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The Power and the Glory: Duluth East 2017-2018 in Review

13 Mar

Those of us who follow Duluth East hockey don’t really know the meaning of an unmemorable season. The storylines always seem to fall into place, and win or lose, the Greyhounds find some way to entertain us. But the 2017-2018 team, runners up in the state of Minnesota, somehow found a way to make themselves to stand out above the rest. It was a remarkable year.

While these Hounds had a few more hiccups against mid-tier teams than the other top teams in the state, they still finished with the second-best regular season since the last championship in 1998, and they rolled into the playoffs with more jump than that one team that was better than them on paper, the 2012 group that lost to Lakeville South in the quarterfinals. They flashed their formidable talent in solid wins over the likes of Wayzata, Andover, Centennial, Elk River, and top-ranked Minnetonka, and the only concerning wobbles came against local rivals like Cloquet and Duluth Marshall. After they slaughtered the Hilltoppers in the section semis and found a way to dig deep and overcome scrappy Andover in the section final, they had all the makings of a team on a championship run.

The Hounds faced a spirited test from the Knights of St. Michael-Albertville in the Tourney quarterfinals, but a sudden detonation of WMD (plus some Logan Anderson for good measure) in the second period put away the Knights. Garrett Worth pulled his best Dave Spehar with a hat trick, and at 5-0 the Hounds had their largest Tourney margin of victory since the days of said Mr. Spehar. Parker Kleive logged a shutout in net to prove East goaltending would be no weakness in this Tourney, and Mike Randolph was able to rotate in some depth players to keep his most dangerous weapons in tune for Friday night.

For the fourth time in eight years, the first game on Friday night had the Hounds matched with Edina, a titanic clash between the two best programs of the two-class era. This war has come to define Tourney semifinals, and this Edina squad, which blasted so many quality opponents into running time, looked every bit the most lethal one in the field in its romp to the semifinals. It all ended there. A Worth snipe, an Ian Mageau power move, a Randolph lockdown defense, a Carson Cochran diving save, and a bit of luck on a fluttering puck off the stick of Frederick Hunter Paine proved the formula for a Greyhound victory. Worth fired one last rocket into the open net to punctuate the night: one of the most skilled Hornet squads in history was history, vanquished yet again by their great nemesis of the North.

The Hounds got off to a slow start and an early deficit against Minnetonka in the state championship game, but with a few in-game adjustments they still found a way to generate their share of ever-so-close chances. The second line in particular was flying, with Austin Jouppi and Ricky Lyle providing the offense for the night. WMD, however, was snakebitten, and the tight defensive corps took a beating as the clock ticked down on their third straight game. None of those close chances went in, and with a little puck luck of their own, the smooth-skating Skippers denied the Hounds the crown.

I’ve been through a lot of East year-end losses now, but save for the unique pain that comes from the end of one’s own senior year, this one hurts the most of all of them. Even if it didn’t have the heartbreak factor of a Kyle Rau triple-overtime dive or the lingering what-ifs of losing to a less skilled opponent in 2009 or 2012, it hurts because this was such an easy team to like, and more than any of them seemed to have both the talent and the heart to win it. The team just felt like a loose, goofy group that knew its mission. It said something Mike Randolph’s first hug after a big win always seemed to be for Worth, a kid who had to aggravate him at times, but remained lovable in spite of it, and certainly showed his share of growth over his years as a Hound. (Garrett listed Randolph as his greatest fear in the team program.) The buy-in was complete, and the right blends of skill and balance, of experience and confidence, of coaching and freedom, were all there.

This team wrote its way into the East record books. Worth’s 47 goals were the most by a Hound not named Spehar, while Ryder Donovan’s 48 assists were the most by any Hound not named Chris Locker. The top line of Worth, Ian Mageau, and Donovan will go down as one of the team’s best, and certainly the one with the best nickname. Ricky Lyle’s gritty second line added the power and a strong dose of offense, the third line kept grinding away, and the four-man defensive corps grew into one that outplayed Edina’s bevy of D-I blue line talent. By the end, there wasn’t a weakness to be found.

