Tag Archives: 2017-2018

A Team on the Brink

7 Feb

Duluth winters crawl along, unless one measures them by hockey: somehow, just a week and a half remains in a high school hockey regular season that feels like it began just yesterday. Those of us in the stands get to know a team over the course of a season, and suddenly it seems like we may be done with them all too soon. Back in November I figured this would be one of the more entertaining Duluth East seasons in a while, one way or another, and it has certainly delivered on that promise. The team hasn’t left the top four all season, and while it’s had its bumps in the road, the promise of something special remains, too.

East demolished Elk River 7-0 on Saturday, a performance that showed just how thoroughly this team can dominate. Elk River stuck around for a bit and kept it 0-0 through one period, but the Hounds’ relentless three-line push quickly wore them down, and the goals began to pour in from there. The game left Elk River resorting to some less-than-savory tactics in an effort to slow down the Hounds, including an incident that resulted in four penalties on a single Elk player and produced a seven-minute power play. You see something new every day. But the statement win capped off a run of nine straight wins in which East was basically never not in control of a game.

Fast forward two days to a standing room only Heritage Center for the second regular season battle with Cloquet. After a 6-6 tie in the meeting at the Lumberdome in December, this would be a good barometer of how much each team had improved, and would tell us if that first meeting, with a gaudy East shot margin and four Cloquet power play goals, was a bit of a fluke. In the early stages, that seemed more or less right: East cycled with authority for long stretches, plugged away to collect a pair of goals, and had some chances to build an even bigger lead.

But it wasn’t to be. The Lumberjacks, after lying in wait, sprung for two goals to tie the game. East seemed to restore some order with an immediate answer from Austin Jouppi, but two ensuing bad penalties gave the Jacks the chances they needed to tie and take the lead. (East’s penalty kill, which clips along at a 93.9% rate against all other opponents, is an atrocious 3 of 9 against the rivals in purple this season. The Jacks have scored six power play goals in two games to East’s other 21 opponents’ four.) After that, momentum was firmly on the side of the Lumberjacks, and an empty-netter sealed East’s second loss of the season.

Cloquet’s win helps push the Jacks out of a convoluted middle tier in section 7AA and into pole position for the 3-seed, which creates the tantalizing possibility of an East-Cloquet section final. Somehow, it’s been 13 years since we last had one of those, and despite the regular season meetings, this East fan is hungry for another one. If any of the uninitiated think the atmosphere for East-Grand Rapids these past two years was fun, well, you ain’t seen nuthin yet.

Both teams have a ways to go to get there, though, and for East, that road will likely start with their old friends the Thunderhawks. While the Hounds will likely put 60 shots on net in that prospective quarterfinal, Gabe Holum makes Grand Rapids more interesting than your average 8-seed, to say nothing of the history between those two teams. The regular season meeting was a 3-1 East win that was about as thrilling as a colonoscopy. If the Hounds get by that exercise in carpet bombing a bunker, they’d likely face the winner of a Duluth Marshall-Elk River quarterfinal. Both of those teams are reliant on a single top line for most of their offense, but are capable of playing top teams tough if enough goes right; I have more faith in one of those teams’ ability to prepare for East than the other, but that one too will involve some rivalry intrigue. Upstart Andover, despite its 9-3 December loss to East, has been on a tear and will collect the 2-seed; the Huskies pounded 7-2 Cloquet in January. For that matter, 6-seed Forest Lake is no safe quarterfinal for Jacks, having beaten them 1-0 just last week.

Prior to crumbling against Cloquet, East had been on one of its more impressive runs in my time watching Hounds hockey. Their ownership of most opponents was complete. The productivity of the second and third lines over the past month has been exceptional, and in recent games, the second line has been outscoring the vaunted WMD line. Not that WMD isn’t racking up the accolades, as Garrett Worth has the most goals by any Hound since Dave Spehar in 1996, and Ryder Donovan could end up in select company on the single-season assists list as well once all is said and done. But there are still times when WMD gets bogged down in its own zone, which can limit its chances to do what it does best. The top four defensemen have crystallized into a very solid puck-moving core that can stack up with just about any in the state. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the performance of Parker Kleive in goal; Cloquet game aside, he’s been on a tear down the stretch, and has won the job convincingly after a lengthy battle with Lukan Hanson.

East closes with a home game against Lakeville South and a visit to Maple Grove, two respectable teams that play the defensive style East will need to solve to get by the likes of Grand Rapids, Cloquet, or Andover, or even Marshall in sections. These teams pack it in defensively and look to capitalize on frustration and over-commitment by sneaking out in well-timed counter-attacks. It’s not much fun to watch, but a few of East’s opponents this season have done it effectively, and knowing how to handle those teams could make or break this playoff run.

Heading into the Lakeville South game, East coach Mike Randolph is sitting on 615 wins, one short of Edina legend Willard Ikola for third on the all-time list. In some respects this has been one of Randolph’s easier years, as he has a bunch of kids who execute his preferred systems to near-perfection, and most everyone seems to be on board for a fun ride. But Randolph hasn’t separated himself from other coaches by plugging players into a system alone; he’s also done it by knowing how to press the right buttons when games hang in the balance. The next few weeks will tell us if this group has that last little spark to get it over the finish line.

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2017-2018 Preseason Notebook

19 Nov

After 255 high school hockey-free days, the puck drops on the 2017-2018 regular season the day before Thanksgiving. The fun starts early, as the opening weekend includes two excellent tournaments featuring some of the state’s finest, and just about everyone else will be under way over the next two weeks, too. I’ll devote a full post next week to a Duluth East season preview, but here’s a heap of things I’ll be looking at right off the bat this season.

