Few things are as predictable in Minnesota high school hockey as Duluth East contention. The program boasts 67 consecutive winning seasons and hasn’t lost a quarterfinal game since 1993, by far the longest streaks of any team in high school hockey; it has appeared in 11 straight 7AA finals. A few games into the 2019-2020 season, all of that looked to be in jeopardy. It still may be, as one upset win doesn’t change everything. But the Greyhounds’ season is slowly taking shape, and as new players step up and Mike Randolph tries to find the right formula, they may yet have a say in the direction of section 7AA.
A casual observer probably wouldn’t recognize very many members of these new look Hounds. A huge senior class that featured several high-end talents graduated. Logan Anderson and Jacob Jeannette, who would have been two-thirds of a Greyhound top line this season, left for junior hockey. Charlie Erickson is only returning player who had double digit point totals last season, and Zarley Ziemski is the only other forward with anything resembling regular varsity ice time. The defense returns three semi-regular contributors a season ago, but none of them were really the leaders of that unit, and few things are harder to replace in high school hockey than an elite defenseman such as Hunter Paine. This is particularly true in the Duluth East system, which asks its defensemen to both be active in the offensive zone and hold up going the other direction when the forecheck breaks down.
That inexperience was clear in the Hounds’ first few games of the young season. They held up into the third period in games against solid teams from White Bear Lake and Wayzata, but things unraveled in the third period as their opponents wore them down and sprung odd-man rushes. After a win over Bemidji, a 7-1 loss to section rival Andover exposed these shortcomings in the extreme, and Randolph dug deep into his bag of mysterious game plans as the Huskies handed him his worst loss to a section opponent in 31 years behind the bench. Chastened, the Hounds came out looking much more like a traditional East team in a game against Cloquet, but those shaky moments on defense ultimately outweighed a sound forecheck and led to an overtime loss.
With a 1-4 record and no semblance of momentum, a battle with a top ten Blaine team this past Saturday looked to be a tall order. But the Hounds came out and showed they won’t go lightly. They paired the solid system play they showed in Cloquet with improved defensive performance and kept gameplay fairly even. Down 1-0 in the middle of the second period, the game could have slipped away, but instead the team went to work and collected two dirty goals before locking down, popping a pretty third goal, and adding a fluky empty netter to seal their finest win on the young season.
The Hounds’ formula for contention in spite of the changes is evident. Konrad Kausch has looked strong in goal, a vital backstop to the growing pains of a young defense. The top line of Erickson, Ziemski, and Finn Hoops is starting to generate some offense, and a second line anchored by Jack Fellman and Nolan Aleff has its moments of quality. The defense, for all its travails, combines some experienced seniors and a couple of underclassmen who are capable of putting up some points; Isaac Schweiger, inserted into the lineup for the Blaine game, was the unsung hero in that upset. Lest we forget, this junior class (plus Jeannette and Kausch) went on a run and finished second at PeeWee AA state a few years back, so the track record is there.
Elsewhere in 7AA, Grand Rapids opened with wins over Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Minnetonka, proving their young guns are capable of playing with some of the state’s top teams. Cloquet has also looked respectable and will ride star Christian Galatz as far as possible. Forest Lake is undefeated as of this writing, which will boost their standing in the QRF system that seeds the section, though they have yet to play a difficult opponent and have a tie against lowly Park of Cottage Grove. Right now, though, everyone is chasing the Andover juggernaut, a group defined by superb team speed and an elite top defensive pair. In their win over East they also showed a newfound physicality, adding an aspect to their game that had been missing in overtime section final losses to East the past two seasons. Taking down the Huskies will require an even more perfect game plan than a season ago; a complete team effort that combines a great goaltending effort, a defense that limits odd-man rushes, and an opportunistic offense willing to scrap for anything.
For now, though, we can delay any requiems for Duluth East: when they put it all together, they can compete. A week of home games that include two respectable but beatable teams, Centennial and Lakeville North, will be telling. They have a heap of important section games in the second half of the season, and will also get more contests against the state’s elite, from Eden Prairie to Maple Grove. With continued game-by-game progress, they could yet be a contender at the end.