Tag Archives: duluth east

Dog Days of Summer

24 Jul

This past weekend brought the Braemar Summer Hockey Festival, a series of summer scrimmages in Edina that lack the team from Edina. The tournament’s name was only partially accurate, as issues with Braemar’s South rink forced some games over to the Bloomington Ice Garden. Still, it was more than enough to entertain us hockey-starved fans, and a rink is a welcome escape from a 90-degree day in the Twin Cities. I saw part or all of seven of the Saturday scrimmages, which featured 22-minute halves in pool play. I didn’t stick around for the Sunday playoffs, but that really isn’t the point here: it’s more of a chance to get a quick idea of where teams stand four months out from the start of the season.

There’s no shortage of reasons to put little stock in the results here. Some kids miss the games for a variety of reasons, rosters are far from set, and coaches are free to be experimental with little regard for scores. Elite League tryouts also coincided with the final day, which I suppose is convenient for the Greater Minnesota teams in town for the scrimmages, but drains some talent from the Sunday finals. Still, coaches’ Twitter rants to the contrary, they also can be pretty good predictors: last year’s included a semifinal Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie, arguably the top two teams in the state by the end of the season, and most of the teams that looked not very good there stayed not very good.

Just figuring out who is who in these scrimmages can be a chore. Some teams match their players’ jersey numbers to the ones they wore last season, while others do not; some lost so many players that it’s hard to guess anyway, while Prior Lake likes to go with football numbers. (Was that you in the #70 sweater, Jackson Jutting?) There are no roster sheets, unless one happens to receive one from the Holy Family Hype Department. There’s always a smattering of odd-colored breezers and socks that make it clear who’s new to each team, too: before long, they’ll get the proper garb.

The defending champions were in town, and with Blake McLaughlin back in tow for his senior season, all is not lost in Grand Rapids. They had a low-scoring weekend, looking fairly tame except when McLaughlin flipped a switch, as he did in the dying minutes of a contest with Chanhassen, scoring twice and very nearly setting up a game-winner. For a few minutes there was a hint of the old magic up front, and Rapids could still be a thorn in someone’s side. The 7AA foe they slew in dramatic fashion in last year’s semis, Elk River, also rolled out a very green cast and had a quiet weekend, though there were some flashes from some of the new kids to give hints of relevance.

One of the bigger winners of the weekend was Wayzata, which coupled some opportunistic scoring with the typical Trojan defense. They fought past Holy Family in one of the better games of the weekend, put an impressive beating on Lakeville North, and were the only team to seriously test eventual champ Duluth East. Of course I thought the Trojans looked good in last year’s edition of this competition as well, and they took a few eons to get back to that level during the season, though get back they did. The Fire, meanwhile, have no shortage of talent but have some sorting to do: the forward lines seemed unsettled beyond the clear top talents of Ben Almquist and Garrett Pinoniemi, they have a goalie situation to sort out, and their defense, which should be their rock, got caught out on occasion against Wayzata. Holy Family’s roster is a jumble of new transfers in and holes left by departures, and this evolving cast of characters at the school with the most open borders in the state may take some time to jell.

I didn’t see Eden Prairie, but there were some rave reviews of Chris Konin, a Rhode Island and New England prep school transplant and who logged a hat trick against Elk River. The post-Casey Mittelstadt era doesn’t look too worrying for the only team to play in the past five State Tournaments. Having experienced players makes a difference when others are more unsettled, and this may help explain senior-heavy Eastview’s somewhat surprising run to the final. (I didn’t get a firsthand look at the Lightning.) Veteran Bloomington Jefferson seemed hit or miss; they stuck with East for a half before the Hounds overwhelmed them, and they scuffled back and forth with Benilde for a spell before they put away a very raw Red Knight group. Ken Pauly is never a quiet man on the bench, but I’d never seen him as distraught as he was midway through Benilde’s 10-1 undressing at the hands of East, in which his defense left trucking lanes down the center of the ice. Neither Lakeville really stood out, so it will likely be a down year in 1AA, with South looking somewhat better than North in limited viewing. And while Prior Lake may have missed their most opportune window to break through in 2AA, there’s enough left to give some good teams fits.

The team that did the most for its preseason stock this weekend was Duluth East. The Hounds were far from complete in Edina: second line forward Nick Lanigan and defenseman Will Fisher were out hurt, and top line center Ryder Donovan, fresh off his commitment to North Dakota earlier in the week, went off hurt early in the final group stage game and did not return. They also had a bunch of kids in the Elite League tryouts. But one could be forgiven for not noticing: the Hounds steamrolled through the weekend, and were tested just once, by Wayzata in the semis on Sunday morning. Longtime linemates Donovan, Ian Mageau, and Garrett Worth looked lethal, all three complementing each other and imposing their will, but there was little drop-off to the second and third lines, with a smoother-skating Ricky Lyle turning heads (or was it just the helmet he pulled out of a time capsule?) and Brendan Baker seamlessly sliding into Donovan’s spot when he got hurt. The defense, lacking Fisher, was on the small side but plenty mobile and able to control the puck, while Lukan Hanson, the heir apparent to Kirk Meierhoff in net, was hardly tested in the games I saw.

