The annual carnival is about to begin, so here are my annual storylines and quarterfinal previews. Tony Scott, Danny Ryan, and I have preview podcast for your enjoyment, and my Danny and I will also put out our itinerary for the week on Youth Hockey Hub so that our loyal followers may stalk us. As usual, I’ll be tweeting regularly here, though don’t come to me for score updates—there are 583 other people doing that, so I see it more as my role to add scattered insight, along with some inane humor to go along with the Tourney. So, here are some things to watch this Tourney:
Fab Four Final Four? The AA field is one of the strongest ever at the top: the same four teams have stayed ranked somewhere in the top four since December, and those four have all made the State Tournament. (Listen to the podcast to get an idea of just how rare that is.) Edina, Minnetonka, St. Thomas Academy, and Duluth East are all loaded. All three are very complete teams, with several lines that can score and deep groups on defense; Edina has the most firepower, followed by East, while St. Thomas has the best goaltender, and Minnetonka is probably the most balanced across the board. None exactly have a free pass to the semis—just ask the 2012 field, which was nearly as loaded and saw all the top seeds lose in the first round—but if it is those four, or even three of those four, battling it on out Friday night, it could be one of the most memorable sets of semis in recent memory.
The Class A Mystery Ride Half the (all public school!) Class A entrants have at least 10 losses, and none have fewer than six. After last year’s stunning upsets by usual doormats from 1A and 5A, and a spirited run at an upset by the 3A representative as well, no one should be overly shocked by a big result out of one of those sections this season against someone other than Hermantown. And while the Hawks are the clear favorite for a fourth straight season, even they are more beatable than usual, with an offense reliant on one top line. While the favorites remain clear, the gap between the historically weaker sections and the powers is smaller, especially in a year when Class A lacks teams that are on par with AA’s best.
North vs. Metro, 2018 Edition Normally there are bitter grumblings from everywhere north of St. Cloud when the 7AA and 8AA winners meet in the quarterfinals, but since St. Michael-Albertville isn’t exactly a northern team, there won’t be much of that this season. A year removed from an all-north final, Duluth East is alone in carrying the weight of area code 218. In Class A, barring upsets, the semis could likely feature a Mahtomedi-Orono battle for the metro area championship in the first game, and a contest between Hermantown and Alexandria or Thief River Falls for northern bragging rights thereafter. The winners of those would then collide in a North vs. Metro championship.
Depth of Field A year after Grand Rapids rode one incredible line to a AA championship, we have a Tourney in which most of the top teams are defined by balance. Minnetonka has three excellent lines, Edina has two elite scoring lines, East has three that can score within the machine-like Mike Randolph system, and St. Thomas also has a solid supporting cast behind its top group. Even in Class A, Mahtomedi and Orono exhibit more depth than most usual contenders for the small-school crown. The notable exceptions among the seeded teams: Centennial, who will look to ride Lucas McGregor as far as he can take them, and, surprisingly, Hermantown—though the Hawks’ depth is certainly still respectable by Class A standards.
Stars in Abundance As usual, there’s no shortage of front-end talent at the Tourney. Edina’s Sammy Walker, the odds-on favorite for Mr. Hockey, will try to become the first player to win that award and a state title in his senior year since Kyle Rau in 2011. His teammate Demetrios Kouzmontzis is also a Mr. Hockey finalist. Duluth East sniper Garrett Worth and assist machine Ryder Donovan will be on hand, as will the aforementioned Lucas McGregor of Centennial and Luke Loheit of Minnetonka, plus his sophomore sidekick, Bobby Brink. It wasn’t a deep year for defensemen in Class AA, but it may not be a coincidence that the three top seniors—Luke LaMaster of Duluth East, Chase Foley of St. Thomas Academy, and Garrett Daly of Lakeville North—are all in this Tournament. Edina’s corps, while all underclassmen, is as loaded as it gets, and Minnetonka’s is no slouch either. In Class A, it’s mostly about balance, save for the Hermantown top line featuring Tyler Watkins and Blake Biondi, and Alexandria’s Ben Doherty. We’ll see if any stars on the less heralded teams can make a name for themselves, as Ben Ward and Nick Zwack did for Monticello last season.
