Tag Archives: duluth east

How the Other Half Lives

21 Feb

Duluth East’s 2019-2020 season came to an ignominious end on Tuesday in a 1-0 loss at Forest Lake in the 7AA quarterfinals. I could go through the litany of “first X since Y year” milestones that this season gave us, but I think that’s been hashed out enough elsewhere. Safe to say it was not an end result that left anyone very happy in the Duluth East camp, and we now have a longer than usual wait to see Hounds on skates again.

The first half of the season had its peaks and valleys, but the Hounds looked basically like what I thought they would be at the start: a borderline top twenty team, capable of some nice wins over teams like Blaine and Minnetonka but also blown out by Andover and Lakeville South. After a quality tie with Prior Lake in mid-January, the Hounds sat at 7-8-1, and I ranked them #24; hardly world-beaters, but respectable, and probably reflective of their talent level. I can work with this, I thought; get everyone on the same page behind a game plan and the Hounds could at least extend all of their historic streaks and take a crack at Andover at Amsoil with confidence in their roles and nothing to lose.

Things mostly went off the rails from there. First a snowstorm hit, and then a vicious bout of the flu; the team played just one game between January 14 and February 1, then finished with a marathon of seven games in 11 days. Tactically, East doubled down on the world’s most passive forecheck, and games became slow, plodding affairs. There were still some glimmers—a beatdown of Cloquet, an upset of Maple Grove, a late comeback to salvage a tie against Brainerd—but the hard-to-watch moments far outnumbered them and left East on the road against a Forest Lake team that had just beaten them for the first time ever.

The Hounds’ trap made its way down I-35 Tuesday night, and while the Great Wall of Greyhounds across the blue line held up, they generated nothing offensively. Even the greatest of schemes can still be vulnerable to the occasional display of star talent or the efforts of a stray forechecker to force a defenseman into a turnover. The latter was exactly what happened on Forest Lake’s lone goal on Tuesday night. When the Hounds failed to score on a five-minute major, I knew the season was over. An embarrassing scrum at the end was only a cherry on top.

This team was depleted from the start. Two players left before the season for juniors, and a third, who barely played a season ago but would have been a top nine forward this year, also bolted. Between one midseason departure from the team and a couple of late season injuries, I calculated at one point that six of East’s top eight underclassman forwards from a season ago were not on the roster. Even with those injured players back, the theater of the absurd continued, with one player forgetting his gear in Duluth for the quarterfinal and Ryan Cummings, their rock on the blue line, going off hurt in that game’s first period. (How different could that major penalty have looked with him bombing away from up top?) In a season when the Hounds would have needed the stars to align even at full strength, they clearly did not. The magic of a 2014-2015-style run would not strike twice.

As always, I thank the seniors for their efforts: Michael Sutherland, Isaac Schweiger, Nolan Haney, Jack Fellman, Finn Hoops. I give a special shout to Cummings, who blossomed as a leader in a season where he could have stepped up; to Charlie Erickson, the one who had the talent to leave but stuck it out to be the leader of this team; and to Konrad Kausch, the goalie who played every minute of the season and made many valiant efforts, sometimes singlehandedly keeping East in games. I’d say they deserved better fates, but hockey has no regard for such deserts, and it is what it is.

I could wrap up this post here, but I would be remiss, I think, if I didn’t offer up a comment or two on the civil war that plagued East hockey this season. Every team has its parent-coach tension, whether justified or not. This season, however, reached a whole new level. I know I can’t say much that will change many minds; what I have to say probably won’t make anyone happy. But, from my unique perch in the middle of all of this, I present a few offerings.

First, I like and respect Mike Randolph. I will never buy the claim that he’s just been in the right place and the right time and isn’t a formidable hockey mind. I can point to specific instances over the years where strategic or tactical changes were directly behind big wins. As the keeper of a massive heap of data and no real dog in the fight (I want this program to win no matter who coaches, and expect Randolph will be long gone if and when I ever have a personal stake), I don’t think the preponderance of evidence suggests his style systematically undermines post-high school careers, whatever ulterior motives may be pushing other narratives. The likes of Ricky Lyle, Hunter Paine, and Austin Jouppi are just the latest examples. I watch enough other teams that I know the things so many people in the East fishbowl think are unique to East and Randolph are not all that unique to East and Randolph.

