Tag Archives: breck

State Tournament Look Back: 2009

16 Mar

One last piece to wrap up my hockey coverage this season: after a successful test run a season ago, here’s a second post that looks back on the State Tournament from ten years prior. 2009 was a memorable one: it featured one of the great upsets I’ve seen, a first-time AA champion, and a couple of other games that were just flat-out entertaining. The field was loaded with top-end talent, including three first-round picks and ten future NHLers. A team that featured three of those players would lift a trophy in AA, while a deeper, less heralded squad would edge out the stars for the Class A title.

Class AA

The 2008-2009 season opened with Hill-Murray looking to follow up on its powerful run to a title the previous season. For half the season that appeared likely, but after coach Bill Lechner dismissed four veteran players for rules violations, the Pioneers floundered down the stretch before recovering to reclaim a Tournament berth. Edina, stung by its title game loss the season before, saw its Fab Five golden generation return for their senior seasons, though the five became four when Zach Budish lost his season to a football injury. The Hornets appeared to have a stiff challenger in 2AA in Bloomington Jefferson, but the Jags’ schedule was misleading, and the Hornets put the state on notice with a 5-0 demolition in the section final. They would be the top seed entering the Tournament.

The only other team to beat Jefferson that season was Eden Prairie, which lurked at #3 heading into sections. The Eagles had future first round pick Nick Leddy and the state’s next great single class, a group of sophomores headlined by Kyle Rau and Nick Seeler. Right behind them were a Blaine team with some quality senior talent and its own great sophomore class headlined by Nick Bjugstad and Jonny Brodzinski. Up north, a Duluth East team led by Mr. Hockey finalist Max Tardy and four D-I defensemen, including future NHLers Derek Forbort and Andy Welinski, overcame some recent playoff demons in 7AA. Those three teams all advanced to the Tournament, setting up an entertaining top four.

The final four entrants were a mixed bag. There was Hill-Murray, the wounded powerhouse looking to prove it could still win with a much younger core. Out of 1AA, Rochester Century was a 4-seed with little in the way of front-line talent. Moorhead’s 2009 edition, while deep and steady, likewise had zero D-I skaters, and was a far cry from its dominant teams of the mid-00s. Cretin-Derham Hall, state champs with a very different group three years earlier, also made its way across St. Paul to the Xcel Center.

In the morning session, things went according to plan, but not without some trepidation for second-seeded Eden Prairie. The Eagles drew the short straw and got Hill-Murray in the quarterfinals, and while they staked themselves to an early 2-0 lead, two goals by Hill’s young guns in less than a minute early in the second knotted the game at two. The game was tight through the remainder of regulation, but when the game moved into overtime, the Eagles finally began to carry the play. Mike Erickson pumped in the game-winner in the third minute of the extra frame, though it took an interminable replay review to confirm Eden Prairie’s place in the semifinals. There was no such drama in the second quarterfinal, as Blaine blasted its way past Rochester Century 5-0 on the strength of two Nick Bjugstad goals.

The enduring memory of the 2009 Tourney, however, came in the Thursday night session. On paper, the top-ranked Hornets had little to fear from Moorhead. As the game unfolded, though, it quickly became clear that everything was amiss. Unlike some upsets in which the lower-seeded team clings to life and gets 40 saves out of its goalie, the Spuds took the game to the surprisingly listless Hornets. Moorhead came out of the first period with a 2-1 lead, and while Edina pressed in as the game went along, they only mustered a pair of Brendan Baker power play goals, while Trent Johnson and Tyler Larson both collected two goals for the Spuds. Two scores midway through the third sealed a 5-2 Moorhead win. The much-hyped Hornets were headed to Mariucci, dispatched by a team whose lone D-I player was a freshman backup goalie.

That upset was a difficult act to follow, but Cretin-Derham Hall gave it a good run in the nightcap against Duluth East. Despite being outshot 15-4 in the first period, Cretin sprung a couple of odd-man rushes to go up 2-0 after one and then 3-0 early in the second, and just when it seemed like East had found its groove and stormed back to within 3-2, another breakaway goal took the life out of the Hounds. Unheralded Cretin would go on to win 5-2 despite being outshot 39-15, a result that ranks behind only the 1997 championship game loss to Edina and a 2012 upset at the hands of Lakeville South on the list of Mike Randolph era Tourney tragedies at East. Just as Edina’s bevy of front-line talent couldn’t muster anything 5-on-5 against Moorhead, East’s vaunted defense got carved up by the opportunistic Raiders.