And so we say farewell to one of the more special classes of seniors to wear the red and grey. This group lived up to its considerable hype, and its longest tenured members both began and ended their East careers with second place finishes and upsets over Edina. One last roll call: Parker Kleive, who came from somewhere completely off my radar to win the goaltending job this season, and was rock-solid when the pressure was on. Porter Haney and Hunter Hren, who provided valuable depth, and Tommy Higgins, with his state record save percentage. Will Fisher, a captain and a rock in the four-man defensive corps, and Nick Lanigan, the scrappy third liner who was always rocketing around the ice and getting his nose right in the thick of things. Austin Jouppi, who blossomed into a superb power forward and put it all on the line on the state championship game. Ian Mageau, a top line force who set up the dagger to finish Edina in 2015, scored the go-ahead goal this time around, and quietly slid his way up the East all-time scorer ranks. Luke LaMaster, named the top senior defenseman in Minnesota for his two-way play. And the sniper, Garrett Worth, whose goal barrage earned a place in the annals of East history. As always, we wish them well, both in hockey and in life, and hope they learned a bit about the latter while living it up as the former as a Greyhound.

I usually keep some distance from East players. I don’t want to come off as some weird old fanboy, and sometimes I’m probably better off not knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. This is about them, not me. But this year, I couldn’t help but throw out some hugs to players as they emerged from the locker room after it was all over. They’d invested everything they had in a game, and I’d invested a healthy amount of the past few months watching their exploits. The boys of winter didn’t disappoint: there is no better, more convenient entertainment than this, and when it’s part of a community that one can call one’s own, all one can do is offer up some appreciation. I’ll miss this group, and after a healthy rest, we can start the countdown to next November.

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The Greyhound Restoration

3 Mar

The Heart Attack Hounds struck again in the 7AA final. For a sixth straight year, this affair delivered playoff hockey at its absolute best, with late drama and overtime again winning the day. This section final invariably sends those of us in the stands through about as polarizing swing of emotions a team can inspire, but East found a way yet again.

The Hounds opened their playoff run looking like a team on a mission. Despite Grand Rapids’ struggles this season, there was a bit of intrigue in opening with a game against a team that had vanquished them the two previous seasons and an elite goalie. No such worries, as Garrett Worth scored 23 seconds in, Logan Anderson piled on two minutes later, and East was off to the races with a 6-0 win. The section semifinal performance was even more clinical, as they humiliated a Duluth Marshall team that had taken them to overtime in the regular season, 9-1. After five straight nervy section finals, this finally seemed like one in which the Hounds were comfortable favorites.

But if the East faithful expected an easier path, they were soon set straight. The final matched the Hounds with Andover, a young, speedy finesse team that arrived a season early under the diligent work of head coach Mark Manney. The Huskies withstood East’s early barrage, and their confidence began to build. East was a mess throughout much of the second period, with Andover springing an endless series of odd-man rushes. The deficit was two after the period, but it could easily have been more, despite what the shots read on the scoreboard. Uncharacteristic mistakes began to mount, from sloppy defense to selfish offense to fluky swings and misses and collisions among teammates. The game set off bad memories of the 2012 Lakeville South loss, in which East slowly but surely lost control against a speedy team that outworked them and created chance after chance in the other direction.

And so the Hounds began to chip away, and resigned themselves to dumping and chasing to break a trap. All three goals were of the dirty variety, with two tips off of Luke LaMaster shots, and a bank shot from behind the net by Ryder Donovan. The team just kept grinding and denying losing, to use an old phrase of Mike Randolph’s. As so often seems the case, an upset-minded team crumbled when the favorite began to surge. Once they tied it up, any doubt went away. The Hounds were going to rewrite a well-worn script, as they tied a section final with under two minutes to go for the third time in eight years, and finished off their opponent in the first overtime. This was the most excruciating of the bunch, thanks both to their heavy favorite status and the length of the overtime, but the Greyhounds were back on their game, and found a way yet again.

