It’s that time of year again: I’m set for a week of fun and games, with a road trip south to delight in 16 hockey games, the wonders of the 200 level, reunions with old friends, press box popcorn, and visits to Cossetta’s and McGovern’s and St. Paul Grill between sessions or for the after-party. (Friends of the Forum and the podcast: see you at McGovern’s after the Class A championship on Saturday.)
As usual, I’ll be tweeting here. (Mostly random insights and observations; there are 50 other people to tell you the score.) Enjoy a Tourney preview podcast here, and capsules on the quarterfinal matchups beneath this article. We’ll have some additional content on Youth Hockey Hub as the Tourney goes along, including podcasts after Thursday and when it’s all over on Sunday, and I’ll be along with my usual reflection essay, too.
Here are a few of the storylines carrying us into this Tournament:
Casey and the Eagle Legacy In 2009, Nick Leddy won a state championship and Mr. Hockey for Eden Prairie. In 2011, Kyle Rau repeated that feat. Now, Casey Mittelstadt, perhaps the greatest of the three, looks to take his place alongside those NHLers in high school hockey lore. The Eagles hit some bumps in the road early in the season, but Mittelstadt announced they’d be running the table after a winless Schwan Cup, and they haven’t lost since. Eden Prairie is on a roll, and are a more complete team than the star-dependent one that lost to Wayzata in last year’s final. Can they handle that pressure and deliver? Their first road block: that very Wayzata team that beat them a year ago, whom they’ve drawn in a first round game that should make for some great atmosphere.
New Kids on the Block There are three first-time Tourney entrants in Class A, which is pretty rare. Two of them, Monticello and Northfield, will face uphill battles in the first round, but the other, Delano, has some serious talent, and is probably the only thing standing between Hermantown and a second straight championship. Ben Meyers alone is worth the price of admission, and the Tigers have started to spread their scoring around, which they’ll need to keep pace with the Hawks. We’ll see if they can deliver on the biggest stage, and if their defense can hold up against a relentless Hawk assault. All three newbies play in the morning session on Wednesday, along with Mahtomedi; as all four are fairly large Class A schools somewhere on the edge of the Metro, the place should be packed and filled with new energy.
Suburban Fringe Speaking of those schools on the edge of the Metro, this year’s edition certainly throws light on the changing geography of the Tourney. (See this post from a few years back for more.) There are no first ring suburbs in the Tourney this year, and even the second ring—depending on how one defines it—has little to no representation, even after years of domination. There’s no Bloomington, Burnsville, or Anoka now; hockey success has moved outward, to Plymouth, Maple Grove, the south side of Lakeville, Delano, Northfield, et cetera. This doesn’t mean the more built-out burbs are doomed; old faces like Edina, Minnetonka, and White Bear Lake have good shots of returning in the coming years. But it does show the steady march of outward growth. The exceptions closer to the city are the private schools, where, curiously enough, we have more AA privates than Class A privates for the first time ever.
The North Remembers It’s been ten years now since the North last won a AA title, but northern fans have reason for excitement, as the North has produced two seeded teams on different sides of the bracket for the first time since seeding began. Grand Rapids has the feeling of a team of destiny after its dramatic run through 7AA, and their top line is one of the most impressive collections of talent this state has put out in a while. If they can get past Maple Grove and land a Friday night date with Eden Prairie, the X will rock even more than it did for their semifinal collision last season. Out west, Moorhead returns after a three-year absence, and has some thrilling front-end talent of its own, including a flashy all-junior top line and sophomore star in the making Ethan Frisch. They have a tough quarterfinal battle with Hill-Murray ahead of them, but are well-built to make an impression this March.