Class A Quarterfinal Capsules:
MANKATO EAST VS. #2 MAHTOMEDI
-For the second straight season, Mahtomedi faces the Section 1A entrant in a Wednesday morning quarterfinal. These two have no recent history.
Mankato East (16-10-2, unranked, 2-seed in 1A)
State appearances: 2 (first in 2006)
Key section wins: 3-1 over 3-seed Minnesota River, 6-1 over 5-seed Rochester Lourdes
-Unlike many unranked Class A entrants, the Cougars are not a team to ride just one great player. No one had more than 23 points in the regular season, but they are balanced, Sam Shulz (16) was the top point-getter, while Matthew Salzle (6) and Layten Liffrig (22) led the way in the goals column. Defenseman Jake Anderson (14) is their second-leading scorer, and a strong defensive game will likely be the key to this first round match-up. Jack Cusey (29) had a strong season in goal. The Cougars are probably the biggest mystery in this field; they did tie Mound-Westonka in their lone game against a top ten Class A team and seemed to get stronger as the season went along, though they have some questionable losses, too.
Mahtomedi (21-6-1, #2, 1-seed in 4A)
State appearances: 10 (2 in a row)
Key section win: 6-3 over #16 Simley
-The Zephyrs return to State as a balanced squad with scoring up and down the lineup. Charlie Bartholomew (27), Kory Pilarski (10), and Nikolai Dulak (9) are their most productive forwards, but their top nine forwards were all in double digit points in the regular season against a fairly tough Class A schedule. Noah Skillings (8) and Tommy Broten (14) are the top defensemen. They also have the top goaltender in the field in Bailey Huber (32), who boasts a .939 save percentage. They can match Hermantown’s depth, but must find a way to contain the Hawks’ top line if those two meet, as they can’t match that star front-line talent. And, of course, they have to get there first: for all their Class A success, they’ve never made a final.
LITCHFIELD/DASSEL-COKATO VS. #3 ORONO
-Two Wright County Conference schools (despite the fact that neither is located in Wright County) collide in the quarterfinals. Orono won both regular season meetings in convincing fashion, with 10-0 and 7-1, and has won 36 straight games in this conference series dating to a Litchfield win in December 2001, including four playoff games when both were in 3A.
Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato (16-11-1, unranked, 2-seed in 3A)
State appearances: 4 (first since 2016)
Key section win: 4-1 over #19 Luverne
-The Dragons return to State after offing Luverne in a mild upset to win 3A. Brandt Pederson (4) is their unquestioned star offensively, while defenseman Orrin Grangroth (18) is their second leading scorer, both in goals and points. Paul Raisanen (27) and Dylan Schutz (10) round out the top line, and also had productive seasons. They’ll need a big performance out of Darby Halonen (30) in goal to have a chance, and he comes in hot off a strong performance over Luverne. Special teams were not a strength, so staying out of the box will be key to their hopes of flipping the script.
Orono (20-7-1, #5, 1-seed in 2A)
State appearances: 9 (first since 2014)
Key section wins: 6-3 over #11 Minneapolis, 2-1 over 6-seed Breck
-The Spartans put together their strongest season in recent memory and came out of one of Class A’s deepest sections. Senior Jack Suchy (16) is their star, and Thomas Walker (23) is next in line on their list of point-getters, but like Mahtomedi, this is a relatively deep Class A group, as they have eight forwards over 15 points. The forwards take care of most of their offensive production, with Daniel Eckerline (37) and Jack Kubitz (22) leading the charge on defense. Evan Babekuhl (33) is one of the stronger netminders in the field. Given the regular season results they should cruise to a date with Mahtomedi for a metro area championship of sorts, but they did lose to a 3A team in Hutchinson this season.
MONTICELLO/MAPLE LAKE VS. #1 HERMANTOWN
-The evening session opens with a rematch of last season’s double overtime championship game thriller. That Hawk win was their only recent meeting.
