Tag Archives: 7aa

Rising to the Occasion

2 Mar

The drama never fails. For the fifth time in six years, the 7AA final went to overtime. Amsoil Arena rose to a fevered pitch, with girls screaming on every rush, and the stage was set for another kid to write himself into Minnesota high school hockey lore. This time, the hero was one of the more likely ones: Ryder Donovan, who pumped home a no-doubt game-winner in the first minute of overtime. It was the Hounds’ second consecutive title, their ninth in the past 11 years, the 18th under Mike Randolph, and 24th in the history of the program. The legacy writes itself, and Donovan, the senior captain headed to his third Tournament in five years, is a fitting bearer of the torch.

The regular season had its share of tumult. East beat one State Tournament entrant and tied two more, but also lost to teams like Prior Lake and Champlin Park. When not disrupted by bad weather, East pulled things together toward the end and entered the playoffs on a strong note. But questions lingered, and to advance to State, they had to get past two quality opponents. While Cloquet had a similarly frustrating regular season, the Lumberjacks had enough talent to make things interesting, plus a rivalry factor; ten minutes into the game, it looked like they would give the Hounds everything they could handle. And Andover, a top four team all season long, deserved favorite status in 7AA. They’d beaten the Hounds in the regular season, and were deep and dangerous at every position. But neither team could finish it, and 7AA’s goliath claimed another title.

The star of the section run was Ricky Lyle, who accounted for eight of East’s 16 playoff goals, and assisted on five more. The tenacious forward has a flair for the dramatic, and coupled his sniping with a barrage of nasty hits. His scoring-opening against both Cloquet and Andover set the tone, and showed the Hounds would go blow-for-blow with their opponents; his second one against the Huskies swung the momentum in East’s favor. He drew the penalty that set up Donovan’s game-winner, and slipped his teammate a perfect pass to seal a section title. Over four seasons at East, Lyle has found ways to always put himself in the middle of the action, and is playing his way toward a brighter hockey future.

Donovan, too, rose to the occasion. As with his team, his season had its ups and downs, but his prodigious talent shined most in the semis against Cloquet, where he was a one-man wrecking crew on the penalty kill. He set up Lyle on a first shorthanded rush and then finished one of his own thirty seconds later, a dagger that took all the life out of the Lumberjacks. In the section final, battling an illness, he made his presence felt up and down the ice, double-shifting to keep his calming presence out there. Whatever his goal total may be, his skating ability and hands put him in a truly elite class, and in the biggest moment of his season, he didn’t miss.

In a season where their rivals had every chance to derail the defending section champs, the Hounds separated themselves with senior leadership. With 12 seniors on the playoff roster, had the physical maturity to wear down opponents, and they’d been down this road before. Plenty of teams would have folded after giving up a game-tying power play goal midway through the third period, but it never felt like a serious shift in momentum. East went back to work: their top players in particular refused to cave. Not once were they caught up in the moment, while Andover coach Mark Manney said many of his players were.

Much of the credit for East’s success should go to the rebuilt defense. Ever the backbone of a Randolph-coached team, the Hounds came into this season with little experience on the blue line. F.H. Paine was the star of the unit, a two-way playmaker whose open-ice hits might be the nastiest in the state. But Carson Cochran added a veteran presence, E.J. Hietala showed tremendous growth over the course of the season, and Jayson Hagen returned from injury around midseason and was a rock in his own end. If that group could break out reliably, I thought, this group could beat Andover, and they did so just often enough.

‘Just enough’ was the theme of the night. While the Hounds have encountered a few Grand Rapids and Elk River teams over the past decade that had more top-end talent, this Andover team was the first opponent over that time frame that could legitimately outskate an East team, top to bottom. Their forward corps was three lines deep, Ben Fritsinger was one of the state’s very best goalies, and the puck control of the defense, led by junior Wyatt Kaiser, was elite. But East’s physical play did enough to disrupt them, and by driving traffic to the net, they made Fritsinger look mortal. Thursday’s final was only the second game all season in which he gave up more than two goals. Brody Rabold, meanwhile, did just enough to win, and the rest of the Hounds’ supporting cast chipped in here and there as well, from Jack Fitzgerald’s go-ahead goal to Brendan Baker’s strong night all over the ice.

Fortune did not frown upon the Hounds, either. Lyle’s second goal of the night, which tied the game at two, took a convenient bounce off his leg. The referees made their presence felt throughout the game, first by calling nothing in the early going to enable a physical war, and then by suddenly inserting themselves in the middle of the third period. This broke both ways, and each team, when gifted a power play opportunity, finished immediately. Andover’s came at an opportune time to tie the game in the third after East had appeared to enter lockdown mode, and East’s came in overtime. The Hounds never relinquished the puck, and Donovan finished just eight seconds in to the man advantage.

