Gimping into Sections

Duluth East’s regular season came to an inauspicious end on Saturday, as the Hounds fell in a 6-1 laugher to Minnetonka. It was a strange end to a strange regular season, and after the wheels fell off during a pair of overlapping major penalties, the game degenerated into sloppiness and ill-advised penalties. Head Coach Mike Randolph was away watching his son play for Nebraska-Omaha; it was probably better for his sake and for the players that he missed it, though one wonders if we’d have seen some of the dumb penalties with the old general on the bench. Regardless, it wasn’t a pretty sight, and one the Hounds will have to shake off in sections.

The loss blighted an otherwise respectable late season run, as East rolled through weaker teams and gave glimpses of serious contention in winning 10 of its last 12. The only other loss was a tight decision to a very good Lakeville North team on choppy outdoor ice, and the team scored quality wins over Prior Lake and Elk River. But still, there have been periodic red flags, including overtime wins over Hopkins and Lakeville South. There were spurts of offense and games with solid defense, but rarely has it all quite jelled.

Randolph has been juggling his lines throughout, though he appears to have settled on something late in the year. Leading scorer Ash Altmann has joined sophomores Ian Mageau and Garrett Worth on the top line, and Ryan Peterson and Luke Dow anchor another quality line. Perhaps the most positive development has been the emergence of Mageau, who now sits second on the team in points. Beyond that, there’s been a steady cycle of bodies across the third and fourth lines. The decision to start one of these lines in each period seemed to put the Hounds on the back foot every time against Minnetonka, and while it was far down the list of issues in that game, it certainly didn’t help. East needs some steadiness from these lower lines, and will need the top two to carry the load if the team is to go anywhere in sections.

The defense has no shortage of talent, and for long stretches, it looks as sound as any in the state. But it still has its moments, and whether it’s a meander out of position, a bad penalty, or a moment of inattention, these lapses can prove fatal. Goaltender Kirk Meierhoff has done the job; he’s probably not going to steal a game, but if the team in front of him plays well, he’s very capable of taking this team back to State. I’m left repeating the same refrain I’ve said all year: the pieces are all here. They just need to find the poise, leadership, and attention to detail that was so evident in last season’s playoff drive, but has not always been apparent in this squad. The odds are probably better than last year, but this team will need to dig deep and recapture some of that old magic over the next week.

The Hounds will likely collide with Elk River in the 7AA semifinals next Saturday. The Elks had a strong regular season, as a young group showed great potential. Moreover, they’re finally healthy; one of their top two forwards, Jax Murray and Jensen Zerban, was out for nearly every game, but they are all back now, and collected a strong win over Hill-Murray in the season’s final week. Zerban and freshman Notre Dame recruit Jack Perbix missed the Elks’ 5-2 loss to East a few weeks ago. Murray, Zerban, and Perbix now lead a potent top line, and a second line featuring Max Michaelis and Nate Horn is less heralded but more than capable of hanging with the other second lines in this section. The Elks, if they can get over their ugly history at Amsoil Arena, might just be primed to steal the 7AA crown.

If East gets past Elk River next weekend, the team’s next foe likely lies up Highway 2. Grand Rapids wrapped up a strong regular season with an impressive push to the finish, winning 10 of its last 11 to clinch their first top seed in a couple of decades. They have the most talent of anyone in this section, and have been playing like it lately, with gaudy shot totals and excellent puck possession. They played like that for a majority of their meeting with East at the IRA Civic Center in January, and yet East still had them on the ropes late in the third before succumbing in overtime. Here, we can ask the same question that we asked of East’s overtimes with inferior teams: does the Thunderhawks’ ability to pull out that win show they’ve finally turned the tide, and won’t fold under the pressure? Or does it show that, for all their talent, they’re still on equal footing with the Hounds, in danger of coming up short against the 7AA playoff veterans?

As has been the norm over the past five seasons, Rapids’ weakness is in back, where the defense is thin enough that one of their better forwards spent some time manning the blue line this season. Anyone seeking to beat the Thunderhawks will likely have to clog up center ice and limit chances before going on the attack when they leave themselves vulnerable, playing the momentum game as East nearly did in January. Rapids has entrusted its goal to a sophomore, Gabe Holum. Most expected the Rapids goalie to be a sophomore—Zach Stejskal—but Holum came out and won the job fairly, and has played superbly. Still, it’s probably worth noting that, to my knowledge, no team has ever come out of the modern 7AA with a sophomore as its regular starter net.

Elsewhere in the section, Cloquet does its usual act of lurking, doing just enough to suggest they might be able to give a top team a game. Duluth Marshall, slowed by injury early, had an underwhelming 9-14-2 debut in Class AA, but they played their two best games against section rivals (East and Rapids). They’re a young team, so the future is probably brighter, but I still thought this team should have been better than its quarterfinal opponent, Cloquet. After that, it’s a jumble. Forest Lake has a better record than Andover, but also had a much easier conference, and haven’t done much to suggest they can stick with a top-3 team; Andover, on the other hand, has been pesky at times, though it will take a new level to be able to hang with an East team that has improved considerably since the December meeting.