This is all cause for pleasure in Greyhounds Nation, but they know as well as anyone that nothing is won in July. Experienced, system-driven teams like the Hounds are well-built to succeed early on while others are still sorting through their parts. Continuous improvement is the key, and the new kids in black bantam breezers have some growing to do, too. We have yet to see what some of their biggest competition at the top of the rankings, from Edina to Moorhead to St. Thomas Academy (to say nothing of the 7AA rivals nipping at their heels) have to offer. But at this point, what’s not to like? Let’s start the countdown to November.

7AA Takes Shape

7 Feb

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

17 Jan

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

23 Dec

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.

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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?

2016 Braemar Summer Scrimmage Notes

24 Jul

This weekend, Edina hosted a summer scrimmage series with a deep cast of teams worth watching. (The city, that is; the team was conspicuously absent.) I jumped at the opportunity to escape the heat and thunderstorms and join a herd of people wandering around Braemar Arena in shorts and jackets on Saturday. Player identification was not always an easy task; some teams had last year’s players wearing the same numbers, but others didn’t, and of course there are plenty of new kids cycling in. With no rosters available, it was often a guessing game. The teams played scrimmages of two 22:30 halves, with shootouts if the teams remained tied. (I, fortunately, did not have to witness any such atrocities.)

Summer tournaments are never great predictors of the future, and anyone who tries to hype these things up is missing the point. Still, they can offer some insights, and in this particular case, showed how little some things change. In the words of the late Denny Green, many of these teams are who we thought they were.

Wayzata 2, Holy Family 0

The first game I saw was also the most competitive, as the teams went scoreless through the first half. The Fire controlled a bit more of the play throughout, though it wasn’t lopsided in any way, and as we have seen over the years, Pat O’Leary’s Wayzata teams are perfectly content to play defense. The defending state champs claimed the lead in the second half courtesy of Griffin Ness, one of the cogs who will have to step up and lead the new-look offense. While Holy Family pressed forward from there in search of the equalizer, Wayzata began to pick them apart with 2-on-1s as the game wound down. Reid Waszczenko was excellent in net, and after the late second goal, the Trojans were safely on their way to victory. Matt Anderson missed a couple of quality chances when he jumped into the rush, including a gaping open net early in the second half; get either one of those right, and this was an entirely different game. Holy Family’s two Edina additions were immediately recognizable by their white helmets and green gloves, and Peter Tabor looked sound on the Fire back line.

For the most part, this was Wayzata being Wayzata and taking care of business. One important note on the Trojans, though: Hank Sorensen, their blue line hammer, was not present, and will play in the USHL this winter. Their defense is still pretty solid, but it’s a big hole to fill, and the guy I saw in the next game will be pleased to escape another encounter with him. One the Fire’s side, it also looked pretty familiar: there were a lot of good players there, and the Edina acquisitions do show just how high they’ve climbed in the west side private school pecking order. But, still, they’re in a section with arguably two of the top three teams in the state (Eden Prairie and Minnetonka), and they’ll need something extra to avoid yet another section semifinal exit.

Eden Prairie 4, St. Paul Academy 1

Casey Mittelstadt and friends were up next, and their battle with Class A 4th place finisher St. Paul Academy was a tale of four separate quarters. In the opening stanza, the Eagles looked like they would blow the Spartans out of the water, scoring three quick ones as Mittelstadt flew around the ice with ease. After that, however, SPA settled in, and kept things reasonably even for the remainder of the first half. Penalties marred the first ten minutes of the second half; the Eagles in particular were on the receiving end, to the point that an eventual penalty on SPA earned a sarcastic pounding of the boards from the entire EP bench. Mittelstadt joined the penalty parade as he voiced his displeasure to the referees. But the Eagles withstood the penalty barrage and then unleashed a barrage of their own, and only a heroic performance from Andy Beran kept it 3-1 through most of the period. Nick Leivermann finally put the cherry on top just inside the final minute.