East heads to State as the 5-seed, and will open in the late game against St. Thomas Academy, a rematch of the 2015 thriller in which the Hounds came back from 3-0 and 5-2 deficits to win in overtime. Their side of the bracket, which also features Moorhead and top-ranked Edina, is brutal, but just about everything a fan of high school hockey could ask for in terms of juicy matchups in the quarterfinals and semifinal. The Hounds won’t be a favorite on paper, but they probably will be in the arena, and they should make this week a memorable one, in one way or another. St. Paul, here we come.

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Snowbound Hounds

13 Feb

Winter has been cruel to us hockey fans this season. Never before has the end of a Duluth East regular season felt so incomplete: Tuesday night’s game with Maple Grove, a showdown with a top ten team that would reveal the team’s trajectory heading into the playoffs, fell victim to the incessant snow piling up all across Minnesota. Tack on the loss of a game to Lakeville South the previous week, and East has played just three games in the season’s final three weeks. While they’ve played well of late, these Hounds are as much of a mystery heading into sections as any East team I’ve seen.

At my last check-in on this blog, the team was sitting comfortably in the top ten. They’d taken a few lumps but were still in the general area we all thought they were at the start of the season. Three losses in their next four games, including a brutal road trip to the west and rock-bottom in an ugly effort against Prior Lake, changed the narrative somewhat. The team’s season was on the brink. Over on the forum, I authored a somewhat snippy post that demanded certain changes.

The Hounds have responded with four straight wins. None of their opponents were elite, but they have looked better with each effort. It began with a solid game against a top 20 Eagan team that nearly got away from them before an overtime win, a solid takedown of Elk River, a stout defensive effort against Cloquet, and then a demolition of Superior.

The defense, my largest concern coming into the season, has been sound in recent weeks. A healthy Jayson Hagen has helped balance out a relatively inexperienced group, and while F.H. Paine remains its lone real offensive weapon, this group is smart and avoids making many mistakes. With that foundation in place, the offense has started to come. I am pleased with Mike Randolph’s new lines, which do a good job of balancing different talents and creating three lines that can do some damage. The most noticeable since the shift, in only by the sheer size of its constituents, is the top line of Jacob Jeannette, Jonathan Jones, and Ryder Donovan. Aside from being one of the tallest lines in state history, it has a nice balance of skill surprising speed for its size. It can steamroll opponents into submission, and seems to headline the new East identity.

Jeannette’s emergence over the past month is perhaps the most positive development for East’s offense. The sophomore’s use of his solid body makes him unique for such a young player, and he has the speed and skill to work with Donovan and give him the complementary piece he needs. Perhaps not coincidentally, Donovan has begun to finish a bit more in these past few games, and his control over games has seemed that much more complete. This line’s success allows Randolph to drape his talented upperclassmen across the second and third lines, which can skate with any of their equivalents in the state. Ricky Lyle, Logan Anderson, and Jack Fitzgerald form a potent second line, while Brendan Baker anchors the third line alongside Charlie Erickson. The one possibly unsettled spot is the third forward on the third line, where Zarley Ziemski and now Nolan Aleff have seen some time.

We still need to see how these new arrangements hold up against top-end competition. One of East’s edges over its Northwest Suburban rivals for the 7AA crown in recent seasons, I’ve believed, is their schedule, which has continued to include quality games up to the end while Elk River and Andover closed with the dregs of their conference. With East’s lack of games down the stretch, any battle-tested edge there may be nullified. I also still have genuinely no idea who will get the nod in net between Lukan Hanson and Brody Rabold once the playoffs start. (Of late, it’s been a good problem to have: both have been solid, with Rabold carrying much of the load in January and the now-healthy Hanson’s more measured sense of control adding a calming presence in his two recent starts.) There’s still some concern that the lack of offense could reappear at the worst possible time.

7AA, however, appears pretty straightforward, barring some odd twist in the QRF seeding formula following Grand Rapids’ late surge. East is going to open the playoffs with Duluth Marshall and, assuming no catastrophes against a team they beat 8-3 in December, will probably collide with Cloquet in the 7AA semifinals. The Lumberjacks are injury-battered and have mustered just one goal in seven periods against the Hounds this season, so their appearance in this game may not even be certain. But if they get better special teams play and a few breaks in a chaotic playoff environment, they’re good enough to give East a run. If the Hounds get by that one, their season will come down to a rematch with Andover, the team they beat in overtime in last season’s final and lost to in overtime in December. That December meeting at Andover was a dead-even game, with a slight territorial edge to the Hounds before they started coughing up odd-man rushes in the extra frame. If the reinforced defense and new line combinations are indeed a genuine improvement, there is good reason to like East at Amsoil.

Andover, however, has shown few signs of a let-up, with only two hiccups down the stretch. The first was a game played in the -20s in Bemidji against the then-top ranked team in the state, and featured a goalie change that coach Mark Manney will not make in a playoff game; I thought they were the superior team 5-on-5 against a Minnetonka team that had little trouble dispatching of East. The other, more concerning result was an 8-2 loss to Blaine. While East well knows that any team can have an off night, that one does at least raise some questions about what will happen if things start to snowball in a playoff game for the Huskies, as they are still very new to this whole favorite status. They can match the Hounds’ depth and have more speed and skill on the back end, but can they rise to the occasion and make their first State Tournament?

