. 5AA, while not nearly as strong as 6AA, is in a similar boat, with Blaine, Centennial, Maple Grove, and Anoka all looking like realistic contenders.
The other three AA sections all have tentative favorites. In 4AA, last year’s darlings, Stillwater, will need a similar miracle run to disrupt a return to the classic Hill-Murray vs. White Bear Lake final. A veteran Bears team, which has rallied together after the defection of Jake Wahlin and the death of senior captain Michael Johnson’s father just before the start of the season, looks to have a serious shot at relatively young Hill, 4AA’s perennial favorite. (In one of those moments that happen only in fairytales and high school sports, Johnson—who is not a prolific scorer—buried a goal on the Bears’ first shift of the season.) I like these Pioneers and their four top-flight defensemen as a serious dark horse at State—perhaps in the mold of 2008, when they went in as the 4-seed and crushed favored Roseau and Edina with a series of relentless hits—but they need to get there first. The most consistently entertaining AA rivalry looks to be headed for a delicious renewal on January 31, when the Bears and Pioneers hold their annual regular season brawl.
With Duluth East and Grand Rapids off to faltering starts, Elk River stands alone at the top of the heap in 7AA, though there is a fairly long list of respectable teams here that could cause the Elks trouble. The Hounds and Thunderhawks collide this week in a clash that will be a pivotal not only for section seeding but also for the psyches of the six-time defending champ Hounds and their longtime whipping boys to the west. If not the Elks, one of these two will likely represent 7AA, and someone needs to take the initiative if the crown is to remain in the north. 8AA also may see a changing of the guard, with surging Bemidji already boasting wins over Roseau and Moorhead, who have owned this section over the past two decades. A State Tourney berth for the Jacks would be their first in 29 years, and should add some fun northern energy to the Xcel Center. They’ve been close before, though, and have a ways to go before they finish the deal.
Class A’s usual suspects are up at the top, with Hermantown sitting pretty after solid wins over the next two highest-ranked teams, East Grand Forks and Duluth Marshall, in a Duluth holiday tournament. Perhaps this could finally be the year the Hawks figure out how to close things out, if their five-year runner-up streak isn’t in their heads. As usual, Breck is in the picture also, and explosive Mahtomedi is the clear favorite in Section 4A. 6A is very competitive and relatively good, with undefeated Alexandria leading the way; down south in 1A, New Prague still looks to be the class of the section despite serious losses to graduation. Luverne is also thinner than last year’s undefeated regular season squad, but the front-end talent there is undeniable, and Hutchinson is probably the only team that can upend them. 5A remains a black hole of section with little hype, but Spring Lake Park is positioning itself for a Tourney debut there.
The scripts are set now: we have our favorites and our underdogs, and know which games will set the stage for the playoffs. Six weeks, and then we’re there.