Mike Randolph, meanwhile, added to his legend as he locked up his 17th State Tournament berth. This was a season in which a head coach could have just taken off the leash and turned his team loose, and relative to some other good East teams, he did that with this group. But there were still some of those subtle tweaks he makes that help make a good team great. Of note: the late season flip of the second and third line centers, Logan Anderson and Brendan Baker. On paper it looked like a minor flip, but with Anderson on the second line, that group practically outpaced the top line in production in the late stages of the season, and Baker’s net-front presence on the gritty third line was a bonus, too. In the section final, Baker was credited with the goal that began the comeback, and Anderson took home the game-winner. East fans will know the Hounds work traffic in front of the net and tips more than anyone so that the team is ready to break down a packed-in defense in a playoff game, and sure enough, those two goals both came on tips.

As Baker and Anderson exemplify, the defining trait of this East team remains its depth. Two-thirds of the top line was held to zero points on Thursday night, but East won anyway. The one-loss 2012 Hounds probably had as much talent across three lines, but they didn’t achieve the balance of this group, especially late this season. Thursday night’s struggles notwithstanding, the defense also became far more solid as the season went on, and if they can revert to February form in St. Paul, the Hounds will stand a good chance. In goal, the Hounds just ask Parker Kleive not to lose things for them, and to date he has delivered, as he takes no chances and does what he needs to do. He was certainly not at fault for the closeness of the Andover game, and has earned his place among East State Tournament starters.

The Hounds now head to St. Paul, where they’ve landed the 3-seed and will face Tournament debutant St. Michael-Albertville. If the Hounds get past the Knights, that most epic of tournament matchups, East against Edina, looms for Friday night. If things go according to form, the last two rounds could be as good as ever, but history tells us to expect the unexpected here.

For now, though, Duluth East can bask in its restoration to the 7AA throne, and a 23rd State Tournament trip. A skilled senior class bookends its time at East with a second Tourney trip, and gets a chance to show how far it has come since 2015’s magical ride, when Worth beat Elk River in double overtime to win the section and Ian Mageau fed Ash Altmann for the goal that slew Edina’s dynasty. We’ll see what they can do for an encore.

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.

Hounds Unleashed

9 Jan

Duluth East hits the halfway point in its 2017-2018 season undefeated, and a tentative #1 in the state. The first half wasn’t without its travails, with a few shaky ties and narrow wins. The Hounds’ crowning moment to date was a 4-2 win over previously undefeated and top-ranked Minnetonka last weekend, a strong effort that, after some rough early moments, allowed them to show off their depth, power, and flashy top line. They followed that with a 13-0 shellacking of rival Duluth Denfeld to roll to a 9-0-3 record through 12 contests, one of the better starts in the history of a program that has had a winning season or 64 over the past 64 years.

The flaws early on varied from game to game. The Hounds put together an incomplete effort against White Bear Lake in their first game, with a fast and furious first period and mediocrity after that, and a rough penalty kill that empowered rival Cloquet into a tie. Struggles to finish kept them from putting away Blaine, and forced a game with Duluth Marshall into overtime. But gradual progress on just about every front has helped clear out most of those cobwebs, and while January is far too early to crown anyone, East can look as complete as anyone when on its game.

The East offense has slowly rounded into form, and the WMD line of Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan showed its class among the state’s best in the Minnetonka win. Donovan has been the assist machine, playing his center’s role with aplomb and finally finding the back of the net a couple of times against Denfeld on Monday, while Garrett Worth is the sniper par excellence. If he keeps up his current scoring pace, he’ll be in some select company among all-time East goal-scorers by the end of his senior season, which currently looks like it warrants a Mr. Hockey finalist nomination. Mageau, meanwhile, is the bull moose who glues the line together, working hard in corners and always putting himself in the right spot.