Randolph and I don’t talk often, but when we do, he’s only ever been cordial and humble, and the two of us could trade stories long into the night. He loves what he does and his broad legacy for high school hockey has a reach that has extended beyond Duluth East; some of it will likely only come out after he retires. I’ve watched in disgust as other heap abuse (a word I do not use lightly; I’m not talking about grumbling at the bar or along the rail) directly on him and others in his family. There was time when it seemed like most past critiques had faded away; that he had adapted and found a way to thrive even as the world changed around him, and I was happy for him.

But, then, I also like and respect a number of Randolph’s detractors, past and present. I scratched my head at some of the personnel changes and the nonexistent forecheck, failing to see the design I had in the past. (At least the 2015 2-3 had an attacking impulse to it!) Things just seemed unsettled this season (and to a large extent last season too), and that trickled down and left a sour taste. I watched as people who had defended him in the past struggled to hide their frustrations as the losses mounted, and I had no counterargument for their gripes. As some of the most sober-minded observers I chatted with this season noted, in the end, so much of coaching comes down to communication: the ability to press the right buttons, to make decisive changes seem purposeful, to make kids believe in the mystique that has in the past surrounded this program. Despite rumors to the contrary, Randolph will be back next season, and mending this bridge is vital to the program’s near-term future.

This season did not bring out the best in East hockey. The old Greyhound exceptionalism was gone, and normalcy did not suit anyone well. It’s time to flush out the system and start anew; time to remember the singular dedication that made this program great before. It’s also time to manage a balance between hockey and life, and to put this joyous but silly game in perspective. Let’s try to have some fun again, and while we’re at it, let’s have both the school and the people in the program rekindle the fire and make some effort to get some people back into what was often a depressingly empty Heritage Center this past season. This, too, shall pass; this program’s fundamentals are too strong to let a few gripes do long-term damage. Time to enjoy some playoff hockey and look ahead to a fresh start next winter.

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.

Rebounding Hounds

15 Dec

Few things are as predictable in Minnesota high school hockey as Duluth East contention. The program boasts 67 consecutive winning seasons and hasn’t lost a quarterfinal game since 1993, by far the longest streaks of any team in high school hockey; it has appeared in 11 straight 7AA finals. A few games into the 2019-2020 season, all of that looked to be in jeopardy. It still may be, as one upset win doesn’t change everything. But the Greyhounds’ season is slowly taking shape, and as new players step up and Mike Randolph tries to find the right formula, they may yet have a say in the direction of section 7AA.

A casual observer probably wouldn’t recognize very many members of these new look Hounds. A huge senior class that featured several high-end talents graduated. Logan Anderson and Jacob Jeannette, who would have been two-thirds of a Greyhound top line this season, left for junior hockey. Charlie Erickson is only returning player who had double digit point totals last season, and Zarley Ziemski is the only other forward with anything resembling regular varsity ice time. The defense returns three semi-regular contributors a season ago, but none of them were really the leaders of that unit, and few things are harder to replace in high school hockey than an elite defenseman such as Hunter Paine. This is particularly true in the Duluth East system, which asks its defensemen to both be active in the offensive zone and hold up going the other direction when the forecheck breaks down.

That inexperience was clear in the Hounds’ first few games of the young season. They held up into the third period in games against solid teams from White Bear Lake and Wayzata, but things unraveled in the third period as their opponents wore them down and sprung odd-man rushes. After a win over Bemidji, a 7-1 loss to section rival Andover exposed these shortcomings in the extreme, and Randolph dug deep into his bag of mysterious game plans as the Huskies handed him his worst loss to a section opponent in 31 years behind the bench. Chastened, the Hounds came out looking much more like a traditional East team in a game against Cloquet, but those shaky moments on defense ultimately outweighed a sound forecheck and led to an overtime loss.

With a 1-4 record and no semblance of momentum, a battle with a top ten Blaine team this past Saturday looked to be a tall order. But the Hounds came out and showed they won’t go lightly. They paired the solid system play they showed in Cloquet with improved defensive performance and kept gameplay fairly even. Down 1-0 in the middle of the second period, the game could have slipped away, but instead the team went to work and collected two dirty goals before locking down, popping a pretty third goal, and adding a fluky empty netter to seal their finest win on the young season.