Monticello/Maple Lake (19-7-2, #15, 1-seed in 5A)
State appearances: 2 (2 in a row)
Key section win: 4-1 over #18 North Branch
-The feel-good story of last year’s Tournament returns for an encore, and this time around they didn’t sneak up on anyone. They’re without their two big scorers from a season ago, but they do have the highly productive Troy Dahlheimer (18) leading the way. Nick Foldesi (29) is their second leading scorer, Jeffrey Henrikson (5) is second on the team in goals, and Jack Saunders (15) is a productive defenseman for the Moose. Goalie Tyler Klatt (33) is a veteran of last season’s great run. With Hermantown up first they face a tall task, and their handful of games against top Class A teams have not gone well. But they have won on this ice before, and gave the Hawks all they could handle, so a repeat performance isn’t out of the question.
Hermantown (20-6-2, #1, 1-seed in 7A)
State appearances: 15 (9 in a row)
State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)
Key section win: 5-4 (2OT) vs. #3 Greenway
-The goliaths of Class A return as the favorite yet again after escaping against Greenway in 7A. This time they’re led by senior Tyler Watkins (18), who seems to rise to the occasion in big gaems, and sophomore star-in-the-making Blake Biondi (27), who is the lone D-I committed player in the Class A field. Jacob Herter (7) rounds out the top line, and while the scoring depth isn’t what it has been in recent seasons, the Hawks’ lineup can still hold its own with any other Class A team, and Elliott Peterson (22) adds a physical presence to lead the second line. The Hawks are strong in back, where Darian Gotz (14) is the leader, and Sam High (21) is a Tournament veteran as well. Cole Manahan (33) had a strong season in goal. This Hawks team is more beatable than the past two, but they also have a knack for pulling out the tight ones.
#5 THIEF RIVER FALLS VS. #4 ALEXANDRIA
-North meets west in the Class A nightcap. Their only two recent meetings came in the past three years, with Alexandria winning a 2015 meeting and Thief River returning the favor in 2016.
Thief River Falls (16-10-2, #20, 4-seed in 8A)
State appearances: 14 (9 in one-class tournament, 4 in Class A; first since 2016)
Championships: 2 (one-class tournament, 1954 and 1956)
Key section wins: 6-4 over #13 Warroad, 4-0 over #10 East Grand Forks
-The Prowlers, after a steady but unremarkable regular season, found their way to St. Paul with upsets over Warroad and East Grand Forks in sections. Aaron Myers (16) is a goal machine, while Tucker Skime (2) provides the assists on the top line, and Jace Jorde (17) rounds out the top group. While the forward corps is not deep, they do have one of the most productive blue lines in the state, with Brady Anderson (12), Keaden Kempert (19), and an emerging star in sophomore Evan Bushy (6). If that group can hold its own in front of star goalie Nick Corneliusen (35), the Prowlers could make their way to a Friday afternoon game.
Alexandria (17-10-1, #12, 3-seed in 6A)
State appearances: 4 (1 in AA; first since 2011)
Key section wins: 4-0 over #7 Sartell, 3-2 (2 OT) over #4 St. Cloud Cathedral
-Their run through sections might look like a surprise on paper, but the Cardinals were an early season favorite, and have now delivered on that promise. Ben Doherty (7), who missed some time this season due to injury, is their star, and Jack Westlund (10) and Caleb Strong (3) round out an all-junior top unit. Jack Powell (21) and Andrew Revering (2) make for a productive defense as well. Their depth isn’t exceptional, but freshman Jakob Stender (27) also did put up double-digit goals. Jackson Boline (30) emerged as the starting goaltender and was strong in sections. This is a young group and their success in a deep section shows their potential, so now it’s time to learn if they can deliver on it on a big stage.
LAKEVILLE NORTH VS. #2 EDINA
-Two powers collide in a rematch of the 2014 championship game, and the 2015 championship game that wasn’t. This will be their first meeting since North’s 2015 regular season win.