East’s second line is picking up the scoring pace and has contributed some memorable moments, such as Brendan Baker’s goal to tie the Cloquet game with 4 seconds left and Austin Jouppi’s penalty shot against Marshall. Ricky Lyle is the team’s highest-scoring forward not on the WMD line, and has slotted in on the top line when necessary. A healthy Nick Lanigan adds some scoring punch to the third line, which hasn’t put up big numbers yet, but has certainly done its job carrying play in the offensive zone. Those two lines play classic East possession hockey, and add some necessary stability when WMD isn’t going coast to coast and lighting the lamp.

The defense, after a few shaky moments toward the start of the season, has largely locked in. Luke LaMaster quarterbacks this team from the blue line, while Hunter Paine’s thunderous hits provide him with the ideal partner. The second pair of Will Fisher and Carson Cochran has held firm, and Mike Randolph has rotated a healthy cast through the third pair as well. Between that group and a fourth line that gets semi-regular ice time even against other teams’ best players, East is rolling as deep a lineup as anyone in the state, which should help with freshness down the stretch.

Goaltending was a question mark coming in, and while Lukan Hanson and Parker Kleive had both bright and forgettable moments in the first month of the season, Randolph isn’t one to keep a rotation going deep into the second half. Hanson got consecutive starts over the weekend against Stillwater and Minnetonka, and for now seems to have won the job with his performance against the Skippers, in which he made several key saves when East was down 1-0 early.

The Hounds’ second half schedule is somewhat easier than the first: they’ve played eight top 20 teams to date, but have just four such games in their final 13.  A lot of their other opponents are lurking somewhere just beyond there, able to cause some trouble if they have an off night, so nothing will be easy. This Saturday’s date with Eden Prairie is one of the biggest, along with the Cloquet rematch and an important home game with 7AA foe Elk River. Before they get that far, though, they have a date (weather permitting) this Thursday with the Grand Rapids team that ended their season a year ago.

Statewide, the Hounds are in a tier of four teams that has separated itself from everyone else. East, Minnetonka, St. Thomas Academy, and Edina have separated themselves from the pack, with losses only to each other. The Hornets have the most talent here, but haven’t really played like a cohesive unit in the three times I’ve seen them; St. Thomas and Minnetonka don’t have the front-end firepower of the Hornets or Hounds, but are plenty deep and balanced, and have reliable goaltenders. That would make for an exceptional final four in St. Paul, though these things rarely go according to plan.

First things first: 7AA is its usual interesting self this season, and while the Hounds are a clear frontrunner, nothing much is obvious after that. Elk River is probably the next-deepest team in the section, and has shown some improvement in its weak defense of late. Andover struggled with East and the Elks but pounded Cloquet, and is looking good in the QRF rating system the section is using for seeds this year. Duluth Marshall was off to a fine start, but fell to Cloquet just before I published this post, and the Lumberjacks have brought a complete Jekyll and Hyde act to the table so far. Based on QRF, defending section champion Grand Rapids may get saddled with the 8-seed and a potential first round collision with the Hounds unless it improves markedly over the second half. If ever there were a 1-vs.-8 7AA game worth watching, it would be that.

*    *    *

High school hockey punditry can be a tiring line of work. It takes a lot of time on a weak pay grade, and includes its share of dealings with people who come out of the woodwork and force one to develop some thick skin. The kids are what keep it fun, both the ones who entertain us on the ice and the ones in the stands who give high school sports an incomparable atmosphere. And, over time, a community builds. This past weekend’s road trip to Minnetonka encapsulated that perfectly, from brunch before the game at Ike’s to dinner afterwards at Maynard’s on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. During the game I had the chance to talk with an unending rotation of friends and acquaintances, old and new: loyal readers, podcast listeners, hockey enthusiasts, and loyalists of both teams on the ice. It’s a pleasure to meet genuine people with the same diversion, and I have to thank all of you for your passion and commitment. You make it all worth it.

Now, here’s to a second half with an even bigger helping of Worth (Garrett, that is) and his teammates.

