Semifinal Saturday

When I was in high school in the mid-2000s, Semifinal Saturday at the DECC was the premier hockey day of the year, far better than anything at the State Tournament. The yearly collision between Grand Rapids, Cloquet, Duluth East, and some random metro interloper made for thrilling hockey every time, and even though East often wound up on the wrong end of things in those years, I could tell that I was a part of hockey at its pinnacle. The DECC, then a sterile home rink for the Hounds during the regular season, came to life. 4,000-plus fans would pack the place, and the Cloquet and Rapids fans would ally in support of whichever of the two was playing East. The student sections lined up across the long sides of the ice, maximizing opportunities for chanting horrible things back and forth at one another. The atmosphere was electric.

Perhaps most importantly, the hockey delivered. The East-Cloquet rivalry rose to its most vicious peak, as Dave Esse’s arrival in Cloquet brought about the Jacks’ longest run of sustained success. They ended East’s long winning streak over the Jacks in 2001, and handed Mike Randolph his first section final loss in 2002. East avenged that loss in a double-OT 2005 thriller, setting the stage for two memorable Cloquet wins in the Reid Ellingson-Ben Leis goaltending duel in 2006 and David Brown’s four-goal soul-crusher in 2008. It was a remarkable run of seven playoff games in nine years, all but one of them thrillingly tight, with Cloquet holding a 4-3 edge. Games beyond that rivalry delivered too, though, with East’s surprising run in 2003, and injured Tyler Johnson’s sudden appearance to boost Cloquet past Elk River in the final minute in 2007. Grand Rapids fans, of course, will forever treasure Patrick White’s overtime game-winner over the Hounds in that 07 session.

Lately, Semifinal Saturday hasn’t quite been what it once was. The trouble probably began around 2009, when Cloquet fell off a cliff talent-wise, and left the semis with two metro teams every year from 2009 to 2012. Over that same stretch, East also had a surge in talent that allowed the Hounds to dominate the section; their only close playoff games during that run were a 2009 semi with Forest Lake in which the Rangers’ goalie made 54 saves, and the 2011 section final in which they stole away a late victory from Grand Rapids.

Something else changed in 2011, though: Amsoil Arena replaced the dear, dumpy old DECC. At first blush it seemed like a win, as 7AA added a state of the art modern facility with more seating and a video board. In practice, though, Amsoil has diminished the 7AA playoff experience unless it features a section final between two northern teams. Amsoil has a remarkable ability to look empty even when attendance is pretty good, a fact attributable to those loud, ugly yellow seats with poor sightlines in front of the glass. Student sections wound up at opposite ends of the ice, nearly inaudible to one another. On Semifinal Saturday, Amsoil too often becomes a home to placid family outings, with a group of kids, dwarfed by the large UMD student section bleachers, yelling inaudibly in a corner.

There have been flashes since. There were three northern teams again in 2013, which helped boost attendance; that year gave us a genuine thriller between Elk River and Grand Rapids, and a renewal of the old East-Cloquet rivalry, albeit a pretty flat one. 2014 and 2015 featured some quality East-Rapids matchups, one of which delivered, albeit with snoozers in the other semi.

There is some hope that Semifinal Saturday could return to its former glory in the near future. First off, we have an East-Cloquet game this year. For the first time in a while, Cloquet looks like it’s on an upsurge of young talent; whether or not they can hang with East this season, there’s some hope they’ll bring new life to what has become a fairly predictable three-horse race. 7AA needs that East-Cloquet playoff rivalry to rise above the rest. Grand Rapids and Elk River, meanwhile, are two of the most skilled teams in the state, and will crash in the first semifinal of the day. Grand Rapids may be due for a drop-off in the not so distant future, but Hermantown yet come through to help carry the mantel of northern AA hockey, and even a young Marshall group could climb its way into the picture. With apologies to our southern 7AA friends, who mutually agree that this arrangement isn’t great, these games are so much better when they involve northern teams. It’s nothing personal against the South; merely our Northern pride as the region that built hockey in this state, and a solemn commitment to carrying that tradition forward.

A couple of years ago, Section 7A shook things up by moving its semifinals from the Range to an evening session at Amsoil. Now, instead of heading home to rotate through radio feeds of five other metro-area semifinals, I get to go cover those. One of those games will involve Hermantown, so I’ll have a chance to get a nap in, but seeing the Range descend on Duluth is a welcome sight, and the nightcap, between Greenway and Hibbing this season, is as good as it gets. (I’m especially looking forward to that one after my coverage of their December meeting humbled me with the reception it got on the Range.) Here’s to another Semifinal Saturday, and one that will, hopefully, leave us with a few games to remember.