The two remaining seeds battled in the first semifinal. Blaine jumped out to a 2-0 lead after the first period, but the game slowly began to tip Eden Prairie’s way as the clock ticked away. Down 2-1 heading into the third, Kyle Rau performed his first—though hardly his last—Tourney heroics. His unassisted tally at 6:29 of the third period tied the game, and a second goal with just under four minutes left in regulation gave the Eagles the lead. Leddy collected an empty-netter, and the Eagles were on to their first ever title game appearance.

Title game appearances were familiar territory for Moorhead, who used a Jordan Doschadis goal late in the second to slip past Cretin 2-1 in an otherwise plodding second semifinal. The Spuds were 0-6 on Saturday night, and as impressive as their run had been, this was not the group to bust through. Eden Prairie jumped out to a 2-0 lead in the first period, with the second goal coming on a laser of a shot by Leddy. While the Spuds poured 16 shots on Eden Prairie sophomore goalie Andrew Ford in the final frame, the Eagle defense held firm, and a Dan Molenaar tally gave the western suburb its first state title.

The win was a watershed moment for the Eagle program, which to that date had been more defined by playoff losses than wins. It began a tradition of star players sticking around through their senior years, a trend that would net them a second title behind Rau and friends two years later. Elsewhere, Edina, left with only a runner-up trophy and two consolation titles from its Fab Five years, would look to regroup under less of a spotlight the following season. Hill-Murray, too, would be in reload mode, and the amount of young talent that jumped in when their upperclassmen went down went to show the incredible depth of the program at the time. Century’s Tourney trip was, as of this writing, the last by a AA Rochester school. Trent Johnson and the Spuds became the stars of a Sports Illustrated piece that was originally supposed to be about the Hornets, and their run to the title game belongs on a short list with Duluth East’s run in 2015 for sheer improbability in recent memory.

Class A

If the AA field featured a bunch of great teams, the A field was much more of a free-for-all. St. Thomas Academy, by far the most talented team in the state, was upset in the 4A final by Mahtomedi. The Zephyrs boasted a high school star in Ben Marshall, and a number of other teams—Little Falls with Ben Hanowski (recently minted as the state’s all-time leading scorer), Warroad with Brock Nelson, St. Cloud Cathedral with Nate Schmidt—featured a single superstar who would go on to an illustrious career. As is so often the case, though, star power would be trumped by depth. Breck, with a deep roster led by a stellar junior class, would emerge as the champion.

There was no drama to speak of in the quarterfinals, where the top seeds won by three goals or more in each game. In retrospect, only Mahtomedi’s struggles are any real surprise; they were heavily outshot by 2-seed Cathedral despite being tied for the most D-I players of anyone in the field, and also lost to lowly Hutchinson in the consolation round. Warroad put Hutchinson in running time, while Virginia drew undefeated Little Falls and suffered a Hanowski five-goal blitz. Breck, meanwhile, methodically took care of Rochester Lourdes.

Class A’s best drama came in the semifinals, where Warroad and St. Cloud Cathedral traded goals back and forth until Warroad put in a pair in the third period to pull away for a 5-3 win. Hanowski’s dream team hit a final roadblock against Breck, which again plugged away in the early periods and built up a 2-0 lead before erupting for three more in the early stages of the third period en route to a 6-1 win. The final between the two deepest teams in Class A featured a frenetic first period that ended at 2-2, but Breck’s strong second period gave the Mustangs a 4-2 lead they wouldn’t relinquish. While Warroad brought the pressure from there, they wouldn’t score again until after Breck had grabbed another late in the third. Two empty-netters sealed a 7-3 Breck win and a third state title for the Golden Valley private school.

Fourth-seeded Breck’s state title bore some resemblance to Hill-Murray’s win in AA the season before. The Mustangs’ depth and defense held firm over the undefeated, top-seeded darlings of the Tourney and a Warroad team that was deep and offensively gifted, but bled more goals. With a strong junior class leading the way, they’d be back to defend their title, and Warroad would also return in search of revenge. Little Falls closed out its run of five straight Tourneys with its best finish ever and a third place trophy, but a title eluded the Flyers.

The 2009 Tournament was a memorable one for me, too. I was a freshman in college on the East Coast, my spring break conveniently timed for Tourney week, and I started a tradition of staying with friends at the U of M. I attended every AA game, plus the Duluth East-Edina consolation battle at Mariucci, drifting about the arena to wherever stray friends and random tickets purchased from the long lines at the X’s box office took me. As soon as it ended, I knew I’d be back again for the whole thing in 2010. I haven’t missed a AA game since.

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A Storm Gathers Strength

12 Dec

The team in its road blues pops in another goal. A groan goes down the line. One of the assistant coaches calls out the numbers of the five boys on the ice, and tells the girl with the scoresheet to circle one particular culprit. “We need to realize that just because someone does well in a drill, it doesn’t mean they’ll do well in a game,” muses another. Someone asks a much younger kid, the son of former Wild winger Antti Laaksonen, if he brought any gear and might be available to suit up. It’s all in good fun; part of the long and slow process of building up a hockey program into relevance.

