The final week of the high school hockey regular season begins next week. For Duluth East fans, this season is lurching oddly toward the finish line, filled with more uncertainty than any time in recent memory. There have been signs of progress along the way, as they’ve held two of the of the state’s best offenses under two goals, and had a few more offensive outbursts lately, but on the whole they are still a .500 team, headed for their first serious section quarterfinal game in over 15 years.
The most encouraging outing came on Saturday night in Elk River, when the Hounds played the Elks dead-even on the road en route to a 1-1 tie. After a slow start, a crushing hit by Alex Spencer jolted East to life, and the Hounds took it to the Elks for a majority of the rest of the game, bottling them up superbly and generating their own share of chances. A shot in the final minute of overtime might just have slipped in under the crossbar—no one will ever really know—but the statement mattered more than the final score: when they play well, East is on par with the section’s best.
The game showcased Mike Randolph’s spurt of ingenuity this season: a 2-3 forecheck, with the center manning the point along the blue line between the two defensemen. It’s something I haven’t seen out of a prominent high school program before, but it makes intuitive sense: with a struggling defense and a lack of talent to maintain the dominant forecheck of years past, the Hounds have resorted to doing everything they can to bottle up the opposition in its own zone. This approach comes at the obvious expense of bodies down low—with only two forwards deep in the zone, the offense runs the risk of becoming a very predictable series of passes around the perimeter—but it can make it difficult for even good teams to break out with any rhythm, and protects the defensemen from overexposure. The presence of the center on the blue line also frees the defensemen to pinch more freely than they might otherwise, keeping some semblance of the classic East cycle alive. To give an idea of its effectiveness, Elk River hadn’t been held under 3 goals all season long, but needed a late power play just to tie this game at one.
That cycle was on display again on Monday. East continued to work the 2-3 in Cloquet, a decision that may have sacrificed a chance at a win in the short term in the interest of preparing the system for the playoffs. They kept Cloquet bottled up for long stretches of the game, to the point that the Jacks’ offense degenerated into a string of icings, but the go-ahead goal never came, as East never generated quite enough in front of the net of sophomore Eric Newman. This is the weakness of the system: it gives East a shot against most anyone, but it also lets less skilled opponents hang around, and that is an especially important concern given the likely first round match-up against Andover, a team built around a great goalie and the occasional offensive surge forward.
The lack of offensive zone presence wasn’t an issue on Thursday against Blaine’s porous defense, but the sloppy defense reared its ugly head again, especially in the opening twelve minutes of the game, when East spotted the Bengals a 3-0 lead. While they showed their mettle as they battled back to twice tie the game, the game was already being played on Blaine’s terms, and that did not bode well for a team built around defense first. It was a second straight toss-up game with a top-ten team, but these track meet games are too volatile, and reminiscent of their most recent losses in sections, a 6-5 loss to Cloquet in 2008 and a 5-4 loss to Grand Rapids the year before, when East lost control for long stretches before coming back and ultimately failing to close the deal. Blaine is a top-ten team and deeper offensively than anyone in 7AA, but Grand Rapids and Elk River certainly have the firepower to get East into that sort of game (as Rapids did in January) and render all of this pining for systems useless.
The East defense remains the most profound concern. There are too many blown assignments and bad decisions leading to odd-man rushes, and occasional long stretches stuck in the defensive zone quickly deflate momentum. Stupid penalties have also been rally-killers at times. Gunnar Howg has won the goalie job back for good and has proven a savior at times, though he can’t do it all himself. I’ll avoid naming names, but a couple of players are frequent culprits, and must avoid the lapses that may end up costing this team its season.
The offense is showing more potential after a slow start. The longtime top line combo of Nick Altmann and Brian Bunten creates the most chances, many of which come agonizingly close but don’t quite make their way into the net. The all-junior second line, after leading the way early on and going a bit cold midway through the season, erupted in the Blaine game, giving some hope there. Luke Dow is certainly the most dynamic of the centers, and can run things from the point when East sets up the 2-3 in the offensive zone. The third line, usually featuring freshmen Ian Mageau and Garrett Worth with Matt Lyttle playing the high center role (with occasional Nick Funk and Ryder Donovan sightings) is now scoring with some regularity as the young snipers come into their own. The three freshmen on the roster have all come along nicely as this season goes on.
And so the Hounds head for their reckoning. They have two games in the final week, both against higher-ranked but beatable teams, Lakeville South and Minnetonka. Between those two games is the 7AA seeding meeting, which should be put on pay-per-view, but is most likely to hand the Hounds a 3-seed and a first round date with Andover. (There’s an outside shot St. Michael-Albertville could poach the 3 and leave East playing Cloquet in the quarterfinals, but I’ll be surprised if their schedule gets much respect at the meeting.) It doesn’t matter a whole lot, since the section is such a mess. Elk River has its best player in Jake Jaremko, but the depth, especially on defense, is not phenomenal, and Amsoil Arena has not been kind to them. Grand Rapids is bipolar, looking like world-beaters one moment and sickly the next; who knows if they can string together three straight wins. STMA is reasonably deep and hungry to prove themselves, but venturing into uncharted territory; Dave Esse has hard-working Cloquet rising to the occasion down the stretch. Andover has a goalie and a handful of skaters who can be difference-makers, and are plenty capable of stealing a game or two. Even Forest Lake, despite a poor year, has a history of doing well against Rapids, whom they are almost certain to play in the first round. And then we have these Hounds, trying to find that right balance and get back that East side energy and confidence that have kept them atop this section for the past six years. We’ll see if this group has it in them.