Winter has been cruel to us hockey fans this season. Never before has the end of a Duluth East regular season felt so incomplete: Tuesday night’s game with Maple Grove, a showdown with a top ten team that would reveal the team’s trajectory heading into the playoffs, fell victim to the incessant snow piling up all across Minnesota. Tack on the loss of a game to Lakeville South the previous week, and East has played just three games in the season’s final three weeks. While they’ve played well of late, these Hounds are as much of a mystery heading into sections as any East team I’ve seen.
At my last check-in on this blog, the team was sitting comfortably in the top ten. They’d taken a few lumps but were still in the general area we all thought they were at the start of the season. Three losses in their next four games, including a brutal road trip to the west and rock-bottom in an ugly effort against Prior Lake, changed the narrative somewhat. The team’s season was on the brink. Over on the forum, I authored a somewhat snippy post that demanded certain changes.
The Hounds have responded with four straight wins. None of their opponents were elite, but they have looked better with each effort. It began with a solid game against a top 20 Eagan team that nearly got away from them before an overtime win, a solid takedown of Elk River, a stout defensive effort against Cloquet, and then a demolition of Superior.
The defense, my largest concern coming into the season, has been sound in recent weeks. A healthy Jayson Hagen has helped balance out a relatively inexperienced group, and while F.H. Paine remains its lone real offensive weapon, this group is smart and avoids making many mistakes. With that foundation in place, the offense has started to come. I am pleased with Mike Randolph’s new lines, which do a good job of balancing different talents and creating three lines that can do some damage. The most noticeable since the shift, in only by the sheer size of its constituents, is the top line of Jacob Jeannette, Jonathan Jones, and Ryder Donovan. Aside from being one of the tallest lines in state history, it has a nice balance of skill surprising speed for its size. It can steamroll opponents into submission, and seems to headline the new East identity.
Jeannette’s emergence over the past month is perhaps the most positive development for East’s offense. The sophomore’s use of his solid body makes him unique for such a young player, and he has the speed and skill to work with Donovan and give him the complementary piece he needs. Perhaps not coincidentally, Donovan has begun to finish a bit more in these past few games, and his control over games has seemed that much more complete. This line’s success allows Randolph to drape his talented upperclassmen across the second and third lines, which can skate with any of their equivalents in the state. Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Jack Fitzgerald form a potent second line, while Brendan Baker anchors the third line alongside Charlie Erickson. The one possibly unsettled spot is the third forward on the third line, where Zarley Ziemski and now Nolan Aleff have seen some time.
We still need to see how these new arrangements hold up against top-end competition. One of East’s edges over its Northwest Suburban rivals for the 7AA crown in recent seasons, I’ve believed, is their schedule, which has continued to include quality games up to the end while Elk River and Andover closed with the dregs of their conference. With East’s lack of games down the stretch, any battle-tested edge there may be nullified. I also still have genuinely no idea who will get the nod in net between Lukan Hanson and Brody Rabold once the playoffs start. (Of late, it’s been a good problem to have: both have been solid, with Rabold carrying much of the load in January and the now-healthy Hanson’s more measured sense of control adding a calming presence in his two recent starts.) There’s still some concern that the lack of offense could reappear at the worst possible time.
7AA, however, appears pretty straightforward, barring some odd twist in the QRF seeding formula following Grand Rapids’ late surge. East is going to open the playoffs with Duluth Marshall and, assuming no catastrophes against a team they beat 8-3 in December, will probably collide with Cloquet in the 7AA semifinals. The Lumberjacks are injury-battered and have mustered just one goal in seven periods against the Hounds this season, so their appearance in this game may not even be certain. But if they get better special teams play and a few breaks in a chaotic playoff environment, they’re good enough to give East a run. If the Hounds get by that one, their season will come down to a rematch with Andover, the team they beat in overtime in last season’s final and lost to in overtime in December. That December meeting at Andover was a dead-even game, with a slight territorial edge to the Hounds before they started coughing up odd-man rushes in the extra frame. If the reinforced defense and new line combinations are indeed a genuine improvement, there is good reason to like East at Amsoil.
Andover, however, has shown few signs of a let-up, with only two hiccups down the stretch. The first was a game played in the -20s in Bemidji against the then-top ranked team in the state, and featured a goalie change that coach Mark Manney will not make in a playoff game; I thought they were the superior team 5-on-5 against a Minnetonka team that had little trouble dispatching of East. The other, more concerning result was an 8-2 loss to Blaine. While East well knows that any team can have an off night, that one does at least raise some questions about what will happen if things start to snowball in a playoff game for the Huskies, as they are still very new to this whole favorite status. They can match the Hounds’ depth and have more speed and skill on the back end, but can they rise to the occasion and make their first State Tournament?
Enough with the speculation, and enough of the tinkering. This is the time of the year that Randolph builds his teams for, and it’s time for East to show its playoff mettle.