Duluth East 2017-2018 Season Preview

30 Nov

The start of a new season can never come fast enough in the aftermath of a double-overtime section final loss, but at long last, an agonizing wait is over. The Duluth East Greyhounds start their 2017-2018 season on the road in White Bear Lake tomorrow, where they hope to avoid a repeat of last season’s upset loss in the opener. They’re right back at it the next day with a home game against Wayzata, another potent opponent that gives this East team an immediate chance to set the tone. As well they should want to: on paper, this is the best East team since the 2011-2012 dream team that got upset in the first round of the State Tournament.

The similarities between these Greyhounds and that group six years ago are almost uncanny: a high-flying top line with a long history together, two excellent supporting lines, a deep and offensive-minded defense, and a new goalie who is the obvious heir apparent. Sure, there are some differences: the top line has yet to reach the point totals of Jake Randolph, Trevor Olson, and newly minted NHLer Dom Toninato. Both teams lost to the state champion in several overtimes the season before, though this incoming group went down in the section final, whereas the 2011 Hounds made the title game. Missing the Tournament two seasons in a row brings a different sort of pressure than coming in as a three-time defending section champion, though there are still four kids on this squad who have seen the bright lights of March and played in the 2015 title game.

The comparison will be especially apt if the Hounds can unleash their Weapons of Mass Destruction. Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan—aka the WMD Line—are in the conversation for the best line in the state. Worth is the sniper, Mageau provides a powerful big body that will go into corners, and future North-Dakota-Whatever-They-Are-Now Donovan is a smooth-skating giant who had a big offseason and could be set for a genuine breakout. This line has the potential to put up numbers on par with the greatest East lines of all time, and if they do so, this team will have every chance to play for a state title.

The factor that could separate East from the field this season, however, is its depth: they may have the three best lines in the state, as their top nine forwards all return. Ricky Lyle took strides over the offseason and now looks very dangerous, Nick Lanigan (once he’s healthy) will bring an excellent work rate, and a full sophomore campaign from Logan Anderson will be welcome after injuries disrupted his second half last year. Austin Jouppi, Brendan Baker, and Jack FitzGerald were all solidly productive a season ago as well, and with all three lines firing and taking a step forward, this team will be able to bury in opponents in ways that few others can. Only a handful of west metro teams and St. Thomas Academy are even close to them here.

The Defense is led by newly committed Wisconsin Badger Luke LaMaster, and in what is admittedly a thin year for front-end senior defensemen, he’s a contender for the Reed Larson Award for the top blueliner in the state. Hunter Paine had a huge second half last season, and with he and LaMaster ranging forward, Will Fisher needs to be the defensive rock to protect Lukan Hanson in goal. Carson Cochran rounds out the top four in terms of talent, and E.J. Hietala is also in the mix; the third defensive pair is about the only spot on this roster where there’s some room for new kids to climb in.

In goal, it’s Lukan Hanson’s time to shine. He looked capable in sporadic action a season ago and in the Elite League this fall, so now it’s just a matter of translating that play into the regular season and holding up under the spotlight. There’s no question the job is his, so he’ll have to deliver.

While the Hounds are the undisputed frontrunner in 7AA, a crowded group will be nipping at their heels. Elk River is probably the best of the bunch top to bottom, and maybe they’re in better shape with less hype and pressure this season, though I’ve said that before. Cloquet has the skill coming up to make things interesting, and if they can jell under a new coach, the rivalry factor will also help close the gap. Marshall isn’t the deepest team to ever grace the ice, but their top unit is as good as anyone’s, and like Cloquet, the Hounds are very much their target. Young Andover will look to crash the party, too. And then there’s Grand Rapids, which is way down from the past few seasons. But they are the two-time defending champs, and the only team in the section that has beaten East with any regularity in recent seasons; if Gabe Holum gets hot, it’s not impossible.

The Hounds’ schedule is unique in that they don’t play any of the other three teams in the top preseason top four (Edina, Moorhead, St. Thomas). But, they do play nearly everyone else who’s ranked: 19 of 25 opponents are in my preseason AA top 25, and a couple of the non-ranked teams aren’t exactly pushovers. As usual, the toughest stretches come right away and again in early January; things ease up with a lot of somewhat lighter home games toward the end, though they do have big section games with Cloquet and Elk River in that later stretch. Lots of teams will be gunning for East, as they’ll be the favorites in most games they play. There are few opportunities for off nights against this schedule.

