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Sick as Dogs

5 Feb

It’s been a season unlike any other for Duluth East. We knew coming in that the talent level wasn’t on par with previous seasons, and that this team would need to work more than any other to get the results it wanted. But the issues compounded from there. A blizzard in November disrupted the schedule from the start, and as vicious an attack of the flu as I’ve ever seen left basically the entire team and coaching staff in bed sick for over a week. The roster has bled a few players whose other priorities in life proved too much. Only a strong 4-1 finish in their last five will keep them from the program’s first losing record since the Eisenhower administration. Nothing has come easily for this group.

I’ve started and stopped this post about five times now, largely because any time I want to start to say something sweeping about this team, their next game immediately disproves it. After a sluggish start, they picked up some respectable wins against teams like Blaine and Lakeville North; after a brutal loss to Lakeville South, they upset Minnetonka. When the season seemed to be teetering on the brink this past week, they responded with a 5-0 shutout of rival Cloquet. Somehow, in spite of it all, they could yet go on a run in the playoffs, or they could be done in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1993.

In previous seasons Mike Randolph has tended to settle on a lineup by late January, but as with last season, the rotations have continued right into the season’s final weeks. The team still feels unsettled, and every time I get the sense I’m on to Randolph’s plan, it all crumbles and he throws in some other wrinkle. The one recent season that was somewhat comparable to this one, 2014-2015, involved a radical and successful tactical innovation that turned the corner; this group to date lacks such a defining shift. There has been some modest success with a 1-1-3 forecheck this season, but whereas the 2-3 in 2014-2015 could actually produce some serious offense, the 1-1-3 felt more like a Hail Mary to hang on for dear life. For now, the experimentation goes on.

The Greyhounds’ great challenge this season has been their poor showing in section play. There was no real surprise in a loss to Andover; and narrow defeats to Grand Rapids and the first Cloquet game, in which the team played relatively well, are defensible. Less so are the more recent losses to Forest Lake, a team largely carried by its goaltender, and an Elk River squad that is also at its lowest point in decades. In a year when 7AA is not among the better sections in the state, the Hounds have, curiously enough, found more success outside the section than in it. The Cloquet win was a sudden break from this trend; time will tell if it was too little, too late.

Through it all, the Hounds still have some pieces that can make a run. Charlie Erickson has put the offense on his back at times, and Zarley Ziemski can be a weapon. They found some December success behind a potent power play and offense from the points, and after the opposition caught on, there now appear to be some adjustments that are making it look threatening again. Konrad Kausch is capable of stealing a game when he is on form, and from a raw talent standpoint is the best East goalie in years. One of the rare glimmers in a season that often has me shaking my head is the play of freshman Cole Christian, whose shiftiness and vision portends a strong Hounds career, even if he could stand to double his weight and grow a few feet. Randolph’s decision to give a couple of freshmen top six forward minutes has its detractors, but as I think back to Keegan Flaherty stunning White Bear Lake in 2005 or Ian Mageau setting up Ash Altmann’s dagger to Edina in 2015, I have to recognize it’s worked before. I’ll never critique the search for answers; there just need to be clear answers at some point.

One gets the sense that, regardless of the talent level, half of this team’s challenge is mental. If they get off to a strong start, this team can roll past other decent teams and compete with the very best; if they fall behind early, things often snowball into unwatchable ugliness. Maybe their ever-scheming coach can press the right buttons to get them to believe in these last few weeks; maybe it’s all been overthought to death and has left us only with frustration. Teams like the 2014-2015 edition don’t come along every day, but at least there is a model, and for all the deserved credit we give the 2-3, that group twice had to come back from three-goal deficits to make its great run, which is something no coach can plan for. That group, riding some exemplary senior leadership and some star turns from younger kids, found the heart to win four straight games they had no right to win. This team will need to dig just as deep, if not further, to find its own measure of success over the next month.