7AA Takes Shape

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Whirlwind Week of Hockey

Between the past two Saturdays I attended seven hockey games in eight days, an exhausting string even for someone who watches as religiously as me. It was blistering tour featuring all of northeast Minnesota’s State Tournament contenders, plus a pair of Lake Conference powers who came north to visit. I enjoyed long nights and raucous arenas, not to mention connections with friends old and new at all of them, except for the one in Hermantown, where I instead had the misfortune of being surrounded by Hermantown parents displaying typical Hermantown parent behavior.

It all got off to an inauspicious start, as Minnetonka came to play Duluth East on Saturday the 7th. After a start to the season defined largely by consistent efforts, the Hounds were MIA from puck drop at the Heritage Center, and the Skippers pummeled them to the tune of 6-0. It was one of the ugliest losses of the Mike Randolph era—an inordinate number of said losses do seem to come against Minnetonka—but it shows how far things can all go to pieces when a normally disciplined team lapses. The Skippers, meanwhile, looked like world-beaters, and while they have potential, they’ve failed to back that up with any consistency. They are a perplexing program, one with perpetual talent but just one trip to state in the past ten years. Maybe this new rising generation will be the one that changes things, but I’ll wait until March to draw conclusions.

The Hounds were again on my calendar for Monday for their crosstown rivalry with Duluth Denfeld, and in the early stages, they again looked nothing like they should. Slowly, however, the offense took over, and while it took a few power plays that sent Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley into cahoots, the final shots (54-15) showed the completeness of the Greyhound domination from the middle of the first period on. Denfeld goalie Benjamin LaFont gets credit for keeping it somewhat close, a feat he repeated during Thursday night’s 5-1 loss to Hermantown. This has been a dark year for the Hunters, with just two wins to their name and no junior varsity. After stringing things along for a few seasons thanks to a handful of strong bloodlines and transfers, the bottom seemed to have fallen out. But this week’s rivalry games showed a group of Hunters that still have their pride intact, and look stout enough to at least make things interesting in the 7A playoffs.

“Interesting” is not normally a word associated with the 7A playoffs these days, and the Hermantown Hawks reminded us why on Tuesday, when they outlasted AA power Grand Rapids for a third straight win over the Thunderhawks. This was the most entertaining game I’ve seen all year, a back-and-forth, open affair brimming with emotion. A coaching chess match came to the fore in the second period, when Rapids’ Trent Klatt started looking for ways to get his elite threesome at forward—Blake McLaughlin, Micah Miller, and Gavin Hain—away from Hermantown’s Ryan Sandelin-led top line. Sandelin and company contained the Big Three whenever they were on the ice together, and Bruce Plante was wily enough to keep up in the line-matching game. Hermantown, meanwhile, exploited the mismatch of the second lines, and Logan Judnick’s goal held up as the game-winner. The Hawks were clinging to life in the late stages as the Big Three surged forward, but did enough for a 4-3 win, and some frustrated Grand Rapids defenesemen started a scrum in the corner after the buzzer sounded. It was a painful error: two of them were given game misconducts, and had to miss Thursday’s contest with Duluth East.

Few regular season games were as anticipated as this one, as the Greyhounds welcomed in the team that ended their 7AA dynasty in exhilarating fashion the year before. The atmosphere at the Heritage Center was the best I’ve ever seen, and both teams had something to prove: East needed to win to show it belonged in the 7AA conversation, while a loss could consign Rapids to the 3-seed, despite their strong start to the year. With so many thrillers in recent memory between these two, it had the makings of another classic.

The game, however, didn’t offer much in the way of drama. Thursday was one of those defining Duluth East games, a dominant performance that offered Greyhound hockey at its finest. East went on the attack early and never let up, controlling the puck for long stretches yet still showing enough discipline to make the Rapids stars seem fairly pedestrian when they did go on the rush the other way. They unleashed a barrage on Rapids goalie Gabe Holum, and while he held the game to 1-0 for a period and a half, the floodgates burst loose late in the second. The 5-0 final was East’s finest statement to date, and after Elk River stumbled against Centennial on Saturday, they suddenly look like they’re right there in the heart of the 7AA race.

The Thunderhawks, meanwhile, face a conundrum. Their amazing top line carried them through a dominant December, but with just one win in five games before a recovery effort in their win over Cloquet on Tuesday the 17th, there are some cracks in the walls. It’s not hard to look good when a team returns a group of stars with incredible chemistry, but as the competition builds its own combinations and settles into its systems, it grows more difficult for a good AA team to thrive off sheer skill alone. If ever a team could, it’s this Thunderhawk group, but a concurrent decline in team discipline has been their bête noir. Trent Klatt has played with splitting up his now-somewhat-stoppable trio, a move I’ve judged as wise give the realities of AA hockey: one-line teams seldom win tough sections. But the Big Three have a chemistry together that’s hard to shrug aside, and Trent Klatt faces far more critical choices than he did a year ago, when he had the depth to run with the likes of East and Elk River. Few teams will be as interesting to watch down the stretch.