Protect this Net One thing that jumped out at me immediately regarding the AA field: everyone has a strong goalie. Jake Begley of Hill-Murray is the best-established star and the likely winner of the Frank Brimsek award for the state’s top senior goalie, but he has plenty of company. Thursday’s nightcap will feature two with great higher-level potential in Grand Rapids’ Zach Stejskal (assuming he gets the nod over the equally capable Gabe Holum) and Maple Grove freshman phenom Ethan Haider. Reid Waszczenko of Wayzata was the star of the Trojans’ run through sections, Isaiah DiLaura of Lakeville South holds down the Cougars’ stout back end, and Atticus Kelly of St. Thomas Academy has been the Cadets’ security blanket. Eden Prairie’s Nick Wiencek and Moorhead’s Lance Leonard are probably the least hyped of the group, but put up very solid numbers. The two serious Class A contenders are also in great shape; Cade McEwen doesn’t get tested much for Hermantown but delivers when he does, and Jackson Hjelle has come up big for a Delano team that has allowed a lot of shots on goal at times.
I hope you’ll follow along and join in the fun when you can. Quarterfinal capsules below:
MONTICELLO VS. #2 DELANO
Two State Tournament debutants meet to get things going, as Monticello will look to withstand the Delano offense. Despite being only 20 miles apart, there is no recent history here.
Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake (21-6-1, #14, 1-seed in 5A)
First State appearance
Key section win: 3-1 over 3-seed Chisago Lakes
-The Moose face a tall order in their first Tourney trip. It’s a two-pronged attack up front, with Ben Ward (5) and Nick Zwack (17) leading the offense. Troy Dahlheimer (18) is next on the points list and Casey Chiodo (9) is a strong goal-scorer, while Honza Stibingr (11) leads defensive corps. Tyler Klatt (33) will get the nod in goal. They gave St. Cloud Cathedral a pretty good game late in the regular season, so it’s not impossible to seem them hanging in there against Delano, but they have yet to face this caliber of offense this season.
Delano (24-3-1, #3, 1-seed in 2A)
First State appearance
Key section win: 2-0 over #2 Breck
-The Tigers arrive on the State scene with a fun team to watch. Maine-bound Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Meyers (27) paces the state’s most prolific offense this season—they average 6.5 goals a game—and Michigan Tech recruit Brian Halonen (26) and John Keranen (7) are his longtime sidekicks. They’ve started to spread the scoring around some lately, with John Ylitalo (12) scoring plenty and Garrett Pinoniemi (37), a St. Cloud State-committed freshman, starting to show his potential. Andrew Kruse (9) leads the way on the blue line; though depth and ability to break out from the back will the thing to watch here. Junior Jackson Hjelle (29) is in net. They gave Hermantown a one-goal game in December, albeit with a lopsided shot margin; if anyone has a chance here, it’s the Tigers.
NORTHFIELD VS. #3 MAHTOMEDI
As in the first game, this one features two larger Class A public schools somewhere toward the outskirts of the Metro; this one features a newbie against a young but talented regular that is a mild surprise. There is no recent history here.
Northfield (19-5-3, #13, 1-seed in 1A)
First State appearance
Key section win: 3-2 (2 OT) over 3-seed Red Wing
-The Raiders are unusually balanced for an unseeded Class A team, with 6 forwards over 20 points in the regular season. Jacob Halvorson (22) is the big goal-scorer, with Grant Sawyer (5), Jackson Cloud (11), and Nicholas Kvernmo (9) all having productive years. Griffin Loecher (8) and Jack Fox (3) are their top two defensemen, and Ryan Bielenberg (1) has been very solid in goal. They didn’t play many games outside of southern Minnesota, especially in the second half of the season, but a two-goal loss to St. Cloud Cathedral and a tie against Sartell suggest they’re capable of hanging in there against Mahtomedi.
Mahtomedi (15-11-1, #5, 2-seed in 4A)
State appearances: 8 (first since 2015)
Key section win: 3-1 over #4 St. Paul Academy
-The Zephyrs are back at State following a mild upset of St. Paul Academy in 4A. Luke Posner (2) is the clear star here, with more than double the points of any of his teammates, but they have fairly good depth beyond that. Their next four scorers include one player in each class, from senior to freshman: Matt Vannelli (15), Charlie Bartholomew (27), Dylan Lallier (28), and Colin Hagstrom (4). Sophomore Bailey Huber (32) won the goaltending job over the course of the season and has been hot down the stretch, including some of their big wins. This group doesn’t have the top-end skill of a Delano, but it is battle-tested, with a very tough schedule for a Class A team, and has some chance of making the semifinal interesting.