7AA Takes Shape

Duluth East had been rolling along in the second half of its season, with wins in eight of nine games heading into a section showdown in Elk River on Saturday. That run came to an end with a dull thud, as the Elks imposed their will in a 4-1 win. The victory gave the Elks the top seed in 7AA, and consigned the Hounds to a 2-seed and a likely road through Grand Rapids to make a ninth straight section final.

Saturday’s result probably says more about Elk River than anything, and revealed a team well-built to resist a team like East. They’re deep and break out smoothly, building from that great defense in back; the Hounds’ signature forecheck and puck control game never really got off the ground. The Elks were remarkably disciplined, which is a major testament to new coach Ben Gustafson, who appears to be a significant upgrade. This team could be a lippy and loose at times in recent seasons; a stupid major penalty cost them a three-goal lead in the section final just two seasons ago. And where last season’s team might have folded after a seeming goal was waved off and East immediately followed it up with a shorthanded goal, this Elks group had an immediate response. They didn’t take a single penalty the entire game, thereby avoiding an improving Hounds power play that can pile on the pressure, even if its overall numbers aren’t remarkable. Their stars came to play as well, with their D-I defensemen, Nick Perbix and Benton Maass, scoring the two early goals and a healthy Jax Murray controlling play for long stretches.

The biggest bright spot in defeat for East was Kirk Meierhoff, the goaltender who has come into his own as a senior; the line of Jack FitzGerald, Austin Jouppi, and Brendan Baker, a pleasant surprise all season, had a decent effort, too. Any other effort to take anything out of this one as a Hounds fan probably starts by noting that Elk River was at the peak of its game, while East was not. The Hounds’ top line in particular spent much of the game running around its own zone; a handful of shifts aside, many of their rushes forward degenerated into failed dangles through a dominant defensive corps. Those moves may work against Superior, but the team game wasn’t quite at the level it needed to be. If Elk River has a weakness, it’s probably in goal, yet they failed to put much rubber on a goaltender who only lasted ten minutes in the playoff meeting between these two last season. The Olympic ice sheet in Elk River is not friendly for a team that relies on setting up a forecheck and closing down space. The return of injured Logan Anderson could help shore up the forward depth as well. Despite being outplayed for long stretches on Saturday, it was still a very tight game until late in the 3rd, and the Elk faithful around me was leery of East popping a quick one on a breakaway.

The Hounds rebounded on Monday night with a 5-1 win over Cloquet, an effort similar to their 5-0 blanking of the Jacks back in December. This time they had no trouble keeping the forecheck rolling, and clean rushes for the boys in purple were few and far between. This Lumberjack team has done a good job of cleaning up on the second tier in 7AA, but is too young and too thin to hang with the likes of the Greyhounds at this point in time. If nothing else, it restored order for East, and reminded me why this is still one of the most enjoyable rivalries out there, even with one team in solid control. A large crowd packed in under the arched wooden ceiling in Cloquet, and the two student sections went at it relentlessly, showing both their love for their teams and creative disdain for the opposition. (Anytime the renditions of “The Wheels on Your House” come out, it’s probably an entertaining night.)

7AA seeding will be pleasantly free of drama this season. Elk River has been its most complete team since day one, and while East’s win over Grand Rapids flipped the 2 and 3 seeds, it doesn’t alter a whole lot in the big picture. Rapids, winners of six straight since its loss to East; they’ve played no one in the top 15 over that stretch, though they do have Moorhead this coming weekend. Duluth Marshall’s second season in AA, much like its first, has me raising an eyebrow at their performance down the stretch, as losses to Andover and Cloquet have likely consigned the Hilltoppers to a 6-seed. Andover has a lot of losses, but has also had its share of respectable showings against good teams, including a tie to Grand Rapids.

In the end, though, this is a three-team race for the title, as has been the case over the past several seasons. Elk River has set the standard and remains the most complete team in the field, but must exorcise its Amsoil Arena demons. Grand Rapids has its front-line skill, and will have to ride it to heroics in big games. That leaves the Greyhounds as something of the wild card, which seems weird to say in a season where their ranking has barely budged all season long. But when they’re on their game, they can roll a deep group and frustrate any opponent. Do that, and they have a shot; after that, they could use a step up from some of their top players on the highest stage. East’s top players have been there before, just two short years ago; can they find that level again? Over the next month, we’ll learn the answer.