For East, the win was as much a display of talent as it was a win for the program’s famed systems. Mike Randolph teams are renowned for their offensive zone cycling and ability to shut down the opposition, but they’re at their very best when there are added wrinkles of creativity that display some of the natural skill on the team. We saw some flashes of that against Grand Rapids. Garrett Worth, the most technically skilled East forward since Jake Randolph, dangled all over the place. Ian Mageau was a physical force, disrupting the opposition and creating plays of his own, with three assists on the night. And while Luke LaMaster didn’t have a huge night on the scoresheet, his poise in his own zone started many a fluid Hound breakout. The machine work is all lovely and important, but it’s going to be these individual moments of brilliance that make or break this team’s playoff run.

Those top line Hounds had precious few chances to show their greatness against Eden Prairie on Saturday. Matched against Casey Mittelstadt and the Eagle top line, they were left in a mostly defensive role, which they filled with aplomb, though at the expense of some scoring chances. For its part, the East system held up well against the state’s most talented team. In a display of depth, the third line scored both goals, and the defensemen were equal to the task against Mittelstadt. The ending, however, was something no system can account for, as goaltender Kirk Meierhoff mishandled a lob in from the blue line by Nick Leivermann just ten seconds into overtime. It was an unfortunate twist for Meierhoff, who’s shown genuine improvement and been a bright spot for East this year, and recalled memories of some previous overtime affair between these two that ended on a crazy goal. But, no matter: the Hounds showed this week that they have the formula to run with the best when they’re on their game.

This was my second look at Eden Prairie on the weekend, as I’d seen them turn in a fairly pedestrian performance in a 3-1 win over Cloquet the night before. Under Lee Smith this season, the Eagles are the anti-Grand Rapids, deliberately avoiding heavy reliance on their stars in the service of a deep lineup and grinding performances. Perhaps it’s an attempt to atone for last season, when the Eagles lost the title game to a deep defensive team, and it’s not without risks, as games can stay tighter than they might be if they turned into a track meet. But winning it all in AA takes discipline, and with their new approach—and, one might add, with a certain hotheaded forward unavailable due to a misconduct the night before—Eden Prairie kept its poise and rolled its lines when East ramped up the pressure in the third period. Sure, East effectively shut down Mittelstadt, but the Eagles never panicked, and when a questionable call gave them a late penalty, they pressed in, creating a deluge of chances late in regulation before Leivermann’s fateful flip.

Perhaps these are all important turning points; perhaps these moments in January are just little skips that won’t be at all relevant when we look back in two months at the moments that defined these teams’ seasons. Either way, these teams delivered some of the cheapest, most entertaining theater available out there. We’re headed into the stretch run now, and it only gets better from here.

Hounds for the Holidays

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

A Hawkish Outlook

Just a couple of years ago, the Hermantown Hawks were the darlings of the Class A Tournament, the last public school bastion of defense against the march of Twin Cities private school machines. How quickly the tables turn: the longest-running and incessant debate on the hockey forum this offseason has been about Hermantown’s dominance over Class A, and the competitive imbalance it creates. As with St. Thomas Academy before them, the Hawks’ consistent ability to pump out elite teams has prompted frustrated reactions from those who are stuck going up against them and lose, year after year: shouldn’t this high-powered team move up to AA?

As long as they kept losing state championship games, as they did for six consecutive seasons, they had an easy counterargument: for all their success, the Hawks clearly weren’t on the level of a St. Thomas or a Breck. But on the seventh year of consecutive title game appearances, God rested in his torment of Hermantown, and the Duluth suburb took home its second state title in ten years. With a loaded team coming back this coming season, anything less than a convincing repeat would be stunning. The Hawks are the undisputed superpower of Class A, and no one is even close.

I’ve been mostly agnostic in the A vs. AA debate, as I have no strong Class A loyalties. I respect teams’ rights to run their own programs as they see fit, and prefer not to throw stones when my own team makes scheduling decisions based on what it believes is right for its situation. Any complaints that spurted out of my Twitter feed were from an aesthetic standpoint; I want to watch competitive hockey at Class A State, not giant blowouts, and grew bored with some of the Hawks’ men-versus-boys contests last season. Sure, I think it’s fun when historic Range teams head to State, and as a northern boy, I’d appreciate another northern squad in 7AA so as to boot Elk River to a different section and carry the regional torch at State if they earn it. But this was not among the things keeping me up at night or making me mutter under my breath.

Hermantown defenders are right to make a few points. The school is playing where it was assigned, and its enrollment is nowhere near the AA cutoff. Nor are most of Hermantown’s advantages the product of an evil recruiting scheme, even if there may be isolated incidents here or there. (I’m not close enough to say whether those rumors have any teeth.) The school boundaries around Hermantown do lend themselves to open enrollment. Townships to the west and northwest of are in the Proctor school district, despite being closer to Hermantown and not touching Proctor. (Numbers from these townships help keep Proctor a decent-sized school for an otherwise tiny community.) The closure of Duluth Central also pushed a decent number of Duluth Heights residents to open enroll across the border, as Hermantown was both convenient, and higher-performing than those students’ new West Duluth schools. (Of course, it’s worth asking how much of this has to do with anything unique to Hermantown, and how much of it is just demographic inertia.)