LUVERNE VS. #1 HERMANTOWN
Luverne draws the short stick and gets saddled with Hermantown in the first round. These two met at State in Luverne’s 2014 visit, and while Hermantown won 6-3, it was closer than expected.
Luverne (22-5-1, #20, 1-seed in 3A)
State appearances: 2 (first in 2014)
Key section win: 5-1 over 2-seed Marshall
-The Cardinals are back in the Tourney after failing to make it with some top end talent the past two seasons. Junior Kasyn Kruse (14) is their star, and they have a bunch of respectable offensive options beyond him, including Nick Harder (9), Ben Serie (15), Jesse Reed (24), and Declan Beers (4). Kaden Erickson (1) has stabilized a goaltending position that was an issue for them in recent years. If St. Cloud Cathedral loses its semifinal, they could get themselves an interesting consolation round game against their former coach, Derrick Brown.
Hermantown (26-1-1, #1, 1-seed in 7A)
State appearances: 14 (8 in a row)
State championships: 2 (2007, 2016)
Key section win: 5-1 over #9 Greenway
-The Hawks have been as dominant as any team in the state this season, and enter the Tourney on a 26-game winning streak, and a 31-game streak against Class A competition dating to the 2015 championship game. This team has more front-end talent than any in Hermantown history, as Mankato recruit and Mr. Hockey finalist Ryan Sandelin (11) teams up with Jesse Jacques (8) on the top line, and Tyler Watkins (18) and Matt Valure (4) lead the second. Dylan Samberg (12), a UMD recruit and Mr. Hockey finalist, anchors the blue line, and has some quality company in Parker Simmons (13), Elliott Peterson (22), and Darian Gotz (14). Cade McEwen (35) is a Brimsek finalist in goal. If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that this team isn’t nearly as deep as last year’s state champs, though they are still deeper than anyone else in this field. Anything short of a championship will be stunning.
#5 ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL VS. #4 EAST GRAND FORKS
Two Class A Tourney regulars collide for the right to face Hermantown in the semis. These teams tied 4-4 in a December meeting. East Grand Forks won their lone State matchup, a 2-1 game in a 2014 semifinal.
St. Cloud Cathedral (20-6-2, #6, 1-seed in 6A)
State appearances: 7 (2 in a row)
Key section win: 3-2 over #8 Alexandria
-Two big-time forwards, Jake Van Halbeck (4) and Michael Spethmann (19), lead the Crusaders into battle. A couple of potent freshmen, Nate Warner (8) and Mack Motzko (18), provide some scoring depth, along with veteran Connor Beltz (11). Jeron Hirschfeld (10) is the standout in a fairly balanced group of defensemen. Jake Levinski (1) will start in net. They’ve played everyone but Luverne in the field and have the Cardinals’ former coach, so there won’t be any secrets here, though if they win this first round game, their Hermantown meeting wound up an ugly 7-1.
East Grand Forks (17-8-2, #7, 1-seed in 8A)
State appearances: 8 (first since 2015)
State championships: 2 (2014, 2015)
Key section win: 5-1 over 3-seed Warroad
-The 8A champion hasn’t lost a first round Tourney game since 2006, but will face their largest test in a while this season. This East Grand group doesn’t have the firepower of their back-to-back state champions, though there are some kids on this team who have done it. Two lines handle most of their scoring, with productivity from Nick Lund (14), Hunter Olson (8), Coby Strauss (21), and Bauer Brown (9). Defenseman Casey Kallock (18) might be their top player, and they’ll bring the usual Green Wave grinding style. Tucker Brown (30) is the goaltender. If they get through Cathedral they do have a strong track record against Hermantown, albeit with far more talented teams.