Lakeville North (16-10-2, #17, 1-seed in 1AA)
State appearances: 7 (first since 2015)
Championships: 1 (2015)
Key section win: 4-3 over #21 Lakeville South
-The Panthers haven’t had a dominant season, but they stayed competitive with top teams most of the time, including a tie with Minnetonka and a one-goal loss to Duluth East in December. Blake Brandt (7) and Spencer Schneider (14) are their big guns offensively, with Shane Griffin (25) rounding out the top line. Garrett Daly (16) is one of the top senior defensemen in the state, and they also enjoy the services of a very solid goaltender in Will Johnson (31). The top line can match up with a number of the others in the state, but their depth is where they will be tested, especially against a team like Edina. The list of things that need to go right to avoid Mariucci is long, but not impossible to achieve.
Edina (26-2, #2, 1-seed in 6AA)
State appearances: 38 (6 as Edina East/West in 70s and 80s; first since 2015)
Championships: 12 (1969, 1971, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1997, 2010, 2013, and 2014 as Edina; 1974, 1978, and 1979 as Edina East)
Key section win: 8-1 over #11 Wayzata
-The Hornets may be the second seed, but they’re the force to be reckoned with in this Tournament, as they’ve made some good teams look bad this season, and have lost only to Minnetonka. They have the most explosive top two lines in the state, with presumptive Mr. Hockey Sammy Walker (10) and his linemates Jett Jungels (22) and Mason Nevers (18) are front-line talents in their own right. Their second Mr. Hockey contender, Demetrios Koumontzis (23), leads the second line, and is joined by Lewis Crosby (11). Ben Brinkman (17) has some of the best high-end potential on defense in the state, and combines with Jake Boltmann (2), Mike Vorlicky (20), and Mason Reiners (21) to form an elite blue line club. There are some questions in goal, where Garrett Mackay (30) is their man, and the young defense can get thrown off some at times. But if they play up to their potential, they are the prohibitive favorite.
ST. MICHAEL-ALBERTVILLE VS. #3 DULUTH EAST
-A Tourney regular faces this year’s lone AA upstart. East leads the series 5-1, including a 15-0 playoff win just five years ago; the Knights did beat East in their most recent meeting, in 2015.
St. Michael-Albertville (23-5, #19, 2-seed in 8AA)
First State appearance
Key section wins: 4-2 over #13 Brainerd, 6-5 over #9 Moorhead
-The Knights pulled the biggest upset of the AA playoffs when they took down Moorhead in the 8AA final, and ride season surge into their first ever Tournament. Sophomores Luc Laylin (9) and Adam Flammang (11) are their top offensive threats, along with senior Blake Spetz (2). They also had a productive second line, and will need a good performance from those depth players to advance in this tournament. Garrett Sandberg (12) and Cole Lehmann (4) are their top defensemen, along with Val Popowski (8). Justin Damon (1) will man the net. If they can hold up under the East assault, this team can move the puck well enough to produce some goals and have a shot at the upset.
Duluth East (23-2-3, #4, 1-seed in 7AA)
State appearances: 23 (first since 2015)
Championships: 3 (1960, 1995, 1998)
Key section wins: 9-1 over #14 Duluth Marshall, 3-2 (OT) over #8 Andover
-Like Edina, the Hounds return to State after a two-year absence. East’s top line of Ian Mageau (23), Ryder Donovan (22), and sniper Garrett Worth (5) leads their assault, but this team’s top three lines are all learned in the ways of the Mike Randolph puck control system. Ricky Lyle (15) leads the way on the second line, which was as productive as the first late in the season. Luke LaMaster (25) is the two-way star of a mobile defense and the only defenseman Mr. Hockey finalist, and is joined by his partner, Hunter Paine (20), on a strong top pair. Parker Kleive (41) came on to win the goaltending job down the stretch. When at their peak the Hounds’ game is probably second only to Edina’s, but they need to avoid the periodic lapses of mediocrity that plagued them more than the other top four this season.
HILL-MURRAY VS. #1 MINNETONKA
-Another battle of two heavy hitters in Minnesota hockey, and a rematch of a 2010 4-overtime classic won by the Skippers; Hill also beat Tonka in the 2006 quarters. Minnetonka won a regular season game 4-2 in December, while Hill leads the all-time series 11-7-1.