That said, Hermantown does have its share of advantages that most small hockey programs in the state do not enjoy. It is an exurban community in a respectably-sized metropolitan area of about 200,000. That’s not huge, but it’s substantial, especially when accounting for the wealth of local hockey history and the presence of a prominent D-I program, many of whose graduates stick around. It’s growing, and adding young families. It’s not the wealthiest part of the Duluth area, but it’s certainly toward the upper end. Its basic urban design—large, sprawling wooded lots—does not lend itself to much density of lower-income residents, even if it also limits its economic and population growth potential. If we remember our lessons about urbanism and high school hockey, that tends to be good for hockey success, at least in the short run while the community is still growing.

The small size of the Duluth metro area also magnifies the Hawks’ position. The closest comparison to Hermantown in the Twin Cities is probably something like Delano, which is starting to surge toward hockey relevance. Delano, however, doesn’t have neighbors who aren’t also affluent and growing; no one is open enrolling there to flee the shuttering or struggling schools of Plymouth or Minnetonka, or to dodge bizarre borders with other Wright County towns. In an area that can only support a handful of options, just a handful of player moves can throw things out of whack. Unlike some Twin Cities schools that may lose a bunch of players to open enrollment or private schools, places like Proctor or Denfeld aren’t losing players all over the place; there are only two or three places that stand to benefit, and those places are likely in the same section. Duluth’s smallness and the extent to which everyone knows each other make it obvious who the winners and losers of player movement are, and make the scapegoats easy to identify. (We Duluth East fans know a thing or two about this.)

The advantages that some schools have over each other are blurry, and there are gradations of advantage and disadvantage all over Class A. East Grand Forks also benefits from a decent-sized metro and a convenient D-I school; Mahtomedi lurks just under the cutoff bar for AA and thereby builds some of the deeper A teams out there. Even small, relatively isolated towns aren’t all cookie-cutter; Luverne has surged to relevance in recent years, while nearby Worthington is at the bottom of the barrel, largely due to an immigrant-heavy population with no knowledge of hockey that has been drawn to its meat packing plant. The fans of the true small towns in Section 1A could probably gripe about how it’s been dominated by schools in larger towns (Rochester Lourdes, the Mankatos), or towns on the growing exurban fringe (New Prague). It’s worth remembering that even St. Thomas Academy was a Class A doormat at one time, and that it took years for Greg and Tom Vannelli to turn it into a consistent contender. These different levels of advantage are reality, and any assessment of a team can’t be a snapshot at one point in time, but needs to understand its long-term record and accomplishments to date.

Hermantown is clearly pretty far along on this spectrum of success now, and that’s to their credit. I don’t think any team should ever be forced to opt up, and any pressure to do so should only come after a long period of dominance. I want to see good teams and players in Class A, and more than one or two new opt-ups due to Class A success in a decade would quickly drain the field. That said, when a program is consistently putting other top five teams in its class in running time, it’s a clear sign of a mismatch, and the point at which even diehard supporters should see a case for a move.

There’s no doubt Hermantown could compete in AA, and rumors suggest the program may make the leap after this coming season. The move may come a year too late: this year’s squad, with a pair of potential Mr. Hockey candidates and depth across the board, could have easily contended for a AA title. While people might be able to cherry-pick a regular season result or two to claim they’re better than a bunch of AA Tourney entrants, we’ll never really know how good they are. (The AA playoff gauntlet is an entirely different animal from what the Hawks now face; just ask STA about its first three years in AA.) Beyond this year, Hermantown looks good, but perhaps not as good as last year and this year, and will face the 7AA minefield. If they do make that move, I’ll welcome them in and look forward to the battles; if they don’t, I’ll be disappointed, but life will go on. Much as I’d love to see some success out of Range teams, they face their share of internal obstacles in the search for a return to glory.

The whole debate relates back to a deeper question: what’s the whole purpose of the two-class tournament? The generic State High School League response will tell you that it gives more players a chance to play at State. That’s true, but from a hockey development standpoint, its true benefit is in giving more players a chance to aim for State: to grow hockey in areas that haven’t traditionally seen success, and to revive it in areas where it might otherwise have faded or died. Hermantown is as obvious a success story as any in 25 years of two-class hockey; it went from an afterthought to an unstoppable force, and probably wouldn’t have done so without being able to take the baby steps allowed by Class A. The Hawks have succeeded. Now we’ll see if they’ll let someone follow in their footsteps.

Exit Gordie Roberts

Another week, another notable piece of news on a 7AA coach: Gordie Roberts, the former Minnesota North Star and four-year head coach of Elk River, has resigned to take an assistant position in Maple Grove. He ends with a 76-31-2 record, with two section semifinal losses bookending a pair of overtime section final defeats.