LAKEVILLE SOUTH VS. #2 ST. THOMAS ACADEMY
Two teams from the south metro meet to start off the AA Tournament.
Lakeville South (18-8-1, #18, 2-seed in 1AA)
State appearances: 3 (first since 2012)
Key section win: 3-1 over #8 Lakeville North
-It all builds from the back for the Cougars, who are back in the Tourney for the first time since their 2012 first-round stunner over Duluth East. Sam Malinski (21) and Wisconsin recruit Josh Ess (10), both defensemen, are two of their top three scorers, while Bradley Golant (3) and Cory Checco (19) lead the forward corps. They have a strong goaltender in Isaiah DiLaura (35). This isn’t a high-scoring team, but with respectable depth and their strength in back, they can control the pace of games. They’re probably getting the least hype of anyone in this tournament, but as long as they can sneak a few in, they could be a quiet upset threat.
St. Thomas Academy (23-4-1, #6, 1-seed in 3AA)
State appearances: 2 in AA (first since 2015); 8 in Class A
State championships: 5, all in Class A (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013)
Key section wins: 7-0 over 6-seed Bloomington Jefferson
-The well-balanced Cadets make their second AA State appearance. Senior Willie Reim (23) leads the team in scoring, but much of their forward talent is younger, including the Christy brothers Ray (15) and Rob (11), plus Payton Matsui (14). Two-way defenseman Robbie Stucker (2) will make an impression in the offensive zone, and they have good depth around him, too. They have strong goaltending in Atticus Kelly (30). The pieces are all there; the question with the Cadets, as is often the case, is whether they can hang in there against a physical opponent that doesn’t make any glaring mistakes.
HILL-MURRAY VS. #3 MOORHEAD
Two State Tournament regulars meet in a quarterfinal with great potential. Moorhead won a February meeting between these two 4-3 in OT. Hill leads the State series 2-1, the most recent meeting being their 2-1 OT win in the 2012 semis.
Hill-Murray (19-5-4, #12, 2-seed in 4AA)
State appearances: 27 (first since 2015)
State championships: 3 (1983, 1991, 2008)
Key section win: 6-3 over #4 Stillwater
-This certainly isn’t the most talented Hill squad ever, but they play coach Bill Lechner’s signature tight defensive style. They do have a few flashy forwards, including Wisconsin recruit Ben Helgeson (14), the diminutive Brock Bremer (20), and Kyler Yeo (9), the son of the former Wild coach. Emmet Nath (27) has also had a productive year. The defense lacks a real standout, though Joey Petronack (12) was the most productive of the bunch, and they all know what to do within the system. Backing it all up is Jake Begley (1), arguably the top AA goaltender this season. This all makes the Pioneers a nasty draw, and if they can score enough, they’re a threat to go a long way.
Moorhead (22-3-3, #9, 1-seed in 8AA)
State appearances: 15 (first since 2013)
Key section win: 6-0 over #25 Roseau
-The Spuds are back at State after a three-year absence, and upsets have cleared their way to a top-3 seed. The offensive production is not especially deep, but Carter Randklev (6), Cole O’Connell (11), and Jack Stetz (21), make up a very dangerous top line. Sophomore North Dakota recruit Ethan Frisch (5) is one of the silkiest defensemen on display, and with Carson Kosobud (2), Parker Larson (22), and Carter Howell (13), the Spuds can lock down in back, as evidenced by three straight shutouts in the 8AA playoffs. Lance Leonard (30) had a strong season in net. They’ve been on a roll, and are undefeated in their last 18 games; if this young group can handle the bright lights, they have the pieces to play on Saturday night.
WAYZATA VS. #1 EDEN PRAIRIE
Two longtime Lake Conference rivals collide in a juicy first round rematch of last year’s title game. Eden Prairie won the regular season meetings 8-2 and 4-2, and this series is dead even at 5-5 in its last 10 installations.