The Hounds’ formula for contention in spite of the changes is evident. Konrad Kausch has looked strong in goal, a vital backstop to the growing pains of a young defense. The top line of Erickson, Ziemski, and Finn Hoops is starting to generate some offense, and a second line anchored by Jack Fellman and Nolan Aleff has its moments of quality. The defense, for all its travails, combines some experienced seniors and a couple of underclassmen who are capable of putting up some points; Isaac Schweiger, inserted into the lineup for the Blaine game, was the unsung hero in that upset. Lest we forget, this junior class (plus Jeannette and Kausch) went on a run and finished second at PeeWee AA state a few years back, so the track record is there.

Elsewhere in 7AA, Grand Rapids opened with wins over Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Minnetonka, proving their young guns are capable of playing with some of the state’s top teams. Cloquet has also looked respectable and will ride star Christian Galatz as far as possible. Forest Lake is undefeated as of this writing, which will boost their standing in the QRF system that seeds the section, though they have yet to play a difficult opponent and have a tie against lowly Park of Cottage Grove. Right now, though, everyone is chasing the Andover juggernaut, a group defined by superb team speed and an elite top defensive pair. In their win over East they also showed a newfound physicality, adding an aspect to their game that had been missing in overtime section final losses to East the past two seasons. Taking down the Huskies will require an even more perfect game plan than a season ago; a complete team effort that combines a great goaltending effort, a defense that limits odd-man rushes, and an opportunistic offense willing to scrap for anything.

For now, though, we can delay any requiems for Duluth East: when they put it all together, they can compete. A week of home games that include two respectable but beatable teams, Centennial and Lakeville North, will be telling. They have a heap of important section games in the second half of the season, and will also get more contests against the state’s elite, from Eden Prairie to Maple Grove. With continued game-by-game progress, they could yet be a contender at the end.

Active Former Hounds, 2019

2 Sep

Here’s the annual better-late-than-never accounting of former Duluth East hockey players who played post-high school hockey this past season. Stats come from EliteProspects. Asterisks denote early departures.

Zack Fitzgerald (’04 D)* The longest-tenured ex-Greyhound, now 34, continued his career with a fifth season in England, this time with the Glasgow Clan. The longtime enforcer put up 17 points, his highest total of his professional career, which began in 2005-2006. His 178 penalty minutes, while still basically double anyone else on the team, was his lowest ever total as well. The legend lives on for Fitzgerald, whose nephew, Jack Fitzgerald, graduated from East this past spring.

Cade Fairchild (’07 D)* Fairchild returned to the Russian KHL, his first overseas destination, but only stuck for six games with Riga this past season. He then took his services to KalPa in Finland, where he was reasonably productive. Now 30, the former fourth-round pick has now spent five seasons on the European circuit.

Derek Forbort (’10 D)* The former first-round pick completed his third full season in the NHL and continued to log steady numbers despite his Kings team finishing in the cellar. He’s now successfully established himself as an NHLer.

Andy Welinski (’11 D)* In other former East defensemen now plying their trade in Southern California, Welinski split his season evenly between the Anaheim Ducks and the AHL’s San Diego Gulls. He had four points with the big club, including his first NHL goal, and 19 in 27 games with the Gulls. He also had a productive postseason run for the Gulls, with 10 points in 16 games as they made it to the semifinals of the playoffs for the Calder Cup.

Dom Toninato (’12 F) Like Welinski, Toninato collected his first NHL goal, though he played just two games with the Colorado Avalanche in 2018-2019. He spent most of his season with the Colorado Eagles of the AHL, where he put up a workmanlike 29 points in 57 games. He’s now moved on to the Florida Panthers’ system for 2019-2020.

Jake Randolph (’12 F) Randolph’s first year out of college took him to Jacksonville of the ECHL, where he put together his usual collection of assists and a 20-point season. He’ll now follow in the tradition of Hound headed across the pond and is slated to play in Sweden this coming season.

Trevor Olson (’12 F) Randolph and Toninato’s former linemate also went to the ECHL for his first full season of professional hockey, and put together a strong 32-point season for the Orlando Solar Bears. He’ll be back with them in 2019-2020.

