Rising to the Occasion

2 Mar

The drama never fails. For the fifth time in six years, the 7AA final went to overtime. Amsoil Arena rose to a fevered pitch, with girls screaming on every rush, and the stage was set for another kid to write himself into Minnesota high school hockey lore. This time, the hero was one of the more likely ones: Ryder Donovan, who pumped home a no-doubt game-winner in the first minute of overtime. It was the Hounds’ second consecutive title, their ninth in the past 11 years, the 18th under Mike Randolph, and 24th in the history of the program. The legacy writes itself, and Donovan, the senior captain headed to his third Tournament in five years, is a fitting bearer of the torch.

The regular season had its share of tumult. East beat one State Tournament entrant and tied two more, but also lost to teams like Prior Lake and Champlin Park. When not disrupted by bad weather, East pulled things together toward the end and entered the playoffs on a strong note. But questions lingered, and to advance to State, they had to get past two quality opponents. While Cloquet had a similarly frustrating regular season, the Lumberjacks had enough talent to make things interesting, plus a rivalry factor; ten minutes into the game, it looked like they would give the Hounds everything they could handle. And Andover, a top four team all season long, deserved favorite status in 7AA. They’d beaten the Hounds in the regular season, and were deep and dangerous at every position. But neither team could finish it, and 7AA’s goliath claimed another title.

The star of the section run was Ricky Lyle, who accounted for eight of East’s 16 playoff goals, and assisted on five more. The tenacious forward has a flair for the dramatic, and coupled his sniping with a barrage of nasty hits. His scoring-opening against both Cloquet and Andover set the tone, and showed the Hounds would go blow-for-blow with their opponents; his second one against the Huskies swung the momentum in East’s favor. He drew the penalty that set up Donovan’s game-winner, and slipped his teammate a perfect pass to seal a section title. Over four seasons at East, Lyle has found ways to always put himself in the middle of the action, and is playing his way toward a brighter hockey future.

Donovan, too, rose to the occasion. As with his team, his season had its ups and downs, but his prodigious talent shined most in the semis against Cloquet, where he was a one-man wrecking crew on the penalty kill. He set up Lyle on a first shorthanded rush and then finished one of his own thirty seconds later, a dagger that took all the life out of the Lumberjacks. In the section final, battling an illness, he made his presence felt up and down the ice, double-shifting to keep his calming presence out there. Whatever his goal total may be, his skating ability and hands put him in a truly elite class, and in the biggest moment of his season, he didn’t miss.

In a season where their rivals had every chance to derail the defending section champs, the Hounds separated themselves with senior leadership. With 12 seniors on the playoff roster, had the physical maturity to wear down opponents, and they’d been down this road before. Plenty of teams would have folded after giving up a game-tying power play goal midway through the third period, but it never felt like a serious shift in momentum. East went back to work: their top players in particular refused to cave. Not once were they caught up in the moment, while Andover coach Mark Manney said many of his players were.

Much of the credit for East’s success should go to the rebuilt defense. Ever the backbone of a Randolph-coached team, the Hounds came into this season with little experience on the blue line. F.H. Paine was the star of the unit, a two-way playmaker whose open-ice hits might be the nastiest in the state. But Carson Cochran added a veteran presence, E.J. Hietala showed tremendous growth over the course of the season, and Jayson Hagen returned from injury around midseason and was a rock in his own end. If that group could break out reliably, I thought, this group could beat Andover, and they did so just often enough.

‘Just enough’ was the theme of the night. While the Hounds have encountered a few Grand Rapids and Elk River teams over the past decade that had more top-end talent, this Andover team was the first opponent over that time frame that could legitimately outskate an East team, top to bottom. Their forward corps was three lines deep, Ben Fritsinger was one of the state’s very best goalies, and the puck control of the defense, led by junior Wyatt Kaiser, was elite. But East’s physical play did enough to disrupt them, and by driving traffic to the net, they made Fritsinger look mortal. Thursday’s final was only the second game all season in which he gave up more than two goals. Brody Rabold, meanwhile, did just enough to win, and the rest of the Hounds’ supporting cast chipped in here and there as well, from Jack Fitzgerald’s go-ahead goal to Brendan Baker’s strong night all over the ice.

Fortune did not frown upon the Hounds, either. Lyle’s second goal of the night, which tied the game at two, took a convenient bounce off his leg. The referees made their presence felt throughout the game, first by calling nothing in the early going to enable a physical war, and then by suddenly inserting themselves in the middle of the third period. This broke both ways, and each team, when gifted a power play opportunity, finished immediately. Andover’s came at an opportune time to tie the game in the third after East had appeared to enter lockdown mode, and East’s came in overtime. The Hounds never relinquished the puck, and Donovan finished just eight seconds in to the man advantage.

East heads to State as the 5-seed, and will open in the late game against St. Thomas Academy, a rematch of the 2015 thriller in which the Hounds came back from 3-0 and 5-2 deficits to win in overtime. Their side of the bracket, which also features Moorhead and top-ranked Edina, is brutal, but just about everything a fan of high school hockey could ask for in terms of juicy matchups in the quarterfinals and semifinal. The Hounds won’t be a favorite on paper, but they probably will be in the arena, and they should make this week a memorable one, in one way or another. St. Paul, here we come.

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