The 7AA representative at State will probably need some upset help to earn a top five seed, but if there was ever a season in which seeds didn’t matter, it’s this one. Barring major upsets, no one really offers an easy draw, and the state is as wide open as it’s ever been. Undefeated Benilde-St. Margaret’s is a deserving #1, but they don’t bury their opponents, and all eyes are on the wounded shoulder of their top forward, Cade Gleekel. Minnetonka has surged while preseason favorite Eden Prairie tanked; Tourney regulars Edina and Hill-Murray are, like the Hounds, facing tall odds to get back to State. Blaine, Lakeville North, and Bemidji enter sections on long win streaks, but haven’t faced much of anyone in recent weeks. The only guarantee at this point is bedlam.

What’s “Wrong” with Duluth East?

A year ago, I wrote a post that tried to explain why a powerhouse program seemed to be struggling so much over the first half of a season. I had my theories then, and in retrospect, they look pretty good. Many of the details of that post, from the 6-7 record to the ugly upsets to the results against the same three opponents over the course of a week, could all apply to this season’s Duluth East team as well. This time, however, there wasn’t supposed to be an inexperience card to play: many of these players are veterans of last year’s Tournament run. Why, then, is this squad so seemingly mediocre, despite its talent?

First off, yes, this is life under a coach who uses the regular season to tinker in anticipation of playoff games. Mike Randolph is still playing around with different strategies and combinations of players to find what works best with the group he has. This is apparent to anyone who watched the Hounds spend most of the first two periods trapping against Grand Rapids before finally turning them loose in the third. This is a strategy East has used before with some success, and rests on a clever premise that allows the Hounds to frustrate talented opponents and then suddenly unleash their offensive talent when they have the mental edge. It very nearly pulled out the Rapids game, as East pulled out a third period comeback, but I think it also accorded a little too much respect to Rapids. It failed to attack them at their weakest, which is on defense in their own zone. It let Rapids dictate things for a little too long, and didn’t quite have the effect of winning the mental war that it can against teams that expect to win.

Randolph’s record speaks for itself, but there are risks in endless string-pulling and tinkering. It can backfire sometimes, and anyone who’s watched East hockey for long enough can point to games here or there and grumble about apparent micromanaging. I hinted at this last year, and think it’s more pronounced this year: the emphasis on systems at this point is probably holding the offense back some. Still, the only real recourse is to keep the faith. The man knows what he’s doing, and the worst thing that could happen to this team would be internal division, with players or parents whispering and pretending they know better. There’s no guarantee of success, but in recent years, Randolph has shown he knows how to adapt his teams to their strengths and get them where they need to be by late February.

Next, this team isn’t nearly as experienced as it may seem. Despite the apparent experience of last season, there are only three junior or senior forwards who played a regular shift last year, and with all of them on the top line, the “experience” on the lower lines is very young; Garrett Worth is the only one of them who really had a regular shift for most of last year. In addition, Randolph has tossed a few more sophomores and freshmen into the mix this year, most notably on defense; there will probably be more of that in coming weeks following the scary injury to Nathaniel Benson on Saturday. The youth movement is also something Randolph has done a number of times over the years, and often with some success, though it’s been less of a theme in this most recent run of Tournament teams.

East has no glaring weakness, but there’s also room for improvement everywhere. The top two lines are scoring some, but must up their output to meet their potential, and we’ll see how the Hounds handle the third and fourth lines down the stretch. Like last year, the defense has some talent and can control games fairly well (they’ve only been outshot once this year, by Eden Prairie), but like last year, they have to clean up the periodic lapses that leave them exposed in back. Kirk Meierhoff is the man is goal, and he’s been passable, but there’s certainly room for a little more.

Section losses have all but guaranteed they’ll play a team that’s at least something of an upset threat in the first round, just like last year. Nothing will come easy. The 7AA State Tournament entrant, however, will be one of three teams, and Elk River and Grand Rapids aren’t running away with anything yet. Rapids just played its most complete game against East since the 2011 section final, with some added (controlled) physicality and a Gavin Hain-reinforced blue line making a difference, but the Hounds still nearly won. Their meeting with Elk River awaits near the end of the season, but we all know the history there, and for all the Elks’ success so far, I’m not sure they have the star player that can break things open against an East system in the way that the teams beating East recently. Riley Tufte with Blaine, Mitchell Mattson with Rapids, and Casey Mittelstadt for Eden Prairie were all the primary protagonists in their wins, and raw talent is one of the best ways to overcome the integrity of an East system. Elk River might—might—have that in a healthy Jax Murray, but otherwise a game between these two will be a grind-it-out slugfest, and with the clock winding down and a State Tournament berth on the line, where would you put your money?

Finally, there’s one other, less tangible thing that last year’s team had that this one may or may not. Randolph lauded his 2014-2015 captains, Brian Bunten and Nick Altmann, in a way I’ve never heard him praise his players before. That kind of leadership is tough to replace, and this isn’t necessarily to indict the current captains, all of whom had some big moments in last year’s run.

Still, there is a risk here of complacency. A risk of “we’ve done it before, so we can do it again” becoming a crutch and a wish instead of cool confidence. A risk that comes with growing up barely knowing what it’s like to not make the State Tournament, and assuming it is one’s birthright. (These seniors were in 4th grade at the time of the David Brown Incident, which was the last time East lost in sections.) These kids are the kings of East after last year’s run, but a bunch of hungry teams are out there to take them down, and they’ll have to embrace that target and find that fire that spurred them along last year. They must keep working and denying losing, or the 7AA crown will find a new home.