It’s been an unfamiliar sort of season for the Duluth East boys’ hockey team. With a new core and the burden of history, they’re off to a slow start, and there’s been a bit of declinist hysteria (all from outside the program, from what I’ve seen) surrounding a team that would, in a vacuum, simply be finding its way through a difficult schedule. But this is the burden of putting on the jersey of a six-time defending section champion with a target on its back. That burden can also be a source of inspiration, as was the case last season, when 7AA’s confident bluebloods stole a section title away from rising Elk River. Which story will be that of the 2014-2015 Hounds? My visit to Duluth this past week coincided with three of their biggest home games of the year, a stretch that included a decent win, an ugly loss, and a quality effort in a losing cause. As we enter the second half of the regular season, here’s my report on the state of the Hounds—a team that, in the words of its coach, is still “learning how to win.”
The week began in front of a packed Heritage Center for the yearly renewal of the crosstown rivalry with Duluth Denfeld. Long cannon fodder for the Hounds, the Hunters surged to relevance two years ago when they beat East and made the 7A section final, and this year’s team looks to be on par with that one. The Hunters came out fired up and led 2-1 after a strong first period, but East regrouped in the locker room and went on to play solid system hockey the rest of the way. The only real issue from then on was special teams; Denfeld briefly tied the game on a late second period goal, and East squandered numerous power plays in the 3rd before giving the Hunters a breath of life with two late penalties of their own. Even so, they limited chances effectively, and held on for a 4-3 win.
The stakes grew higher on Thursday, when Grand Rapids came to town in a crucial 7AA battle. The Hounds embarrassed the Thunderhawks in Grand Rapids last season, and Rapids was only too pleased to return the favor this year. Once again, a poor first period was East’s undoing, as they were completely worked over by the Rapids forwards and down 2-0 at the intermission. Once again they did a reasonably good job of getting to their systems in the later periods, but another defensive breakdown made it 3-0. The Hounds got one back in the third and the momentum seemed to swing, with history creeping back into everyone’s minds, but an ill-timed penalty allowed Rapids to score the back-breaker, and they added an empty-netter when Mike Randolph pulled his goalie with 3 minutes to go. The power play goal and the empty-netter were Rapids’ only two shots on goal in the third period, showing that the Hounds could stifle Rapids when they did get to their game, but they took far too long in getting there, and it doesn’t take much for the Thunderhawks’ top forwards to leave their mark. The 5-1 final is more reversible than East’s 5-0 win in Rapids last season was, but it’s a mountain to climb.
Things only got more difficult on Saturday, when sixth-ranked Eden Prairie pulled into Duluth. Not only are the Eagles among the state’s elite, they bear a number of similarities to 7AA frontrunner Elk River with their dominant top line; to retain the section crown, East will have to beat a similar team. Finally, East had itself a good first period, grabbing an early goal and playing the Eagles even, and they kept that energy going through most of the rest of the game, ending with the most complete performance I’ve seen out of them this season. They were beaten on two moments of individual brilliance by Casey Mittelstadt, the state’s top sophomore, and despite plenty of chances, the tying goal just wouldn’t come. Mittelstadt finished his hat trick with an empty-netter, giving the Eagles their first ever win over East that did not require three overtimes.
East now sits at 6-7-1, and is at some risk of its first losing season since 1953. The nasty schedule continues on Tuesday, when the team visits undefeated, top-ranked Lakeville North. Things ease up somewhat after that, with five straight opponents outside the top 20, but this team can’t take any of them for granted, and every one will likely be a battle.
In trying to figure out the Hounds’ lurching start, the biggest difference is almost certainly the absence of Phil Beaulieu on the blue line. As Mittelstadt’s performance Saturday showed, a certain D-I player can make all the difference in a tight high school game. It’s also not coincidental that many of Mike Randolph’s greatest overachievers—1991, 1998, 2013, 2014—have been built around a fantastic defenseman or two who could run games from the back. Most fundamentally, the East system requires that defensemen be able to hold up one-on-one against other teams’ top forwards with relative frequency, for those moments when opposing teams do pierce through the clogged neutral zone. The East defense, young and unsettled, is taking baby steps in that direction, but when it has lapses, they are profound, and undo a team that is not built to overcome big deficits.
East’s meager 2.43 goals per game average might suggest offense is their biggest problem, but the numbers can lie. Randolph teams build from the back, and though they have decent forward depth, they don’t quite have the skill to win a shootout against Grand Rapids or Elk River. The Hounds don’t need brilliance from this fairly deep group of defensemen; they just need steadiness and intelligence, with no ill-advised pinches and basic competence in holding the zone. If they can move the puck effectively out of their own zone and limit the odd-man rushes, the chances will come; that’s when East can start worrying about cashing in on those chances, and improving the uncharacteristically poor power play. It’s a very achievable goal, but not a guarantee.
The other big part of the equation is the Hounds’ youth. With three freshmen and an eighth grader seeing ice time, there are going to be some rookie moments, as was the case on Middelstadt’s first two goals in the Eden Prairie game; the first came with an all-bantam-age third line on the ice, while he walked around defenseman Luke LaMaster on the second. The promise is obvious, though, as the young line had a very respectable showing in the offensive zone on Saturday, and LaMaster has shown some flashes as well. East has had some success over the years with the young guns when they grow up quickly enough (1994, 2000, 2005, 2010), though the last two seasons when they were not a top-3 seed—1993 and 1999, neither of which saw deep playoff runs—were also teams that had a couple of freshmen seeing regular ice time.
East has also had some unexpected goaltending intrigue, as incumbent Gunnar Howg’s rocky Elite League carried over into a pedestrian start. Ever decisive, Randolph benched the senior Howg in favor of sophomore Kirk Meierhoff, who has been reasonably good, if not quite a game-changer, ever since. It now seems to be Meierhoff’s job to lose, and we’ll see how he holds up against the Lakeville North assault on Tuesday. As with the young skaters, it is sink or swim for Meierhoff, and he will have to grow up in a hurry.
For all the travails, 7AA is winnable. Elk River is the obvious favorite with the record and ranking to match, but there are questions about its defense and goaltending, and Grand Rapids gave them a one-goal game. Rapids has the firepower, but appears an emotionally volatile squad capable of great peaks and valleys, depending on their psyche. Dave Esse has Cloquet improving, but they need a few more big wins to prove they’re for real; St. Michael-Albertville has a strong record against poor competition. Even Forest Lake and Andover appear modest upset threats.
Under Randolph, the regular season is a 25-game warm-up for three playoff games. It means learning a system, a process exemplified by the performance of Luke Dow, the junior center who had 34 points at Duluth Marshall last season. He has 12 at East so far, to lead the team; of course a tougher schedule makes things difficult—no 4-point games against Eveleth this year—but he’s also being asked to track back far more than before, and be a more complete player. The Hounds have also spread their scoring some, with the top two forwards, Dow and Nick Altmann, on separate lines to generate the depth necessary to keep pace with the top teams in the state. Player point totals do not tell this team’s story.
The goal is to have a balanced machine going by playoff time. It doesn’t work out every year, but as history shows, it does more often than not. The players simply need to keep the faith and keep at it through tough results, building on things like the Eden Prairie game, despite the loss. The margin for error may be smaller than ever, but they have the formula, and have had some sustained moments where they get there. If they continue to build on that and quickly get back to consistent execution when things do go wrong, they can play with nearly anyone, and if the clock is winding down late in a close game at Amsoil Arena, it’s hard not to like the Hounds.