You can find additional coverage from me here: Preseason AA Rankings | Preseason Podcast

Early Season Storylines

Can anyone catch the Hornets and Hawks?

Edina’s assemblage of talent is up there with the best teams they’ve ever produced, and that is, of course, saying something. They were already in contention for preseason favorite before they added Demetrios Kouzmontzis, who tore up the fall Elite League, and now that Blake McLaughlin has defected to the USHL, Sammy Walker is the favorite for Mr. Hockey. The sky is the limit for the defense, and if they live up to their potential, this team won’t be giving up more than 15 shots on goal most nights. If they can get respectable goaltending and Curt Giles can instill enough physicality in a somewhat small forward group, they’ll be hard to stop.

In Class A, meanwhile, two-time defending champion and eight-time defending finalist Hermantown is number one yet again. But, for what it’s worth, they do look more beatable this season: they lost a ton of talent, and these next few classes, while still elite by A standards, aren’t quite on the level of the past couple. They’ve got two top-end forwards in Tyler Watkins and Blake Biondi, and the defense is rock-solid, but they don’t quite have the overwhelming depth of the past two seasons. That leaves a couple of other teams with some genuine front-end talent and deep defenses within striking distance, most notably St. Cloud Cathedral—though they’ll have a battle to get past Alexandria in a tough 6A.

The 2AA Free-for-All. There’s a lot to like about Minnetonka’s depth and talent, but they’re no sure thing in 2AA, which is once again the most loaded in the state at the top. Four-time defending section champ Eden Prairie is right there behind them with a deep offense and a coach who can usually get his team to lock down. Holy Family, after falling a goal short in last season’s section final and enduring an offseason filled with comings and goings, still boasts a potent top line and a strong defense. The second tier in the west metro is also very strong, so we’ll be set for an entertaining run here.

The Hill-White Bear War. Stillwater has interrupted one of the state’s great rivalries these past few seasons, but with Ponies in a reload year, White Bear and Hill-Murray have a chance to collide in 4AA again. Both combine a few veteran talents with exciting youth at their core, and if these two make it through to the 4AA final, Aldrich Arena will be a zoo. On paper they’re both maybe a year away from state title contention, but if the kids grow up quickly enough, both could be in the equation. Which of them will show the most potential early on?

Last year’s Class A Tournament: fluke or new reality? Fans were treated to the most entertaining Class A tournament in years, if not ever, last season, as the entrants from 1A, 3A, and 5A, long punching bags for the favorites, were all highly competitive. 1A is wide open after defending section champ Northfield got shifted to 4A, while Luverne is the prohibitive favorite to repeat in 3A. 5A features a North Branch team that has a chance to be this season’s MAML behind Brady Meyer, so long as a high-scoring top line can get some support; Pine City, which returns a deep group, may be their most serious obstacle. The metro area, meanwhile, will have to prove it has a real Tournament contender: Orono has some good talent but didn’t make it out of a section quarterfinal a year ago, and Mahtomedi is deep but needs some players to take the next step. There might be a gap for a rare surprise in 2A or 4A.

Chasing the Northern Frontrunners. Hermantown, Duluth East, and Moorhead are all clear favorites to make their way back to St. Paul, but nothing is guaranteed, as there are large chase packs in both AA sections.  In 7A, Greenway and Virginia may be somewhere in the equation if there are any cracks in the Hawks, though the odds remain long. 8A, meanwhile, is shaping up to be a decent two-team race. East Grand Forks is another top-end Class A team with a rock-solid defense, and Warroad, led by another Marvin, brings back a lot and will look for its first trip to St. Paul since 2010.

Games to Watch in the First Few Weeks

Youth Hockey Hub opener. Outside of Edina’s Lake Conference games with Minnetonka, there are only three regular season games among the top five. Two of those come in the first weekend of the season, as St. Thomas Academy collides with Moorhead and those Skippers. Games against Tonka could well decide the top five, as they’re the only ones who play all of them. It’s a great four-team showcase, as the Spuds look to pick up where they left off last March and take care of some unfinished business, the Skippers look to join the state’s elite under a new coach, and the Cadets try to prove they can overcome their recent playoff upsets. Lakeville North is also in here to play spoiler.

Grand Rapids vs. Greenway. This classic Itasca County rivalry figures to be the first game I attend this season. The Thunderhawks are, of course, the defending AA state champs, but will look nothing like the group that won a title a year ago. They return a number of their depth players at forward and they’ve got a goalie who can steal one in Gabe Holum, but there are a lot of question marks beyond that. They head into the Snakepit to face an interesting young Greenway team that has two D-I commits on its roster. Both have a lot to prove, and should come into this one hungry.

Wayzata’s early run. As usual, the Trojans host the Turkey Trot on the season’s opening weekend, which features a toss-up game with Maple Grove and a follow-up with either Holy Family or Edina, the top-ranked team they’ve eliminated from the playoffs the past two seasons. After that, they take a road trip north to face Hermantown and Duluth East. The 2016 champs have their usual remarkable depth, but we’ll see how their two top-end forwards jell with their defensive style, and if they’ll spend a portion of this season wandering in the wilderness as they did a year ago.

Blaine vs. Centennial and Maple Grove in mid-December. The first round of 5AA battles comes fairly early, and the Bengals, with a strong leading duo of Bryce Brodzinski and Will Hillman, will get a chance to prove they belong up there with preseason section favorite Centennial and defending champ Maple Grove.

East Grand Forks at Orono. An early collision between hyped teams that will have implications for the Class A top 5. The Green Wave doesn’t have a ton of returning scoring, but does have a stout defense, while Orono is deep and had a lot of success at the youth level.

The wait is finally over. Let’s play some hockey.