Given all of that, East’s evolution over the course of the season will be key. The 2012 team, and also the 2008-2009 squad that was East’s other no-doubt preseason top five team in the past decade, both came out of the gates looking dominant, but seemed to stall as January and February wore on. The warning signs for their first round State Tournament upset losses were all there. Of course, no East fan would complain if they ran the table, but if they don’t, a little adversity wouldn’t be the worst thing to hit this team, so long as they respond well. One just has to trust that Mike Randolph’s systems will continue to grow, and not settle into tedium.

Randolph was the subject of an excellent profile by the Louie St. George in the News Tribune earlier this week, one that hits on many of the same notes about his career trajectory that I’ve mentioned over the past few years. In this golden stage of his career, Randolph sits at 597 career wins, and should track down number 600 in the first couple weeks of the season. The next milestone, in my mind, is even more significant: with a 20-win season, which seems like a realistic goal, he will surpass Willard Ikola for third place on the all-time coaching wins list. 600 is just a number, but joining a man like Ikola goes to show the depth of the influence he’s had over twenty-nine seasons as a coach.

The sky is the limit for this team, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: March is still a long way off. Whatever comes next, this ride will be a memorable one.

Semifinal Saturday

24 Feb

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.

The Broken Section Seeding Process

18 Feb

At the end of the regular season in high school hockey, a factor that has little to do with on-ice results weighs on teams’ fates. This week, the coaches in each section meet in smoke-filled rooms to set the seeding for their respective section tournaments. (In most cases, this is now done electronically; in 7AA they literally do meet in a smoke-filled room at Tobies restaurant in Hinckley, a tradition sadly interrupted this season, when Duluth Marshall had the nerve to schedule a game for itself on the sacred Wednesday night.) The coaches cast preliminary seeding votes, view the results, debate and make cases for themselves if they think the first vote hasn’t been fair, and then vote a final time to decide who gets which seed. To avoid sabotage, coaches do not rank their own teams, and the highest and lowest vote for each team is thrown out. Even so, the process is messy, controversial, and is responsible for an average of 37 aneurysms per year among users on the USHSHO Forums.

The leading controversy this season, as it so often does, comes out of 7AA, where Cloquet leapfrogged Grand Rapids to claim the 3-seed. The storyline in 7AA all season long was that one of its three big contenders (Elk River, Duluth East, Grand Rapids) would claim the top seed, and thereby avoid having to play two games against top-flight competition to make the State Tournament. Cloquet, however, threw a wrench in things. I was at the Rapids-Cloquet game this past Tuesday, and it was as stunning a high school game as I’ve seen in a while, as the Lumberjacks jumped all over Rapids and forechecked them to death in a convincing 4-1 win. It was a coming-out party for a young Cloquet team, and an exclamation point on a sudden, ugly late-season turn that has an incredibly talented Grand Rapids team struggling to find answers.

Grand Rapids, interestingly enough, doesn’t lose much of anything with this arrangement: there’s not much distinction between being the 3-seed or the 4-seed in 7AA this season. With losses to Elk River and Duluth East, they knew they were going to have to go through the Hounds and Elks regardless. The order is just different there, and they play Andover instead of Duluth Marshall in the first round, which I’m not convinced is a drawback, either. Likewise, even if Cloquet beats Marshall a third time, they’ve earned themselves a date with Duluth East, who’s beaten them 5-0 and 5-1, respectively, this season. For Rapids and Cloquet, the actual difference is minimal.

Backers of top-seeded Elk River, on the other hand, are crying foul. Their squad’s reward for the top seed could well involve a semifinal meeting with a team that spent a fair amount of time in the top 5 in the state this season, and they’re understandably leery that the Rapids sleeping giant will awake at the wrong time. (Mixed in here, one suspects, is a fair amount of frustration over the location of the 7AA semis and final, an entirely separate issue that has also not treated Elk River well.) No one out there honestly thinks Cloquet had a better season than Rapids, but two of the factors that have long swung section seeding meetings—record in the section, and performance in the second of two meetings between teams—tipped the scales. The logic the coaches used shouldn’t have surprised anyone who’s paid attention to section seeding over the years, though that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do things.

