The high school hockey season is around its midway point, and the next two months should offer their share of high drama. If you haven’t heard enough of my blather on the Cold Omaha podcast, here you have it in prose.
The field is almost always an unpredictable open brawl, but this 2016 takes it to the extreme. Of the four most regular Tournament entrants of the two-class era, none are presently favored to win their sections. Moorhead is buried behind Bemidji in 8AA, while Edina is in the running but has top-ranked Benilde in its section, and may have to deal with rival Wayzata in a semifinal as well. Hill-Murray is serviceable, and has the benefit of a pretty thin section, but will have to get past some Ponies. Duluth East, meanwhile, is attaining new levels of weirdness. (More on the Hounds next week, after they play some big games against Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie.) Still, an unranked Hounds team looked perfectly capable of beating #2 Blaine this past week, showing just how wide open things can be.
Part of the trouble comes from no team having a truly elite defense. The closest to having one is Benilde-St. Margaret’s, so that’s a big part of why they’ve beaten the odds to remain undefeated into January. Still, the margin for error is thin: with Connor Mayer out hurt during the Sports Authority Holiday Classic, they looked awfully beatable. Benilde has treated fans to some wildly entertaining games in St. Louis Park over the past month; maybe they know how to win, or maybe that just shows how thin their margin for error is. The Red Knights deserve their #1 ranking, but it also probably means less than any other #1 I’ve ever handed out.
Eden Prairie, the preseason favorite, has largely lived up to its billing. They were always a flawed favorite, so their two losses shouldn’t be any great shock. Casey Mittelstadt and Michael Graham are doing their usual thing, and the defense and rest of their top two lines do the job, but there are some rough spots around the margins. And as big as those two Eden Prairie stars are, they’ve been eclipsed by another so far: Blaine’s Riley Tufte is running away with the Mr. Hockey race with a monster start to the season. I don’t think a forward has ever carried an elite AA team as totally as Tufte is doing right now, but his wingmen are all able, smart players, and the Bengals have their formula down.
Elsewhere in AA, the teams jostle about: Holy Family’s fine puck possession game has them in the top five, while Lakeville North’s troubles in back drove them from it. Minnetonka is quietly rising through the ranks, and Stillwater could be dangerous if they ever played a serious opponent. With all of these teams, success seems possible on any given night. But nearly all of them are equally at risk of a tumble in the section semifinals. Wayzata can’t quite seem to decide if they want to be a front-line contender or a total train wreck, and could use some decisiveness as they make up their minds.
This was supposed to be a banner year for the northern AA schools, but most of them haven’t quite lived up to the billing. Bemidji lost to Cloquet in a battle of Lumberjacks, and isn’t winning with quite enough authority to leave me sold. Grand Rapids has had flashes with its wins over Edina and Minnetonka, but the familiar Rapids demons on the blue line still rear their heads from time to time. And then there is Duluth East, still trying to shake off a spate of questionable mid-December losses.
Class A northern teams, meanwhile, have a better story to tell. Hermantown is being its usual self; they may not be quite as deep as last year’s favorites, but the front-end talent is there. The only unbeaten and untied team in the state is Hibbing, led by the sublime Scott Perunovich; the Bluejackets should, at least, be able to give Hermantown a game. Greenway, too, is on its way back up, and gave Hibbing a good game. It’s been a dark year on the Iron Range, but there is newfound life in some of its most historic arenas. Even North Shore, the Silver Bay-Two Harbors co-op, has a gaudy record. And while they may not be elite teams, Thief River Falls and two-time defending state champ East Grand Forks should battle to the wire for the 8A crown.
Down the stretch, a lot of big games will come down to those old sports clichés about coaching and knowing how to win. In those cases, it’s not a bad idea to bet on the old favorites, even if they seem a bit down. Being conditioned and battle-tested will matter, and whoever wins it all isn’t going to do it by overwhelming the opposition, but by taking these games and gaining the confidence to pull out the tight ones, as Benilde has been doing so far. To that end, I’m wary of betting on anyone who has a weak schedule toward the end. Running it up on conference opponents just doesn’t quite cut it.
So, where do we go to find the teams who will emerge in March? Look to see who is battle-tested, and pulling out wins in tight games. Look to the play on the blue line; defense really does win championships. Watch to see who’s putting things together, and in a year when everyone is flawed, look to see whose issues look most correctable. Look to see which coaches are adjusting their systems to their talent, and which ones are beating the same old themes in desperate hope that it will work. Even in a year of parity, the cream will rise to the top.