Happy State Tournament week! Here’s a quick rundown on what you need to know for four days of nonstop hockey.
Throughout the Tournament, I’ll be tweeting from @KarlEastHockey, and will give longer updates on the Forum, including notes from most of the press conferences. Life has conspired so that I may miss a handful of games this Tourney for the first time in eight years, but I’ll try to give some forewarning if and when that happens. As usual, there will be some sort of reflection essay at the end.
To whet your appetite, here are five of the better storylines heading into this Tournament:
Chasing the Jags
Bloomington Jefferson won three straight titles from 1992-1994, and the 1993 champions went undefeated. No AA team has achieved either of those feats since, but there’s a very large possibility of one of them happening this season. Smart money is on Edina, despite being the two-seed, to win a third straight championship, while the one team to beat them this season, Lakeville North, enters the Tourney 28-0. This sets up the possibility of a mouth-watering final, a rematch of last season’s convincing Hornet win. If it’s those two on Saturday night, there won’t be an empty seat in the house.
Bemidji and Duluth East are this season’s two northern AA entrants, and they open up against two teams that are not exactly Tourney fan favorites—Edina and St. Thomas Academy, respectively. The arena will be behind them, but they both face very long odds; Edina is the cruelest first round opponent imaginable for Bemidji in their first visit to State since 1985, and East is the surprise team in the field—if East can ever really be a surprise—and will have its hands full with STA’s skilled forwards. Still, both are playing well right now, with Bemidji shutting out everyone in their path through 8AA and East showing sizeable improvement over the season and a knack for pulling out the close ones. We’ll see if either one can carry the 218 pride this season.
Is This Finally Hermantown’s Year?
Five straight second place finishes will strain anyone, and Hermantown coach Bruce Plante might just go ballistic if the Hawks fail to clinch the Class A crown this season. This is the best team they’ve had over this stretch, and there’s reason to suspect they could roll through the field in a manner reminiscent of St. Thomas Academy at its best. Still, there are plenty of possible roadblocks, from the East Grand Forks team that took them apart last season to surging Mahtomedi to one of those dreaded private schools, Breck. Still, this is a golden opportunity for the Hawks to put all those demons to rest.
If you want to see many of the top talents in the state, this is a good year for you. The six Metro AA teams have 19 combined D-I committed players, with plenty more to come. Seven Mr. Hockey finalists will be on hand, along with a handful of others who could have easily made the cut. Edina and Lakeville North are about as deep with stars as it gets these days, while it’s no surprise to see Hill and St. Thomas putting out a bunch; the AA quarterfinal nightcap matches two of the best, Blaine behemoth Riley Tufte and Eden Prairie wunderkind Casey Mittelstadt. Mahtomedi junior Jack Becker and Breck junior Chase Ellingson should finally get some recognition this weekend, too. I could go on and on.
A Stacked Field
When Hill-Murray has a strong regular season and still gets stuck playing the top-ranked team in the state in the first round, you know we’re in for some good hockey. Six of the top seven teams, according to nearly every AA ranking, are in the Tournament, and the two northern teams have some intrigue around them as well. The top four in Class A are also there, and St. Cloud Apollo isn’t a pushover, either. It doesn’t get much better than that; the 2012 AA Tourney is about as close as it’s come. That year, in case you’ve forgotten, saw the four seeded teams all go down in the quarterfinals. That seems a longshot this season given the strength of Edina and Lakeville North, but the potential is there for an awful lot of good hockey.
I hope you’ll join me for part of the way, either virtually or in person at the Xcel Center. There will also be a Forum meet-up at McGoverns on Saturday afternoon after the conclusion of the Class A title game and any Bruce Plante press conferences. Enjoy the games.