During the 2011-2012 season, a coup led by a single Elk River family pushed out Elk River icon Tony Sarsland, a man who had become synonymous with the program and built it up from scratch into a regular state contender. The fiery Sarsland was a difficult act to follow, and the drama surrounding his unfortunate exit meant his successor would be under a microscope. The Elks scored Roberts to fill that gap, hoping his NHL credentials would carry the gravity necessary to return to glory. Indeed, Roberts enjoyed a strong wave of goodwill at the start, and seemed a sensible way to turn the page.

He also came into Elk River at a good time, as an upsurge in talent promised more success than in the previous few years. While the Elks were usually toward the top of the section in their seven years in 7AA prior to Roberts’ arrival, they weren’t as strong as they were in the 1990s and early 2000s, with only two teams that had a serious shot at a section title. (Those came in 2006 and 2010, and in both years, the Elks faced stiff competition.) There were still roadblocks, from grumpy parents to that long road trip to Duluth in sections, but Roberts’ Elks looked like they’d have the talent break through.

It never happened, and the inability to win big games only snowballed, and grew worse every year. The Elks entered the 2013 semifinals on fairly even terms with Grand Rapids, and seemed like they’d scrape out a workmanlike 1-0 win. But with ten seconds left in regulation, Avery Peterson struck to tie it. The Elks lost in overtime. The next year they beat five-time defending section champion Duluth East during the regular season, and seemed very even with them heading into the section final. This time, they coughed up the lead with a minute and a half to go. The Elks lost in overtime. In 2015 they entered the clear favorite, with Mr. Hockey and a 20-win regular season in tow, and ran out to a 3-0 lead over East after the first period. In the ultimate gut punch, the Elks lost in overtime. Finally, this past season, a strong regular season despite injuries had them as a popular upset pick to knock off a vulnerable-looking East. They were down 4-0 before fans had settled into their seats. The wheels had come off, and the Elks’ Amsoil hex had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That sloppy loss finally brought some murmurs of discontent into the open. While I wouldn’t give it excess attention, Roberts’ request to move up the time of that game so that he could attend the North Stars’ alumni game at TCF Bank Stadium that evening (while fellow ex-NHLer Curt Giles skipped it to coach his team) seemed to show conflicting priorities. Roberts did nothing glaringly wrong tactically in any of the losses; I didn’t pick up on any unusual locker room angst, and his regular seasons all seemed to meet expectations. Still, playing in the NHL is no guarantee of coaching success, and reputation alone does not win section titles. Nor does it automatically create respect in the locker room, and Roberts, for all his decency, never seemed to quite inspire players to expend every last ounce the way Sarsland did. Following in the footsteps of a giant is never easy.

To pick up on a theme from the Trent Klatt discussion, being a head coach has huge challenges beyond pulling strings on the bench, and Roberts had to handle a big-time program with sky-high expectations. He deserves credit for running a clean ship, and for recognizing the mounting frustrations and making a graceful exit. His new position with Maple Grove should allow him to share some wisdom in a rising program that could use some stability at the top, and will free him of the heavy commitment he had with the Elks. With Elk River’s youth program looking as strong as any in the section, Roberts’ successor will once again have the pieces necessary to head to State in the next few years. Whether the team is able to capitalize on that is an open question.

The Agony and the Ecstasy: Duluth East Hockey 2015-2016

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Duluth East’s string of seven consecutive 7AA titles has come to an end, as all great runs must. It came in heart-wrenching fashion, as rival Grand Rapids, so long the Hounds’ whipping boys, snatched away a 6-5 win on Alex Adams’ goal with six seconds left in regulation. East had just killed a late Rapids penalty, and the 7AA final seemed destined for overtime for a third straight year. It only took a momentary lapse; a sense that things might coast on into the sort of extra session that has treated East so well down the years. Instead, a supremely talented Grand Rapids team fulfilled its promise and punched a ticket back to St. Paul. If anyone ever earned the right to end a dynasty, it was this team, and they did it in a way that will go down in Rapids legend.

It was the sort of game that produced bedlam so incoherent that the details, in retrospect, are a blur. The leads went back and forth all night long, and the crowd at Amsoil Arena, 6,100 strong, nearly blew the roof off the building. For a fourth year in a row, the 7AA final gave us high school hockey at its pinnacle, as everyone in the building grinned manically through their nerves. This is how hockey is meant to be. Even when the Hounds grabbed their 5-3 lead in the third period, it never seemed safe. This was the sort of night where coaches’ best-laid plans went out the window, and it all turned on sheer emotion.

Not that Mike Randolph didn’t try. He switched lines and showed occasional glimpses of 2-3, and unlike the regular season game in which the Hounds sat back, they went at it with Rapids all night long. It made for spectacular theater. East used the TV timeouts to give Ash Altmann extra shifts, and by the end he was reunited with Ryan Peterson and Luke Dow, and those three marauded about the ice as the clock wound down. Even though his section final record now has a second blemish, Randolph took it with composure, and seemed downright proud of the Rapids players in the postgame ceremony. This one will sting, no doubt; it was a talented and balanced squad, even if it didn’t have the front-line firepower of Grand Rapids, East may not be able to match this depth again for a few years. But at this point, even someone as intense as Randolph can enjoy the spectacle for what it is.

