Duluth East’s regular season came to an inauspicious end on Saturday, as the Hounds fell in a 6-1 laugher to Minnetonka. It was a strange end to a strange regular season, and after the wheels fell off during a pair of overlapping major penalties, the game degenerated into sloppiness and ill-advised penalties. Head Coach Mike Randolph was away watching his son play for Nebraska-Omaha; it was probably better for his sake and for the players that he missed it, though one wonders if we’d have seen some of the dumb penalties with the old general on the bench. Regardless, it wasn’t a pretty sight, and one the Hounds will have to shake off in sections.
The loss blighted an otherwise respectable late season run, as East rolled through weaker teams and gave glimpses of serious contention in winning 10 of its last 12. The only other loss was a tight decision to a very good Lakeville North team on choppy outdoor ice, and the team scored quality wins over Prior Lake and Elk River. But still, there have been periodic red flags, including overtime wins over Hopkins and Lakeville South. There were spurts of offense and games with solid defense, but rarely has it all quite jelled.
Randolph has been juggling his lines throughout, though he appears to have settled on something late in the year. Leading scorer Ash Altmann has joined sophomores Ian Mageau and Garrett Worth on the top line, and Ryan Peterson and Luke Dow anchor another quality line. Perhaps the most positive development has been the emergence of Mageau, who now sits second on the team in points. Beyond that, there’s been a steady cycle of bodies across the third and fourth lines. The decision to start one of these lines in each period seemed to put the Hounds on the back foot every time against Minnetonka, and while it was far down the list of issues in that game, it certainly didn’t help. East needs some steadiness from these lower lines, and will need the top two to carry the load if the team is to go anywhere in sections.
The defense has no shortage of talent, and for long stretches, it looks as sound as any in the state. But it still has its moments, and whether it’s a meander out of position, a bad penalty, or a moment of inattention, these lapses can prove fatal. Goaltender Kirk Meierhoff has done the job; he’s probably not going to steal a game, but if the team in front of him plays well, he’s very capable of taking this team back to State. I’m left repeating the same refrain I’ve said all year: the pieces are all here. They just need to find the poise, leadership, and attention to detail that was so evident in last season’s playoff drive, but has not always been apparent in this squad. The odds are probably better than last year, but this team will need to dig deep and recapture some of that old magic over the next week.
The Hounds will likely collide with Elk River in the 7AA semifinals next Saturday. The Elks had a strong regular season, as a young group showed great potential. Moreover, they’re finally healthy; one of their top two forwards, Jax Murray and Jensen Zerban, was out for nearly every game, but they are all back now, and collected a strong win over Hill-Murray in the season’s final week. Zerban and freshman Notre Dame recruit Jack Perbix missed the Elks’ 5-2 loss to East a few weeks ago. Murray, Zerban, and Perbix now lead a potent top line, and a second line featuring Max Michaelis and Nate Horn is less heralded but more than capable of hanging with the other second lines in this section. The Elks, if they can get over their ugly history at Amsoil Arena, might just be primed to steal the 7AA crown.
If East gets past Elk River next weekend, the team’s next foe likely lies up Highway 2. Grand Rapids wrapped up a strong regular season with an impressive push to the finish, winning 10 of its last 11 to clinch their first top seed in a couple of decades. They have the most talent of anyone in this section, and have been playing like it lately, with gaudy shot totals and excellent puck possession. They played like that for a majority of their meeting with East at the IRA Civic Center in January, and yet East still had them on the ropes late in the third before succumbing in overtime. Here, we can ask the same question that we asked of East’s overtimes with inferior teams: does the Thunderhawks’ ability to pull out that win show they’ve finally turned the tide, and won’t fold under the pressure? Or does it show that, for all their talent, they’re still on equal footing with the Hounds, in danger of coming up short against the 7AA playoff veterans?
As has been the norm over the past five seasons, Rapids’ weakness is in back, where the defense is thin enough that one of their better forwards spent some time manning the blue line this season. Anyone seeking to beat the Thunderhawks will likely have to clog up center ice and limit chances before going on the attack when they leave themselves vulnerable, playing the momentum game as East nearly did in January. Rapids has entrusted its goal to a sophomore, Gabe Holum. Most expected the Rapids goalie to be a sophomore—Zach Stejskal—but Holum came out and won the job fairly, and has played superbly. Still, it’s probably worth noting that, to my knowledge, no team has ever come out of the modern 7AA with a sophomore as its regular starter net.
Elsewhere in the section, Cloquet does its usual act of lurking, doing just enough to suggest they might be able to give a top team a game. Duluth Marshall, slowed by injury early, had an underwhelming 9-14-2 debut in Class AA, but they played their two best games against section rivals (East and Rapids). They’re a young team, so the future is probably brighter, but I still thought this team should have been better than its quarterfinal opponent, Cloquet. After that, it’s a jumble. Forest Lake has a better record than Andover, but also had a much easier conference, and haven’t done much to suggest they can stick with a top-3 team; Andover, on the other hand, has been pesky at times, though it will take a new level to be able to hang with an East team that has improved considerably since the December meeting.
The 7AA representative at State will probably need some upset help to earn a top five seed, but if there was ever a season in which seeds didn’t matter, it’s this one. Barring major upsets, no one really offers an easy draw, and the state is as wide open as it’s ever been. Undefeated Benilde-St. Margaret’s is a deserving #1, but they don’t bury their opponents, and all eyes are on the wounded shoulder of their top forward, Cade Gleekel. Minnetonka has surged while preseason favorite Eden Prairie tanked; Tourney regulars Edina and Hill-Murray are, like the Hounds, facing tall odds to get back to State. Blaine, Lakeville North, and Bemidji enter sections on long win streaks, but haven’t faced much of anyone in recent weeks. The only guarantee at this point is bedlam.