Meirs Moore (’13 D) Moore wrapped up his four-year tenure at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York with a four-point effort. He never put up the big points in college like he did in high school, but put together a strong enough career to get a shot in the ECHL with South Carolina this coming season.

Conner Valesano (’13 F)* Valesano’s junior campaign at D-III UW-Stout saw him collect a respectable 16 points, which was good for third on his team. He’ll wrap up his college career this coming year.

Alex Toscano (’13 F) Toscano, another of the many Hounds who have made their way to Menomonie, Wisconsin at Stout in recent years, had 11 points in his junior year, his highest total to date. He also dramatically reduced his penalty minutes.

Hogan Davidson (’13 F) The Hounds’ old agitator had another strong season at D-III Nichols College in Massachusetts, where he finished tied for second on his team with 18 points. He’s got his senior season ahead of him.

Phil Beaulieu (’14 D) A year after he led all NCAA Division-I defensemen in scoring, Beaulieu was right there again with a strong campaign for Northern Michigan. He logged 35 points in 38 games for the Wildcats, and now heads into his senior year.

Alex Trapp (’14 D) Trapp’s junior season at St. Thomas was his best to date, as he settled into a regular role and collected 10 points from the blue line. He even put in a bit of time at forward, demonstrating his longstanding versatility.

Nick Altmann (’15 F) Altmann had a quality freshman season for D-III Williams College in Massachusetts, as he finished fifth on his team in scoring with 14 points.

Ash Altmann (’16 F) The younger Altmann brother wrapped up a three-year run with the Minnesota Wilderness with a 14-point effort. He’ll join the D-III ranks this coming winter as he heads to St. Olaf.

Luke Dow (’16 F) Dow had a strong third season with the Wilderness, where he amassed 38 points and wrapped up his tenure as the NAHL club’s all-time leading scorer.

Shay Donovan (’16 D) Patience paid off for Donovan, who will be joining his younger brother at Wisconsin this fall. The steady defenseman wrapped up his 3-year NAHL campaign with a solid 16-point campaign for Scranton-Wilkes Barre, and will now add his name to the Hounds’ D-I ranks.

Alex Spencer (’16 D) The Hounds’ big man began his collegiate career by appearing in five games for Wisconsin-Superior.

Reid Hill (’17 D) Hill appeared in just one NAHL game this past season, though he did collect an assist in that appearance with Janesville. He has now made his way to the University of St. Thomas.

Garrett Worth (’18 F) Worth’s post-college debut did not go according to plan, as he failed to stick in the USHL and wandered among three different BCHL teams over the course of the season. There’s too much talent here to waste, though, and he’ll get a crack with Des Moines of the USHL this coming season.

Luke LaMaster (’18 D) The Hounds’ second 2018 Mr. Hockey finalist also had a lost season, though in his case, it was entirely due to injury. The Badger recruit will join Sioux City’s USHL squad for 2019-2020.

Ian Mageau (’18 F) Worth’s compatriot on the Hounds’ top line in 2018 put up 16 points with Austin in the NAHL, and rather than labor on in junior hockey, he’s chosen to head to St. Thomas for the next stage of his hockey life.

Austin Jouppi (’18 F) Perhaps surprisingly, the most impressive post-high school performance from a Class of 2018 Greyhound came from Jouppi, who carried his torrid finish to his high school career through into an impressive 41-point season with Bismarck of the NAHL. His performance earned plenty of accolades, and he’s played his way into a 30-man roster spot with Des Moines of the USHL this coming season, where he could play alongside three former East teammates: Worth, 2019 grad Hunter Paine, and early departure Logan Anderson.

Nick Lanigan (’18 F) Never a big scorer in high school, Lanigan scrapped his way to a very respectable 17-point season with the Magicians of the NAHL.

Will Fisher (’18 D) Fisher bounced around a bit in his first year of high school, as he played 16 games with Bismarck in the NAHL, followed by two with New Jersey and then a six-game stint with the Boston Junior Rangers of the Tier III Eastern Hockey League.

Porter Haney (’18 F) Haney, a part-timer on the 2018 Hounds runner-up squad, put up 31 points with the Rochester Grizzlies of the NA3HL.