Unlike some of the other big East senior classes, this one was often an adventure. They had their peaks and valleys, their moments of greatness and times of frustration. But they were playing up to their potential by the end, leaving it all on the ice as they barreled up and down the rink. One couldn’t ask for anything more. Altmann is perhaps the most identifiable name for the Hounds over the past few seasons, and was a force on Thursday night with a pair of powerful individual goals. His game-sealing dagger against Edina last season will remain one of the most indelible images in East hockey history. Peterson, a warrior through injury, likewise led this team, and has last year’s winner over St. Thomas to his name. Alex Spencer has his personal highlight reel of huge hits, Shay Donovan was always a steadying presence, Dow’s speed and dangles played a key role in many a win, and the versatile Nathaniel Benson found the back of the net for the first time all season in the section final. Auston Crist provided much-needed net-front presence, Marcus Skoog made his contributions, on John Orrey held down the backup goalie duties. We thank them for a long string of memories.

We East fans are blessed with eternal relevance, year in and year out. Even when the Hounds lose, it almost always happens in style, in a nail-biter against an elite team, with both teams giving it their all. It is hard to ask for much more. This year’s team was frustrating at times, with both flashes of great talent and head-shaking losses. I preached patience through their struggles, and with good reason: they would have it together by the end, and leave the ice with no shame. This latest batch of East players and their raucous fans in the stands are now members of this exhilarating hockey fraternity, one whose ties linger long past high school days. Whatever befalls the Hounds, be it a magical run like last season or the exploits of our alumni, whether it involves a crushing playoff loss or the rise of rival neighbors, we’re part of something that improbably draws us back, whatever roads we take.

I can now start to prepare for next week’s Tourney, which is East-free for the first time since my senior year of high school. It will be a strange feeling, but will also make it far less nervy, and I expect there will still be a host of Hounds wandering the X and downtown St. Paul. Grand Rapids’ elation at one Tourney berth makes us realize how lucky we are to have enjoyed so many, and as this great run now fades into memory, it will look that much brighter in retrospect. It began when East overpowered in Elk River in 2009, became routine in 2010, carried on through overtime after overtime in 2011, suffered heartbreak with a dream team in 2012, sought redemption in 2013, refused to die in 2014, and went on a magical run for the ages in its final season before Grand Rapids, four times East’s victim in sections over that stretch, broke through.

Some of the beauty of high school hockey comes in how fleeting it all seems, and how quickly it renews itself. There is promise for next year: a very talented junior class returns to take the reins, and as long as they find some depth, they’ll be right there for another run in 7AA. As I wrapped up my business in the press box Thursday night, I caught my enduring image from this season, one that sums up what this game and this sport means to all of us so simply: a lone Hounds player running up and down a flight of stairs in a near-empty Amsoil Arena. Conditioning for next season has already begun.

Gimping into Sections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Hounds’ Run for the Ages: 2014-2015 in Review

The Duluth East season is at an end, though Greyounds young and old are still trying to figure out what exactly happened over the past two weeks. The Hounds took us on a ride for the ages, as a mediocre season culminated in a second place trophy. The streak included one of the greatest comebacks in State Tournament history and one of the greatest upsets in State Tournament history on back-to-back nights, to say nothing of one heroic goaltending performance and yet another crazy comeback in sections. Much of the praise for the run, some of mine included, has been directed at Mike Randolph, and he certainly deserves the credit for devising a system that turned a defensive sieve into a trapping machine that shut down Edina’s bevy of forward talent. The old Hound found new tricks, even in retirement.

Importantly, though, Randolph gave all of his praise to the players, and it was those players who made it happen. It was largely forgotten after the first half struggles, but East was ranked in or around the top ten by most people in the preseason, and while there may not have been any can’t-miss D-I upperclassmen, over half of the players on this team will have the chance to play some hockey after high school if they so choose, some of them at a fairly high level. This team was deeper than many, including all of 7AA; by the end of the season they had three competent lines that could score, and rolled six defensemen for the first time in several years. As Edina so often shows the rest of the state, depth kills, and any team with confidence in its full bench is in a position to outlast teams that may have a few more front-end stars.

East didn’t score much this season, but the numbers there are a bit misleading. Thirteen different skaters recorded a point in the State Tournament, and while it was only ever a Plan B, they did show some genuine offensive talent when they had to, rallying back against teams like Blaine, Minnetonka, Elk River, and St. Thomas Academy. Luke Dow and the Altmann brothers are high-quality high school forwards, while Ryan Peterson was one of the stars of the Tourney, and Brian Bunten was a consistent presence. Garrett Worth has the potential to become the next in a line of great East snipers, and Ian Mageau and Ryder Donovan will likely join him in some offensive prowess in the coming years.