Most of my hockey-watching involves matchups between the very top high school teams in Minnesota. I usually only see those outside the top 20 or so when they play Duluth East, and even then, I tend to be more intent on what the Greyhounds are doing. On Thursday night, I enjoyed a welcome change of pace and, on the invitation of a member of the forum I moderate, immersed myself in a program I hadn’t seen before.

Chanhassen High School broke off from Chaska just five years ago, and its fledgling hockey program under coach Chris Wilson has had just one winning season to date. They still share a youth program with Chaska, and have the added difficulty of being in AA; while Chaska became small enough to play in Class A after the split, the Storm are left battling the likes of Edina and Burnsville in the first round of the 2AA playoffs. This season also brings the Storm some new challenges, as the old Missota Conference dissolved, leading to the formation of the Metro West. Chanhassen now has perennial title contender Benilde-St. Margaret’s on its schedule, plus another longtime state power in Bloomington Jefferson. They entered this game at 2-2-1; one of those wins was over a decent Hopkins squad, but they were coming off a humbling 7-1 loss to rising 2AA power Prior Lake earlier in the week.

Their opponent on Thursday was Class A heavyweight Breck, and while the game wasn’t quite as lopsided as the 6-0 scoreline made it look, the Storm were certainly on their heels for most of the contest. They held their own for substantial chunks of the first period, but were bottled up whenever the Mustangs’ top line hit the ice, and Breck—not an overwhelmingly deep team themselves—exposed the lack of depth on both goals in the period. Things began to unravel in the second, with all three goals coming in painful ways: off a juicy rebound, on a shorthanded rush, and a very soft shot just before the end of the period. A victory was probably out of the question, but a rematch might bring out a better fight.

With the game out of reach, Wilson and his staff shook things up in the third. They loaded up their top line, pairing together their two more skilled junior forwards in search of a little more offense. Running up against the age-old high school hockey conundrum of age and experience versus youth and promise, they put in a freshman goalie, who performed ably. (Their best skater on the ice was also a young gun, a sophomore defenseman.) The Storm had some of their best chances in the game’s dying minutes, finally applying some serious pressure as the clock ticked down to zero.

This was some consolation to the group I joined in a perch behind glass at one end of the rink. While Chanhassen’s stats and video operation can’t match Benilde’s small army of backroom staff, a group of student managers kept meticulous stats and shots, and the assistant coaches at their side kept a running commentary, delighting in improvements from some players and sighing in defeat when others repeated old mistakes. They rushed down to the locker room between periods to relay things they’d seen from their perspective, doing all they could to correct errors and dissect trends in Breck’s approach. (This was all new to someone used to the Duluth East method for collecting details on games, which mostly involves Mike Randolph’s memory.)

After the game, the Storm staff huddled in the small coaches’ office next to the locker room, looking to regroup after a second straight game ended in running time. I diagnosed a work in progress; the players are hearing the right messages, but have yet to have them drilled into their minds. The learning curve is long, and after a pair of lopsided losses, the coaches have to play that delicate game of ego management. They want the top players to be confident and creative, but one can only tolerate so many attempts to dangle through traffic when there are open teammates, or blind backhanders that gift-wrap the puck to the opposition. The coaches want to play appealing and aggressive hockey, but how much does the opponent dictate what a team does, at what point do they content themselves with a neutral zone trap—or even simple damage control? They want to put pressure on the bubble players so they know their jobs are on the line, but at what point does juggling mess with their minds? There’s no easy formula for any of those questions, and Wilson’s staff has to experiment on the fly. Their approach for Friday night? A pasta dinner for the team.

Most of the conversation themes were familiar to anyone who’s been around youth hockey, but I was left with an appreciation for how much thinner the margin for error is with a team like Chanhassen. Where an elite team might be able to withstand a slight lack of hustle on the forecheck, a defenseman out of place, or an attempt to dangle straight through the heart of a defense, such lax play does in the Storm. So much of the game still comes down to fundamentals: if the breakout isn’t swift enough, it’s only a matter of time before someone is caught running around, and even when they do clear the blue line, there’s the whole matter of gaining the other team’s zone. The challenge comes in turning hesitation into instinct, and in getting a group of boys to buy into a complete team concept that might get them somewhere by February.

What path might this Storm take? Realistically, they can use their two games with Bloomington Jefferson and one with Holy Angels to earn a 4- or 5-seed in 2AA. There’s a very capable core of players here, and if they come together, they have some chance of winning a playoff game for the first time in school history. Beyond that, they simply have to keep strengthening the foundation, building a young program shift by shift.