Dropping from the list this past season: Jack Forbort (2 years at UW-Stout). Expect plenty of additions to this list next season as well.

The Ryder of a Lifetime: Duluth East 2018-2019 in Review

14 Mar

After the end of the 2018 state championship game, I joined the parents and fans in waiting for the Duluth East players to emerge from the bowels of the Xcel Center. I commiserated with the other loyalists and gave a few players some hugs. But a brief moment with Ryder Donovan, the then-junior forward, became my iconic memory of that Tourney. He told me in no uncertain terms that he had unfinished business, and promised he would do what he could to bring the Hounds back.

It wasn’t always clear that East would finish that business. The team ran out to a strong start, but things began to unravel with a loss to Champlin Park that kicked off a spotty 4-5-2 run in the middle of the season. The offense went cold for long stretches, and the team pressed when down. Mike Randolph continued his endless search for answers to life’s persistent line-building questions and cycled through countless options in search of a winning combination. More so than at any point in recent memory, this East team teetered on the edge: would they all pull together and make one more run, or would they come apart at the seams? But by the end of the season things seemed to fall back into line, and by the grace of a reinforced defense, a Ricky Lyle barrage, and Donovan’s delivery on his promise, they made their way back to St. Paul. The section final upset of Andover was a triumph of steady determination and unflinching belief, even as events over the course of the year gave reason for doubt.

A state championship was always going to be a reach for this group. These Hounds did not have the across-the-board front-end skill that several of the other top-end teams did. Their great demon over the course of the season, an inability to finish the chances they had, reared its head in the state quarterfinals. The Hounds carried play and out-chanced St. Thomas Academy over the course of the game, but could only slip one goal past Muzzy Donohue in net, and several golden chances went by the wayside. The gameplan was there, but the execution was not. The question will linger as to what this team could have done if given a crack at Edina on Friday night, but it wasn’t to be.

The Hounds defended their pride in the consolation bracket at Mariucci, where they avenged an ugly January loss to Moorhead and rolled past Lakeville South to add another trophy to the case. Showings at Mariucci say something about the mindset of a team after a dream comes to an end, and these Hounds found ways to produce. Donovan and his fellow seniors went out with some style, and some of the underclassmen began to pick up the scoring load and gave a glimpse of the future. The last few games were a fitting sendoff for a group that was deep, skilled, and just plain fun.

We now bid farewell to a deep senior class that also had an excellent cast of characters. Carson Cochran provided steady defense and the greatest save of East’s 2018 semifinal win over Edina, while E.J. Hietala and Jayson Hagen blossomed into quality defensemen as seniors. Brody Rabold and Lukan Hanson were a steady tandem in goal, and it was a shame there was room for only one of them in the lineup. David Holliday provided valuable depth, while Jonathan Jones combined his giant frame with some subtle skill, and should get a shot at higher-level hockey somewhere. Jack Fitzgerald and Brendan Baker were steady producers over long varsity careers. Ricky Lyle combined his tenacious hits with a flair for the dramatic, and put the team on his back in sections. Frederick Hunter Paine, or whatever name he goes by these days, shared Lyle’s physical edge and was the two-way star on the blue line.

Ryder Donovan’s graduation, meanwhile, feels like the end of an era for Duluth East hockey. He was a central player in so many moments over his five years on the roster, a run that included three Tourney berths and two second place finishes. His senior year came freighted with immense pressure and a change in college plans, yet the future NHL draft pick made it clear he left with no regrets. The narrow losses leave questions of what might have been, but those wistful what-ifs of our adolescent lives define high school for all but the most charmed among us. The true test comes in developing the ability to learn from that unavoidable adversity, and in building a community of people that one can look back on fondly, no matter how far one may wander. On that count, Ryder was far ahead of his years from the start, and understood exactly what he was a part of. He is an example to the East program for years to come.

We wish Ryder and his teammates the best in hockey and in life, and thank them for their time in this brotherhood of Greyhound hockey. From early morning bag skates to section championship celebrations, they built memories that will last a lifetime, and those who will be back next season now get some well-earned time off before the excitement starts to build again. I’ll sign off in my role as the scribe for this program until any offseason intrigue or preseason previews bring me back. The adventure never ends.

Rising to the Occasion

2 Mar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Snowbound Hounds

13 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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