This East team had its issues, though, with only one returning defenseman who played defense last year. There were signs of promise from the whole corps, but sloppy or boneheaded moments often did them in; a number of East’s losses involved two reasonably good periods that were undone by one abysmal one. In net, Gunnar Howg hit enough speedbumps to see two other goalies cycled through the job before winning it back with a stellar performance against Lakeville North. A young group including three freshmen and a sophomore slowly found its way against that typically brutal schedule. The first half was a laundry list of can-you-top-this frustrating games: a narrow escape against St. Michael-Albertville, a blown lead in Centennial, a 7-1 shellacking (despite nine power plays!) at the hands of Edina, a loss to Eastview in a winless holiday tournament, and then rock-bottom, a 5-1 home loss to rival Grand Rapids.

It is hard to pin down any one turning point in East’s season. Nick Altmann pointed to a narrow loss to Eden Prairie in January, a solid effort in a bounce back from the Grand Rapids game two days prior; immediately after that came Howg’s performance against North. But there were still bumps. A loss to Anoka led to the adoption of the radical 2-3 forecheck that was the star of East’s best regular season game, a tie at Elk River that proved they had a shot at the section. But even though that scheme played a huge role in some of the Hounds’ wins down the stretch, there were other games where they never really got it going or had to drop it to make up for big deficits.

To pull off this run, this team needed to have something else going for it, some intangible quality that takes all of those clichés about sports and makes them real. Grit, heart, character, determination, belief: whichever word you like. Randolph’s line from the 2014 section final reappeared: “deny losing.” They played each of their six playoff opponents during the regular season, and didn’t beat a single one of them. But yet they got it done. They took down a goalie with a bright future who’d flustered them in a regular season tie, an archrival out for their blood that threw everything they had at them, the Mr. Hockey winner and his team of section destiny, high-powered St. Thomas Academy in its AA Tourney debut, and then the two-time defending champions, a team that had lost just once in its previous 37 games.

The heroes were different every night: Howg against Grand Rapids, a couple of third-liners against Elk River, Ryan Peterson against St. Thomas, the Altmann brothers against Edina. A big hit from Bryton Lutzka here, or desperate goal line clearances from back-checkers there; Alex Spencer throwing it down with Parker Mismash, showing Edina that East wasn’t going to take his agitation lying down. It was a total team effort, and while they exceeded my wildest expectations, after each win, the next one didn’t seem like it would be so implausible. They’d done it before, so why not do it again?

Luck played its part, as it must in every miracle run. There were so many pipes, trickling pucks, and convenient bounces. Dylan Malmquist’s injury will forever be an asterisk on the Edina game. Even so, the Hornets had more than enough firepower to win, and the Hounds made Edina’s other stars look ordinary with their discipline. Their reward was, hands down, the best sports memory I have ever had: 21,000 people in a record-breaking crowd, rising to applaud the darlings of the north. (Call it the East fan’s paradox: we spend the entire regular season as the Evil Empire of 7AA, only to come down to St. Paul to adoration.) It helped that they took down two of the most hated teams in the state, but it was a run that reminded many why it is we love this Tournament so much, and why Minnesota high school hockey has no equal.

The final against Lakeville North wasn’t to be: the Panthers were too good, too precise, and too smart to fall into some of the same traps that others before them had. East lost to one of the all-time great teams to come through the state, and did a decent job of hanging in there, giving some faint hope for yet another comeback. There was no shame in the effort, and while the fourth title remains elusive, another big-time trophy is on its way back to Duluth, none more improbable than this one.

And so we bid farewell to our seniors: Nick Funk, Matt Lyttle, and Evan Little, all of whom came into their own as regular forwards down the stretch, and chipped in big plays in the playoffs. Backup goalie Lucas Hedin, who gave a delicious salute to St. Thomas Academy after East finished them off. Bryton Lutzka, whose experience and big hits led the way on an otherwise green defense. Gunnar Howg, a two-time Tournament goalie who found his niche as a Hound. And the captains, Brian Bunten and Nick Altmann, two hardworking longtime linemates who drew their coach’s highest praise: “you see those two guys right there? They drive the bus.” We wish them all the best, whether in hockey or in life beyond dear old East. Together, they made some memories to cherish.

For the rest of the team, meanwhile, it’s back to work: time to hit the weights, plan an offseason regimen, and probably enjoy some free time away from the rink, too. This was a pretty young team, and there will be a lot of talent coming back next year. Grand Rapids will be loaded, Elk River will be out for revenge, Cloquet is still there, and Marshall is joining the AA party. Seven in a row is nice and all, but eight has a pretty good ring to it, don’t you think?

My annual State Tournament reflection essay (which also, unsurprisingly, includes some stuff about East) is available here.

The Golden Years of Mike Randolph

Three years ago, one of the most loaded teams in Duluth East history finished off a 4-1 win over Eagan on a Saturday in early March. That game, however, was not at the Xcel Center in St. Paul; it was at a consolation final in front of a half-empty Mariucci Arena. Their pride was intact, but Greyhounds Nation was left wondering what could have been. Mike Randolph, the Hounds’ longtime coach, made his way across the ice to salute the East fan base, as he always does at the end of the season.