Over in 8AA there was controversy as well, but the reasons were entirely different. Bemidji had stumbled through the first half of their schedule, with four losses to section foes, before turning it on down the stretch. The Lumberjacks beat St. Michael-Albertville, who had been the presumptive 2-seed, in their only meeting, and also avenged an earlier loss to Roseau. In a section that was a total seeding mess, one might have thought that Bemidji’s late-season run and avoidance of truly bad results would boost them up to the 3-seed, perhaps even the 2-seed; that would certainly be true if we applied the logic the 7AA coaches seemed to use. Instead, the Lumberjacks were consigned to the 5-seed. That result that does have its own internal logic, as they lost twice to 4-seed Brainerd, but seems awfully harsh for a team that is playing well right now, is 3-3 against the teams immediately above it, and that most observers would agree is one of the two or three most talented in the section.

The coaches’ vote is a meat-making process that will, inevitably, lead to butthurt. I’m not terribly sympathetic to those who are upset, a position I will maintain even if my alma mater someday seems to draw the short stick in one of these controversies. (The fact that this hasn’t happened in recent memory has led to some laughable efforts to endow Mike Randolph with magical powers of ballot box stuffing or persuasion.) Teams just need to find ways to win, period. But I recognize it does affect things, and I can think of two ways that could remove some of the intrigue:

Use an algorithm to do the seeds. Plenty of people have designed algorithms that can spit out dispassionate rankings of high school teams. The Minnesota State High School league has even offered up one, QRF, as a valid criterion for making seeding decisions. I enjoy looking at computerized rankings, but this one is probably the worst of the bunch, to the point where I look at other algorithm-based rankings in creating my subjective ones, but completely ignore this one. (I’m sure an effort to look at its past ability to predict playoff results would back this up.) And while I’d love it if the MSHSL were to contract out Lee Pagenkopf’s PageStat or MyHockeyRankings (or *my* hockey rankings), these aren’t really realistic options at this point in time. (Though seriously, MSHSL, you know where to find me if you want me.) Given the finicky nature of some of these algorithms, and the different and ultimately subjective weights they can give toward things like strength of schedule or margin of victory while ignoring raw head-to-head results, I lean away from this option, and instead toward another:

Mandate that all teams within a section play each other once in a game that contributes to section standings. Right now, schedules are built around conferences, which are, for the most part, useless relics left for us by football, which doesn’t even use a conference system anymore. This is dumb on many levels, and leaves us with some ugly controversies when teams don’t play all of their section opponents, or play them a different number of times. Silly flaps between programs like Eden Prairie and Holy Family, which refuse to play for political reasons, lead to a lot of guesswork, use of competing forms of logic, and grievances. There is no quality control in scheduling, and the seeding process inevitably suffers.

Under this model, teams would play a sort of league schedule where they play their section opponents once. Home venues would rotate by year. Teams could schedule additional meetings with their section rivals, if they so choose; it only makes sense in the case of longstanding rivalries, and especially for the Greater Minnesota teams that face long travel times. Those additional meetings, however, simply wouldn’t count toward section standings. Section standings could then rely on a consistent point system just like a college conference, with tiebreakers such as head-to-head record or goal differential on hand to break any ties. (The goal differential one would need to have limits, though; top teams running up scores on the bottom of the section shouldn’t determine seeds.) We’d have a simple, clear order at the end, and a playoff structure to resolve any disputes.

I don’t expect change anytime soon, but sooner or later, the clamor for transparency should become too loud to ignore. With the complete death of conference relevance, hockey has a chance to adopt an added dose of sanity. So, much as I enjoy munching on my popcorn as 7AA undergoes its annual explosion, I’ll gladly forego that for the sake of a system that makes more sense.