Hill-Murray (13-11-4, #20, 2-seed in 4AA)
State appearances: 29 (2 in a row)
Championships: 3 (1983, 1991, 2008)
Key section win: 3-1 over #6 White Bear Lake
-Despite a losing regular season, the Pioneers came on strong toward the end, and their upset of White Bear Lake was no stunner. The late season call-up of eighth grader Nick Pierre (11) catalyzed the offense, but he’s just one of a number of very young players with bright futures here. Junior Ben Helgeson (9) and senior Michael Fleischhacker (15) are the veteran leaders, and sophomore Charlie Strobel (27) brings a familiar Hill-Murray name. Like most good Hill teams, they have a couple of veterans leading the way on the blue line in Brett Oberle (19) and Joey Petronack (12), while Matthew Fleischhacker (14) is a freshman standout. If this group continues to play the disciplined hockey we’ve come to expect out of Bill Lechner-coached teams in the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out. They come in with a five-game losing streak in Tourney play.
Minnetonka (24-2-2, #1, 1-seed in 2AA)
State appearances: 6 (first since 2010)
Key section wins: 4-1 over #23 Chaska, 5-4 (2OT) vs #6 Holy Family
-The Skippers claim the top seed with two wins in three games against Edina, and put forth a team with no real weaknesses as they pursue their first state title. They roll three quality lines, and distribute their top forwards to create balance. Sophomore Bobby Brink (9) and junior Jack Bayless (29) pace the offense, while Mr. Hockey finalist Luke Loheit (8) brings a heavy game and will be matched against other teams’ top lines. Joe Molenaar (10) and Teddy Lagerback (34) round out the leading scorers. Josh Luedtke (3) and Grant Docter (2) are both dynamic defensemen, while Charlie Glockner (1) is one of the stronger goalies in the state when he’s on his game. This group won back-to-back Bantam state titles, and will now aim to deliver on its promise under first-year head coach Sean Goldsworthy.
#5 CENTENNIAL VS. #4 ST. THOMAS ACADEMY
-Two quality programs in search of a first round breakthrough wrap up the quarterfinals. St. Thomas has won their only two recent contests, including a 4-1 Schwan Cup meeting last season.
Centennial (19-6-3, #10, 1-seed in 5AA)
State appearances: 4 (first since 2014)
Championships: 1 (2004)
Key section win: 6-4 over 2-seed Maple Grove
-The Cougars roll into the State Tournament as a team that sits somewhere below the big four top seeds, but clearly ahead of the three unseeded teams. Mr. Hockey finalist Lucas McGregor (11), who carries the offense, is as important to his team’s success as any one player in the field. Three additional forwards, Hayden Brickner (14), Carter Wagner (8), and Jack Menne (10) were also highly productive, and Will Francis (7) is their clear leader on defense. They don’t have exceptional depth beyond that, but generally play tight, trapping hockey. Travis Allen (1) is an experienced, solid goaltender. If they can lock in to their defensive style and spring their top forwards a few times, 5AA will have a shot at its first quarterfinal win since 2009.
St. Thomas Academy (25-2-1, #3, 1-seed in 3AA)
State appearances: 3 in AA (2 in a row); 8 in Class A
Championships: 5, all in Class A (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013)
Key section win: 4-1 over #12 Eastview
-A year after a quarterfinal upset loss, the Cadets are back at it in search of their first AA quarterfinal win. They didn’t lose in regulation this season, though the schedule was somewhat easier than the other top four. Payton Matsui (14) joins brothers Ray (15) and Rob (11) Christy in leading the offense, while Brendan McFadden (21) has also emerged as a serious threat. Chase Foley (17) is one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the state, and Blake Holmes (5) also anchors the blue line. The one edge they do have over the other top four seeds is goaltender Atticus Kelly (30), who is a finalist for the Frank Brimsek Award. They boast a lethal power play, but will need to avoid the looseness that has plagued them in some big games in recent seasons.
Let the fun begin!