Hounds for the Holidays

Eight games into Duluth East’s hockey season, the defining feature so far is, perhaps, a blissful lack of drama. The past two seasons have been tumultuous in so many ways, with deeply frustrating valleys in December of each year. A large group of seniors that carried East to great heights and some frustrating lows graduated in 2016, leaving us with some very young Hounds with a different look and a different attitude. While this season has had its high points and low points, the Hounds are more or less where we might have expected them to be: 5-3 and in the 10-15 range of rankings, showing flashes of great potential but with plenty of work to do if they hope to come out of a loaded section.

The Hounds have played the three teams that should wind up ranked 4-6 in Section 7AA, all of whom have beaten or tied them over the past two years. This time around, they handled all three, winning by a combined 16-2 score. Two of their losses were by one goal (one with an empty-netter) to top ten teams, and the third was the season opener to a surprise White Bear Lake team that is now making its own bit for a top ten ranking. They also have wins against a struggling but dangerous defending state champion, Wayzata, and a stout Bemidji team. There’s room for improvement; the Centennial loss in particular stung, as they went from looking like world-beaters with a 2-0 lead in the first period to melting into ineptitude later on. But on the whole, the team looks respectable and steady, which is not always the case in December, even with highly skilled East teams.

There have been some pleasant surprises to date. Coming in, I worried the scoring might be top-heavy, and over-reliant on the top line; they have been anything but. East is rolling four lines, all generating offensive zone time and putting up some points. The second line of Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Nick Lanigan has been a real bright spot, with quality production and excellent puck control. Despite their inexperience, this team’s forwards are already playing that classic Mike Randolph cycle with more precision than they mustered in the past two seasons.

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The young defense is largely living up to its promise, avoiding stupid mistakes outside of a few ill-advised penalties. Perhaps most encouragingly, the healthy competition between returning senior Kirk Meierhoff and sophomore Lukan Hanson seems to have produced the intended results. Hanson put in some strong performances before a struggle against Centennial last week, but Meierhoff has elevated his game, and boasts a .968 save percentage and just three goals allowed in four and a half games. The job, I suspect, is his until further notice.

If there’s one thing that could make the Hounds more dangerous, it’s more offensive production out of the top line of Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan. They’re leading the team in points and certainly look like the top line, but the numbers aren’t anything awe-inspiring, and with the star power that the other contenders in 7AA feature, they need their top forwards to step into leading roles and carry the load when necessary. An obvious way to improve: fix up that power play, which lately has spent most of its time retrieving the puck from its own end. So often here, less is more, and they can lead if they avoid forcing things and take it all naturally.

It could also behoove the team to have some sort of Plan B. Randolph’s cycling master classes are fun to watch, and can beat teams into submission. But at times the opponent diagnoses it and throws East off its game, and the team needs to be able to respond in positive ways when they do lose that control. Whether that involves something tactical or simply turning a few top players loose and letting them do their thing, another course of attack makes them that much more lethal.

They will need that lethal touch to do much of anything in the playoffs. This isn’t one of those years where East can just lock down defensively and expect to get out of 7AA: Elk River and Grand Rapids currently sit ranked #2 and #3 in the state, respectively. The Elks may be the deepest team in the state, while the Thunderhawks have one of the most dangerous collections of top-end talent in recent years. This is the peak year for both, their best chance at glory in decades (for Rapids) or since the early 00s (for Elk River). Both teams lurk on the schedule later in the year, and the Hounds have some work to do if they want to be more than a possible spoiler. There will be a talent gap, and coaching can only go so far to bridge it; work ethic and leadership, those staples of the 2015 run, must do the rest. Convincing wins over some amped-up rivals are a good start; now, they need to take that to the next level, and not get frustrated when other top teams throw them off their game.

Whatever comes next, I’m happy to be home to watch them regularly after a couple years away, and to know that I’ll be doing this for a long time to come. As today’s News Tribune story shows, this is something that spans generations and endures, not just some passing fancy of convenient demographic growth. The crowds at the Heritage Center (and at Mars for the Marshall game on Thursday) are the best they’ve been in years, and people just seem to get what an enjoyable ride this is, and why this culture can help pull back kids like me who’ve gone to see everything the world has to offer and decide we belong right back here. With that kind of legacy, how can this not be fun?