I made sure to preserve that sight in my memory. At the time, there was good reason to think Randolph would call it quits after 23 seasons; his son was about to graduate, and he had just hit 60. Had he left then, his legacy might have been a somewhat complicated one. Yes, any reasonable observer would acknowledge his work in building up the program in the 1990s, and his two state titles with those loaded teams back then. But after that came a wacky saga that saw Randolph dismissed for a year before getting his job back, a series of section playoff upsets, and two bad upset losses once they did get back to State, the most glaring of those the 2012 affair that had wrecked his best season in over a decade. Every year, there was some grumbling from the stands, and while I had plenty of respect for Randolph, I would have been fine starting off a new era, too.

Randolph, however, came back. The results since have been nothing short of golden. Tonight’s 5-4, 3-goal comeback, double-overtime win over heavily-favored Elk River is the crowning moment of one of the all-time great runs in Minnesota high school hockey history, a streak of seven straight tournament berths, each more impressive than the last.

Sure, he still has plenty of talent to work with—though it’s gone down some each year. And yes, whiny southern fans, the section final is in Duluth. But anyone who thinks for a moment that this is at all a fluke or a function of game location isn’t paying close enough attention. In watching this team closely over the past three years, I’ve picked up on so many of the little things he does, so many of the little strengths he brings to the table that no other coach in the state does.  It helped that I had a chance to sit down with him and pick his brain for a while during that stretch, but it took careful observation to realize the totality of his control, and just how unique it is. Minnesota high school hockey fans are in the presence of a master at his craft.

Did anything change over time, to turn those disappointments into three straight thrilling Tourney berths, each more improbable than the last? Probably. Randolph sure thought so, saying “everything” had changed in how he handled his players over the course of his career. After the 2013 run, a few players joked about his wry sense of humor, a side of him I don’t ever recall hearing about when I was in high school. I told friends that he was going soft in his old age; I don’t know if the current players would agree with that after one of his famed bag skates, but whatever it was, he found a way to strike the perfect balance between pushing his players to give all they could without going overboard. This is the essence of good coaching, and performance in any sphere of life: to know how to push things to the limit and stay there, getting the most out of one’s own unique strengths.

He’s pulled just about every lever imaginable over the past three years, though I don’t doubt that there’s something else left in the bag of tricks. The 25 regular season games are merely a training ground for those three in late February that decide East’s fate. He preaches his systems, and makes his players believers, even when down 3 goals in the first period to a more talented team. 2013 and 2014 saw the creation of the most lethal power plays in the state, using East’s handful of top players in perfect positions to make up for a relative lack of scoring depth. Defense always comes first, and yet East never falls too far back into its shell, and by season’s end he’ll turn them loose on the attack when need be. This current season tested the limits of his ingenuity, with the radical adoption of a 2-3 forecheck after the defense was repeatedly shredded early in the season—only to abandon it at times in the section final against Elk River, when necessity demanded that they throw players forward. They hold back until they know they have the other team doubting themselves a little bit, smell blood, then strike.

Randolph will ride his top players at times, but everyone on the team has a role, knows it, and it’s no surprise to see some of them coming up big in the clutch. The second and third lines each scored twice in this year’s section final against Elk River, and in each of the past two seasons, players who I would have benched, being my impatient self, have made key contributions. It’s a complete cast of characters, from lunch-pail senior Nick Funk scoring the tying goal to freshman phenom Garrett Worth popping in the game-winner. He’s even played goalie psychology perfectly, benching both Dylan Parker and Gunnar Howg after struggles in their senior seasons, only to give them back the starting job with something to prove down the stretch. Both have taken the Hounds to the Promised Land, with Howg’s heroics in the semifinal against Grand Rapids the latest testament to that success.

The Hounds head to the State Tournament greater underdogs than they’ve ever been, and with an otherwise loaded field taking shape, it would be easy to shrug and say that this is enough of an accomplishment this year. And yet Randolph will surely demand that his team “deny losing” once again, and nothing is assured as they head into a first-round matchup with one of the state’s three elite teams. And even if the favorites advance, no matter what happens, a legacy is intact. It is one of brilliance, and we East fans are spoiled to enjoy it once again.

East Side Ingenuity

The final week of the high school hockey regular season begins next week. For Duluth East fans, this season is lurching oddly toward the finish line, filled with more uncertainty than any time in recent memory. There have been signs of progress along the way, as they’ve held two of the of the state’s best offenses under two goals, and had a few more offensive outbursts lately, but on the whole they are still a .500 team, headed for their first serious section quarterfinal game in over 15 years.