Devlin McCabe scored the lone SPA goal, a top shelf water bottle juggler (though it didn’t look like he broke the bottle, as he did in a Tourney game last March). I didn’t devote a whole ton of attention to the Spartans, but they looked like they were a solid Class A team simply outgunned by AA power. As for the Eagles, there’s plenty to like beyond the obvious Mittelstadt-Leivermann combo: the pair wearing numbers 43 and 44 teamed up with Nolan Sullivan (I think) to make for a very solid second line, the defense is pretty steady, and Nick Wiencek is probably an upgrade in goal. Like last year, I think they’re probably preseason #1; like last year, they still have that non-quite-controlled emotional edge and the occasional lapses in play that make one suspect they’re beatable.

Grand Rapids 7, Chanhassen 1

I watched the first half of this one, in which the Thunderhawks marched out to a 3-0 lead. There are no secrets in Rapids this coming season: it all revolves around the top line. Gavin Hain had two of the goals I saw, while Blake McLaughlin had the other; I was later told that those two plus Micah Miller accounted for 5 of the 7 goals. Hain, I’d add, just seems to get better and better. On defense, John Stampohar was a force, and jumped into the play often. The difference between this Rapids team and last year’s, however, is the lack of depth: even as that top line steps up its game, they’re not going to have that dual threat they had when they could roll out two lethal lines. Strong goaltending and a somewhat more experienced D can make up for some of that, but Rapids looked pretty pedestrian against a less-than-stellar opponent when the lower lines were on the ice. How far can those big guns carry them? The early answer, after a later win over Elk River to win the group, is “pretty far.”

Elk River 4, Prior Lake 1

Prior Lake was up 1-0 when I walked in at the half of this one, and after watching the first few minutes of the second period, I was trying to figure out how on earth they’d managed that. Before long, the floodgates opened. The Elks’ top line of Jax Murray, Jack Perbix, and Kyle Bouten pulled off a lot of pretty passing sequences, as Murray and Bouten tallied twice each. The second line gave the Elks one of the best one-two punches of the teams I saw on the day. The defense didn’t seem particularly deep, but Nick Perbix was out there mixing it up as usual, and they turned back Prior Lake without much stress throughout the half. While they coughed up a bunch of goals in the second half of their later game with Rapids, the potential for a section title is there. Of note: unless he had a different number on, Jensen Zerban was nowhere to be found in the lineup, and Max Michaelis was out hurt.

I’d like to be able to say something about the Lakers, but all of three players on the team had jerseys, one of which was #71. I presume the one forward who jumped out at me was Jackson Jutting, but the Lakers made it difficult on us in this one. In general, they have a lot to replace, and I think they’ll slide a bit behind Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, and Holy Family in 2AA this year.

Duluth East 6, Benilde-St. Margaret’s 1

That looks impressive, but it comes with an asterisk: this was far from a complete Benilde team, and they got blown out by their other two opponents in this comparatively weak pool (Delano and Lakeville South), too. Still, there’s cause for some optimism in Greyhound-land. The top unit may not be quite Rapids’, but it’s still pretty solid: Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan each had a goal (and their collective nickname, the WMD line, is excellent), while defenseman Luke LaMaster might have been the best player on the ice, and has plenty of chemistry with longtime partner Reid Hill. With only one really experienced skater beyond that, though, this game saw a whole heap of Hounds rotated through. While the newbies didn’t flash any stunning skill, they were all high-energy (at times a little too much so), and consistently took the play to the Red Knights, leading to goals up and down the lineup. The defense was poised and largely avoided the mistakes that often plagued the last two East D corps. The goaltending, which apparently had been the big red flag in East’s shootout loss to Delano and narrow defeat against Lakeville South, held firm in this one, as incumbent Kirk Meierhoff and a rising sophomore split time in net. That situation will be one to watch for the Hounds.

It’s hard to say much about this Benilde edition. They too were rotating lots of bodies, but without the benefit of an established top unit, with most of their players wearing jerseys with offensive lineman numbers. Ryan Bischel was in goal, and made some important saves, though he probably wants one or two of those East goals back, too. Adding Connor Mayer back into the mix will make a big difference. Still, there are a lot of holes to fill from last year’s regular season #1, and that fun-and-gun Benilde style is dangerous enough when there are good, experienced defensemen back on the blue line. There will likely be some growing pains for the Red Knights this season.

Stray Notes

The winners of the four groups at Braemar were Delano, Wayzata, Eden Prairie, and Grand Rapids, meaning the top three teams in AA last season will square off for the crown Sunday. (Teams may be further depleted due to Elite League tryouts, though.) One of those teams is obviously not like the others, so all credit to Delano. They’re going to revolve heavily around Ben Meyers, but one player can take a team a long way in Class A; we’ll see if they can give Breck a run in Section 2A. Reports had both Lakevilles looking pretty good, and probably both preseason top 15, meaning over half of the top 15 might have been in Edina on one day. Not bad for a dose of summer hockey.

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

26 Feb

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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

14 Feb

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.