Wayzata (10-17-1, #21, 3-seed in 6AA)
State appearances: 5 (2 in a row)
State championships: 1 (2016)
Key section win: 3-1 over #2 Edina
-The Trojans are one of the wackiest stories this season, as the defending state champs floundered to a 7-win regular season before rattling off three straight playoff wins, including an upset of Edina. They don’t have the forward depth of last season, but they do know how to play within Pat O’Leary’s signature defensive system, and Griffin Ness (22) and Colin Schmidt (3) can put the puck in the net. Andrew Urban (2) and Tyler Stevens (19) also had productive years. Grant Anderson (21), a Nebraska-Omaha recruit, is their star on defense, where Jack Carlson (20) also plays a leading role. Reid Waszczenko (1), despite a 1-win regular season, is a good goaltender who was the star of their run through sections. Stringing together enough wins to repeat will be a tall order, but it’s not too crazy to imagine them winning a game or two here.
Eden Prairie (21-4-2, #1, 1-seed in 2AA)
State appearances: 10 (4 in a row)
State championships: 2 (2009, 2011)
Key section wins: 2-1 over #15 Prior Lake, 4-3 over #5 Holy Family
-The Eagles enter this tournament on a mission, with 15 straight wins since Casey Mittestadt announced they’d run the table. Of course it all starts with Mittelstadt (11), the certain Mr. Hockey winner and a generational talent, but there are plenty of others worth watching in the stable. Sophomore Gopher recruit Jack Jenson (18) joins Mittelstadt on the top line, while steady Nolan Sullivan (12) and agitator Hunter Johannes (27) carry the load on the second. Notre Dame recruit Nick Leivermann (4) is prolific from the blue line, and the rest of the defense knows its role and doesn’t try to do too much. For all the top-end talent, this team’s season came together when they started rolling three deep lines and grinding other teams down; they feel much more like a team than last season’s runners-up. Speedy Spencer Olson (5) anchors the third line, and Nick Wiencek (30) will be in goal. Discipline remains the mild concern.
#5 GRAND RAPIDS VS. #4 MAPLE GROVE
The quarterfinals will close with a North vs. Metro battle, as potent Grand Rapids squares off against unheralded Maple Grove. There is no recent history between these two teams.
Grand Rapids (20-7-1, #11, 4-seed in 7AA)
State appearances: 16 (2 in a row)
State championships: 3 (1975, 1976, 1980)
Key section wins: 5-3 over #3 Elk River, 3-2 (2 OT) over #13 Duluth East
-The Thunderhawks had their ups and downs this season, but burst to life with a flair for the dramatic in the 7AA playoffs, and have the talent to make a deep run. The top line of St. Cloud-bound Micah Miller (20), North Dakota-bound Gavin Hain (8), and Blake McLaughlin (7) is as good as it gets in high school hockey. They don’t have a ton of depth beyond that, but the lower lines have been doing just enough. John Stampohar (24) is their rock on defense, and Michael Heitkamp (2) has also come on to help shore up the back end. Zach Stejskal (35) has been strong in goal, though they have last year’s playoff starter in Gabe Holum (30) waiting in the wings, too. This team did beat Eden Prairie in December, and even though there are shortcomings, someone needs to prove they can stop this top line.
Maple Grove (22-6, #10, 2-seed in 5AA)
State appearances: 2 (first in 2012)
Key section wins: 4-3 over #7 Centennial, 3-0 over #24 Blaine
-The Crimson enter the Tourney without much fanfare, but were strong from start to finish and have some interesting talent. Sam Huff (19) is their big offensive threat, and he’s supported by a cast that includes Justin Kelley (9) and Jarrett Cammarata (16). They have some emerging sophomores in Trevor Kukkonen (4) and Tyler Kostelecky (5), and Jack Kelly (6) leads the D. Freshman Ethan Haider (33) is a star in the making in goal. If he can play well and the top line can take advantage of its opportunities, they can make their first trip to the semis. They’ll have to overcome 5AA’s ugly recent record at State, as the section has just one win this decade.