Enough with the speculation, and enough of the tinkering. This is the time of the year that Randolph builds his teams for, and it’s time for East to show its playoff mettle.

One More Piece

13 Jan

As the Duluth East boys’ hockey team concludes an adventurous homestand, now seems an appropriate time for a midseason assessment. The team sits at 10-3-2 through 15 games, a showing that has them firmly in the top ten but hovering outside the very top tier of teams. Two of those losses are to the top two teams in the state, with a narrow loss to Andover in overtime and a much less narrow defeat at the hands of Minnetonka in early January. (The less said about the other loss, the better.) 1-1 ties with Eden Prairie and Blaine, on the other hand, seem to peg the Hounds accurately at this point in the season: right on par with a couple of teams that have the talent to go deep into March, but still in search of that missing ingredient to tip them over the top.

The rap on this squad so far has been its inconsistent offensive output. While they have occasional outbursts—seven goals against Stillwater, six against Grand Rapids, five against Lakeville North—they have a lot of plodding, low-scoring games. Midway through this past week’s Grand Rapids, when the Hounds were sitting at three goals in their past 80 minutes against weaker competition, speculation began to mount if their shot conversion rate could be historically bad. East has outshot every opponent this season save Minnetonka, but rarely do they put them away, and at times have to fight back from unexpected early deficits. This isn’t a wild surprise to anyone who’s watched Duluth East hockey over the years; excepting seasons when they have overwhelming offensive talent such as last season, the Randolph-Olson-Toninato teams at the start of the decade, and the dynastic mid-90s Dave Spehar teams, Greyhound hockey under Mike Randolph plays defense first. The team works its systems all season long, all with an eye to late February.

By mid-January, however, things should start to settle into form, and after half a season of endless tinkering, Randolph appears to have settled on several, if not all, of his lines. Ricky Lyle and Jonathan Jones are a heavy combination on the second line, which comes out against other teams’ top units, and with Logan Anderson centering things, they’ve got some offensive flair, too. Jacob Jeanette is becoming a force on the third line, and they’ve got some cards up their sleeve thanks to their depth, with Exhibit A being Zarley Ziemski, who came up to varsity to log a hat trick against Stillwater. The power play, while fairly pedestrian statistically so far, has started generating much better looks since Ryder Donovan moved to the circle, leaving Frederick Hunter Paine alone atop the umbrella.

On one front, the Hounds have improved: they are finally nearly healthy. There was a moment of collective fear in the Heritage Center when Paine went down clutching his side early in the Minnetonka game. After a two-game absence Paine returned to the lineup against Eden Prairie, and while he wasn’t quite throwing his weight around to the fullest extent, his presence was obvious. With all due respect to Ryder Donovan, Paine is unique on this team: he’s the only true offensive defenseman, and his physical play can change a game’s dynamics. He would have been very difficult to replace.

With Paine returning to health and Jayson Hagen also entering the lineup for the first time after a lengthy injury, East’s defense is finally rounding into form. Senior EJ Hietala has stepped up into a steady role, and sophomore Garrett Johnson has emerged as a reliable contributor with some offensive ability. Depth on defense was my biggest concern heading into the season, but if the Eden Prairie game is any indication, this team can feel fairly confident in its top six. None of them are going to light up the scoreboard the way Luke LaMaster did a season ago, but no one is asking them to do that; they just need to make smart decisions within the system and choose their moments to jump into the play.

Goaltending was another question mark heading into the season, and Randolph stuck with a three-man rotation through much of the season. Now, however, an injury to Lukan Hanson and raw statistics appear to have temporarily settled the matter: Brody Rabold has come out of nowhere to claim the starting job, and continues to put together strong performances. Randolph’s notoriously short leash come back out if Rabold ever hits a road bump, but for the time being, they appear to have a reliable goalie.

If the situation in back is indeed solidifying, this team’s fortunes down the stretch will rest on its offensive production. The elephant in the room here is Donovan, whose 22 points lead the team but still don’t seem quite commensurate with his many talents. His line, which lately has also featured Jack Fitzgerald and Brendan Baker, needs to start carrying more of the scoring load for this team to make a deep run. The kid has a lot of pressure on him, but the skillset and effort are there; now, it’s just a matter of finding some chemistry and making smart choices as the stakes get ever higher. As good as Andover has been, and as dangerous as Cloquet can be, I think 7AA is East’s to lose if they can find this final piece of the puzzle.

And so the Hounds head into the home stretch. With the long homestand at an end, East meanders west this upcoming week into 8AA territory to face Brainerd and Moorhead. The rest of the season features a bunch of good-but-not-great metro squads that will be good tests of their ability to put away mid-level teams, plus two road rivalry contests against section opponents who are also in that tier in Cloquet and Elk River. The regular season will end with a bang, as they face another front-end opponent in Maple Grove. The tinkering period is coming to an end, and now this East team will have to rise or fall on the strength of the players it has.

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.

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.

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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.