The most encouraging outing came on Saturday night in Elk River, when the Hounds played the Elks dead-even on the road en route to a 1-1 tie. After a slow start, a crushing hit by Alex Spencer jolted East to life, and the Hounds took it to the Elks for a majority of the rest of the game, bottling them up superbly and generating their own share of chances. A shot in the final minute of overtime might just have slipped in under the crossbar—no one will ever really know—but the statement mattered more than the final score: when they play well, East is on par with the section’s best.

The game showcased Mike Randolph’s spurt of ingenuity this season: a 2-3 forecheck, with the center manning the point along the blue line between the two defensemen. It’s something I haven’t seen out of a prominent high school program before, but it makes intuitive sense: with a struggling defense and a lack of talent to maintain the dominant forecheck of years past, the Hounds have resorted to doing everything they can to bottle up the opposition in its own zone. This approach comes at the obvious expense of bodies down low—with only two forwards deep in the zone, the offense runs the risk of becoming a very predictable series of passes around the perimeter—but it can make it difficult for even good teams to break out with any rhythm, and protects the defensemen from overexposure. The presence of the center on the blue line also frees the defensemen to pinch more freely than they might otherwise, keeping some semblance of the classic East cycle alive. To give an idea of its effectiveness, Elk River hadn’t been held under 3 goals all season long, but needed a late power play just to tie this game at one.

That cycle was on display again on Monday. East continued to work the 2-3 in Cloquet, a decision that may have sacrificed a chance at a win in the short term in the interest of preparing the system for the playoffs. They kept Cloquet bottled up for long stretches of the game, to the point that the Jacks’ offense degenerated into a string of icings, but the go-ahead goal never came, as East never generated quite enough in front of the net of sophomore Eric Newman. This is the weakness of the system: it gives East a shot against most anyone, but it also lets less skilled opponents hang around, and that is an especially important concern given the likely first round match-up against Andover, a team built around a great goalie and the occasional offensive surge forward.

The lack of offensive zone presence wasn’t an issue on Thursday against Blaine’s porous defense, but the sloppy defense reared its ugly head again, especially in the opening twelve minutes of the game, when East spotted the Bengals a 3-0 lead. While they showed their mettle as they battled back to twice tie the game, the game was already being played on Blaine’s terms, and that did not bode well for a team built around defense first. It was a second straight toss-up game with a top-ten team, but these track meet games are too volatile, and reminiscent of their most recent losses in sections, a 6-5 loss to Cloquet in 2008 and a 5-4 loss to Grand Rapids the year before, when East lost control for long stretches before coming back and ultimately failing to close the deal. Blaine is a top-ten team and deeper offensively than anyone in 7AA, but Grand Rapids and Elk River certainly have the firepower to get East into that sort of game (as Rapids did in January) and render all of this pining for systems useless.

The East defense remains the most profound concern. There are too many blown assignments and bad decisions leading to odd-man rushes, and occasional long stretches stuck in the defensive zone quickly deflate momentum. Stupid penalties have also been rally-killers at times. Gunnar Howg has won the goalie job back for good and has proven a savior at times, though he can’t do it all himself. I’ll avoid naming names, but a couple of players are frequent culprits, and must avoid the lapses that may end up costing this team its season.

The offense is showing more potential after a slow start. The longtime top line combo of Nick Altmann and Brian Bunten creates the most chances, many of which come agonizingly close but don’t quite make their way into the net. The all-junior second line, after leading the way early on and going a bit cold midway through the season, erupted in the Blaine game, giving some hope there. Luke Dow is certainly the most dynamic of the centers, and can run things from the point when East sets up the 2-3 in the offensive zone. The third line, usually featuring freshmen Ian Mageau and Garrett Worth with Matt Lyttle playing the high center role (with occasional Nick Funk and Ryder Donovan sightings) is now scoring with some regularity as the young snipers come into their own. The three freshmen on the roster have all come along nicely as this season goes on.

And so the Hounds head for their reckoning. They have two games in the final week, both against higher-ranked but beatable teams, Lakeville South and Minnetonka. Between those two games is the 7AA seeding meeting, which should be put on pay-per-view, but is most likely to hand the Hounds a 3-seed and a first round date with Andover. (There’s an outside shot St. Michael-Albertville could poach the 3 and leave East playing Cloquet in the quarterfinals, but I’ll be surprised if their schedule gets much respect at the meeting.) It doesn’t matter a whole lot, since the section is such a mess. Elk River has its best player in Jake Jaremko, but the depth, especially on defense, is not phenomenal, and Amsoil Arena has not been kind to them. Grand Rapids is bipolar, looking like world-beaters one moment and sickly the next; who knows if they can string together three straight wins. STMA is reasonably deep and hungry to prove themselves, but venturing into uncharted territory; Dave Esse has hard-working Cloquet rising to the occasion down the stretch. Andover has a goalie and a handful of skaters who can be difference-makers, and are plenty capable of stealing a game or two. Even Forest Lake, despite a poor year, has a history of doing well against Rapids, whom they are almost certain to play in the first round. And then we have these Hounds, trying to find that right balance and get back that East side energy and confidence that have kept them atop this section for the past six years. We’ll see if this group has it in them.