The Duluth East season is at an end, though Greyounds young and old are still trying to figure out what exactly happened over the past two weeks. The Hounds took us on a ride for the ages, as a mediocre season culminated in a second place trophy. The streak included one of the greatest comebacks in State Tournament history and one of the greatest upsets in State Tournament history on back-to-back nights, to say nothing of one heroic goaltending performance and yet another crazy comeback in sections. Much of the praise for the run, some of mine included, has been directed at Mike Randolph, and he certainly deserves the credit for devising a system that turned a defensive sieve into a trapping machine that shut down Edina’s bevy of forward talent. The old Hound found new tricks, even in retirement.
Importantly, though, Randolph gave all of his praise to the players, and it was those players who made it happen. It was largely forgotten after the first half struggles, but East was ranked in or around the top ten by most people in the preseason, and while there may not have been any can’t-miss D-I upperclassmen, over half of the players on this team will have the chance to play some hockey after high school if they so choose, some of them at a fairly high level. This team was deeper than many, including all of 7AA; by the end of the season they had three competent lines that could score, and rolled six defensemen for the first time in several years. As Edina so often shows the rest of the state, depth kills, and any team with confidence in its full bench is in a position to outlast teams that may have a few more front-end stars.
East didn’t score much this season, but the numbers there are a bit misleading. Thirteen different skaters recorded a point in the State Tournament, and while it was only ever a Plan B, they did show some genuine offensive talent when they had to, rallying back against teams like Blaine, Minnetonka, Elk River, and St. Thomas Academy. Luke Dow and the Altmann brothers are high-quality high school forwards, while Ryan Peterson was one of the stars of the Tourney, and Brian Bunten was a consistent presence. Garrett Worth has the potential to become the next in a line of great East snipers, and Ian Mageau and Ryder Donovan will likely join him in some offensive prowess in the coming years.
This East team had its issues, though, with only one returning defenseman who played defense last year. There were signs of promise from the whole corps, but sloppy or boneheaded moments often did them in; a number of East’s losses involved two reasonably good periods that were undone by one abysmal one. In net, Gunnar Howg hit enough speedbumps to see two other goalies cycled through the job before winning it back with a stellar performance against Lakeville North. A young group including three freshmen and a sophomore slowly found its way against that typically brutal schedule. The first half was a laundry list of can-you-top-this frustrating games: a narrow escape against St. Michael-Albertville, a blown lead in Centennial, a 7-1 shellacking (despite nine power plays!) at the hands of Edina, a loss to Eastview in a winless holiday tournament, and then rock-bottom, a 5-1 home loss to rival Grand Rapids.
It is hard to pin down any one turning point in East’s season. Nick Altmann pointed to a narrow loss to Eden Prairie in January, a solid effort in a bounce back from the Grand Rapids game two days prior; immediately after that came Howg’s performance against North. But there were still bumps. A loss to Anoka led to the adoption of the radical 2-3 forecheck that was the star of East’s best regular season game, a tie at Elk River that proved they had a shot at the section. But even though that scheme played a huge role in some of the Hounds’ wins down the stretch, there were other games where they never really got it going or had to drop it to make up for big deficits.
To pull off this run, this team needed to have something else going for it, some intangible quality that takes all of those clichés about sports and makes them real. Grit, heart, character, determination, belief: whichever word you like. Randolph’s line from the 2014 section final reappeared: “deny losing.” They played each of their six playoff opponents during the regular season, and didn’t beat a single one of them. But yet they got it done. They took down a goalie with a bright future who’d flustered them in a regular season tie, an archrival out for their blood that threw everything they had at them, the Mr. Hockey winner and his team of section destiny, high-powered St. Thomas Academy in its AA Tourney debut, and then the two-time defending champions, a team that had lost just once in its previous 37 games.
The heroes were different every night: Howg against Grand Rapids, a couple of third-liners against Elk River, Ryan Peterson against St. Thomas, the Altmann brothers against Edina. A big hit from Bryton Lutzka here, or desperate goal line clearances from back-checkers there; Alex Spencer throwing it down with Parker Mismash, showing Edina that East wasn’t going to take his agitation lying down. It was a total team effort, and while they exceeded my wildest expectations, after each win, the next one didn’t seem like it would be so implausible. They’d done it before, so why not do it again?
Luck played its part, as it must in every miracle run. There were so many pipes, trickling pucks, and convenient bounces. Dylan Malmquist’s injury will forever be an asterisk on the Edina game. Even so, the Hornets had more than enough firepower to win, and the Hounds made Edina’s other stars look ordinary with their discipline. Their reward was, hands down, the best sports memory I have ever had: 21,000 people in a record-breaking crowd, rising to applaud the darlings of the north. (Call it the East fan’s paradox: we spend the entire regular season as the Evil Empire of 7AA, only to come down to St. Paul to adoration.) It helped that they took down two of the most hated teams in the state, but it was a run that reminded many why it is we love this Tournament so much, and why Minnesota high school hockey has no equal.
The final against Lakeville North wasn’t to be: the Panthers were too good, too precise, and too smart to fall into some of the same traps that others before them had. East lost to one of the all-time great teams to come through the state, and did a decent job of hanging in there, giving some faint hope for yet another comeback. There was no shame in the effort, and while the fourth title remains elusive, another big-time trophy is on its way back to Duluth, none more improbable than this one.
And so we bid farewell to our seniors: Nick Funk, Matt Lyttle, and Evan Little, all of whom came into their own as regular forwards down the stretch, and chipped in big plays in the playoffs. Backup goalie Lucas Hedin, who gave a delicious salute to St. Thomas Academy after East finished them off. Bryton Lutzka, whose experience and big hits led the way on an otherwise green defense. Gunnar Howg, a two-time Tournament goalie who found his niche as a Hound. And the captains, Brian Bunten and Nick Altmann, two hardworking longtime linemates who drew their coach’s highest praise: “you see those two guys right there? They drive the bus.” We wish them all the best, whether in hockey or in life beyond dear old East. Together, they made some memories to cherish.
For the rest of the team, meanwhile, it’s back to work: time to hit the weights, plan an offseason regimen, and probably enjoy some free time away from the rink, too. This was a pretty young team, and there will be a lot of talent coming back next year. Grand Rapids will be loaded, Elk River will be out for revenge, Cloquet is still there, and Marshall is joining the AA party. Seven in a row is nice and all, but eight has a pretty good ring to it, don’t you think?
My annual State Tournament reflection essay (which also, unsurprisingly, includes some stuff about East) is available here.