It’s finally time for Minnesota’s most important holiday: the boys’ state high school hockey tournament, which begins at 11:00 on Wednesday. Needless to say, there’s plenty of reason for excitement.
You can find me covering the Tourney in lots of places:
Cold Omaha podcast preview with Danny Ryan, Tony Scott of Youth Hockey Hub, and myself: https://audioboom.com/boos/4240868-2-28-16-high-school-hockey-podcast
Predictions with State of Hockey News: http://stateofhockeynews.com/2016-articles/2016-minnesota-boys-state-high-school-hockey-tournament-preview.html
Longer updates, press conference commentary, and arguments with random anonymous people on the Forum: http://www.ushsho.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=32
Also, check out the Dave LaVaque’s Star Tribune story on Wednesday about the 20th anniversary of the Greatest Game Ever Played, the five-overtime affair between Duluth East and Apple Valley in 1996. I had a minor assist in its creation.
Finally, you can also find me (and a few other Forum members) at McGovern’s on Saturday afternoon after the Class A championship game. Come join the party if you’re around.
To whet your appetite, here are some of this tournament’s biggest storylines:
Who are these people, anyway? No Edina. No Duluth East. No Hill-Murray. No Moorhead or Roseau. You have to go back to 1954 to find the last Tourney without one of those five. Even Lakeville North, which has become a regular and seemed a safe pick to come out of 1AA, is nowhere to be found. This AA field is a mix of throwbacks and newbies, with Eden Prairie being the only real regular entrant in recent years. Grand Rapids, celebrating its 15th berth, is the most regular entrant, but this is only their third of the two-class era, meaning they’ve finally caught up with Rochester Century on that front. (Sorry, Thunderhawks, we wounded Hounds have to get our digs in here and there.) The Halloween Machine is back for the first time in nine years, as is 80s power Burnsville; Anoka, whose best years were in the late 90s and early 2000s, has also unexpectedly crashed the party. On the other end of the spectrum, Farmington makes its AA debut, while Stillwater is suddenly among the favorites in its second State trip.
Can Anyone Stop the Hawks? If the AA field is highly unpredictable, A is just the opposite: Hermantown is a clear favorite, and would seem to be on a collision course with Breck in the final. If ever there were a time for the Hawks to end their long run of second-place finishes, it’s this year—though, of course, I said that last year, too. Barring a Thief River Falls upset of Breck, Hermantown’s road to the title will also go through two private schools, which would really be a nice touch for our old friend Bruce Plante. Hermantown has come a long way in the past few years, going from a plucky upstart trying to hang with St. Thomas to the goliath of Class A
Casey Time This year’s whacky section playoffs drained the Tourney of some of the state’s top talents, but one will be there in primetime: Casey Mittelstadt of Eden Prairie, the top player in the state and arguably the best in his age group in the nation. His talented Eagle team hasn’t always jelled, so if they are to win a third AA title in eight years, it’s likely on the shoulders of the junior Gopher recruit. There’s some debate over whether Eden Prairie deserved the top seed, but in a Tourney with no Edina or private schools, they’re certainly the ones with the targets on their backs.
Debuts on the Big Stage The less predictable Tourney field means the state will get a chance to see many of the top players who might not get as much recognition on the regular circuit of top teams. Isaac Johnson of Anoka is one of the state’s top juniors, while Farmington defenseman Tyler Jette got a Mr. Hockey finalist nomination as something of a sleeper. Ethan Johnson is the heart and soul of Thief River Falls, and the Prowlers will have to ride him as far as they can. Even Stillwater’s stars, such as the Cates brothers and Jesse Bjugstad, should get a little more attention than they did while steamrolling through the weak Suburban East Conference.
Late-Night Intrigue The best two quarterfinals, as is often the case, look to be the late night battles between the 4 and 5 seeds. In Class A, it’s a clash between two private schools that look pretty similar on paper, with debutant St. Paul Academy squaring off against surging St. Cloud Cathedral. In AA, where the privates have been shut out of the field for the third time in six years, we have an all-North battle, as Bemidji and Grand Rapids collide. This one should be great, even if it deprives the North of two cracks at the crown, and sets up a potential classic between the winner and Eden Prairie on Friday night. (Is there anything better than North vs. Metro on a Friday night?) It’s an excellent clash in styles, as Bemidji’s depth and steady defense collides with Rapids’ star power.
Enjoy the Tournament, follow along, and I’ll do my best to share my thoughts as I make my way through this crazy, fantastic week. See you at the X!