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State Tourney Preview 2017

6 Mar

It’s that time of year again: I’m set for a week of fun and games, with a road trip south to delight in 16 hockey games, the wonders of the 200 level, reunions with old friends, press box popcorn, and visits to Cossetta’s and McGovern’s and St. Paul Grill between sessions or for the after-party. (Friends of the Forum and the podcast: see you at McGovern’s after the Class A championship on Saturday.)

As usual, I’ll be tweeting here. (Mostly random insights and observations; there are 50 other people to tell you the score.) Enjoy a Tourney preview podcast here, and capsules on the quarterfinal matchups beneath this article. We’ll have some additional content on Youth Hockey Hub as the Tourney goes along, including podcasts after Thursday and when it’s all over on Sunday, and I’ll be along with my usual reflection essay, too.

Here are a few of the storylines carrying us into this Tournament:

Casey and the Eagle Legacy In 2009, Nick Leddy won a state championship and Mr. Hockey for Eden Prairie. In 2011, Kyle Rau repeated that feat. Now, Casey Mittelstadt, perhaps the greatest of the three, looks to take his place alongside those NHLers in high school hockey lore. The Eagles hit some bumps in the road early in the season, but Mittelstadt announced they’d be running the table after a winless Schwan Cup, and they haven’t lost since. Eden Prairie is on a roll, and are a more complete team than the star-dependent one that lost to Wayzata in last year’s final. Can they handle that pressure and deliver? Their first road block: that very Wayzata team that beat them a year ago, whom they’ve drawn in a first round game that should make for some great atmosphere.

New Kids on the Block There are three first-time Tourney entrants in Class A, which is pretty rare. Two of them, Monticello and Northfield, will face uphill battles in the first round, but the other, Delano, has some serious talent, and is probably the only thing standing between Hermantown and a second straight championship. Ben Meyers alone is worth the price of admission, and the Tigers have started to spread their scoring around, which they’ll need to keep pace with the Hawks. We’ll see if they can deliver on the biggest stage, and if their defense can hold up against a relentless Hawk assault. All three newbies play in the morning session on Wednesday, along with Mahtomedi; as all four are fairly large Class A schools somewhere on the edge of the Metro, the place should be packed and filled with new energy.

Suburban Fringe Speaking of those schools on the edge of the Metro, this year’s edition certainly throws light on the changing geography of the Tourney. (See this post from a few years back for more.) There are no first ring suburbs in the Tourney this year, and even the second ring—depending on how one defines it—has little to no representation, even after years of domination. There’s no Bloomington, Burnsville, or Anoka now; hockey success has moved outward, to Plymouth, Maple Grove, the south side of Lakeville, Delano, Northfield, et cetera. This doesn’t mean the more built-out burbs are doomed; old faces like Edina, Minnetonka, and White Bear Lake have good shots of returning in the coming years. But it does show the steady march of outward growth. The exceptions closer to the city are the private schools, where, curiously enough, we have more AA privates than Class A privates for the first time ever.

The North Remembers It’s been ten years now since the North last won a AA title, but northern fans have reason for excitement, as the North has produced two seeded teams on different sides of the bracket for the first time since seeding began. Grand Rapids has the feeling of a team of destiny after its dramatic run through 7AA, and their top line is one of the most impressive collections of talent this state has put out in a while. If they can get past Maple Grove and land a Friday night date with Eden Prairie, the X will rock even more than it did for their semifinal collision last season. Out west, Moorhead returns after a three-year absence, and has some thrilling front-end talent of its own, including a flashy all-junior top line and sophomore star in the making Ethan Frisch. They have a tough quarterfinal battle with Hill-Murray ahead of them, but are well-built to make an impression this March.

Protect this Net One thing that jumped out at me immediately regarding the AA field: everyone has a strong goalie. Jake Begley of Hill-Murray is the best-established star and the likely winner of the Frank Brimsek award for the state’s top senior goalie, but he has plenty of company. Thursday’s nightcap will feature two with great higher-level potential in Grand Rapids’ Zach Stejskal (assuming he gets the nod over the equally capable Gabe Holum) and Maple Grove freshman phenom Ethan Haider. Reid Waszczenko of Wayzata was the star of the Trojans’ run through sections, Isaiah DiLaura of Lakeville South holds down the Cougars’ stout back end, and Atticus Kelly of St. Thomas Academy has been the Cadets’ security blanket. Eden Prairie’s Nick Wiencek and Moorhead’s Lance Leonard are probably the least hyped of the group, but put up very solid numbers. The two serious Class A contenders are also in great shape; Cade McEwen doesn’t get tested much for Hermantown but delivers when he does, and Jackson Hjelle has come up big for a Delano team that has allowed a lot of shots on goal at times.

I hope you’ll follow along and join in the fun when you can. Quarterfinal capsules below:

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Class A

MONTICELLO VS. #2 DELANO

11:00 Wednesday

Two State Tournament debutants meet to get things going, as Monticello will look to withstand the Delano offense. Despite being only 20 miles apart, there is no recent history here.

Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake (21-6-1, #14, 1-seed in 5A)

First State appearance

Key section win: 3-1 over 3-seed Chisago Lakes

-The Moose face a tall order in their first Tourney trip. It’s a two-pronged attack up front, with Ben Ward (5) and Nick Zwack (17) leading the offense. Troy Dahlheimer (18) is next on the points list and Casey Chiodo (9) is a strong goal-scorer, while Honza Stibingr (11) leads defensive corps. Tyler Klatt (33) will get the nod in goal. They gave St. Cloud Cathedral a pretty good game late in the regular season, so it’s not impossible to seem them hanging in there against Delano, but they have yet to face this caliber of offense this season.

Delano (24-3-1, #3, 1-seed in 2A)

First State appearance

Key section win: 2-0 over #2 Breck

-The Tigers arrive on the State scene with a fun team to watch. Maine-bound Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Meyers (27) paces the state’s most prolific offense this season—they average 6.5 goals a game—and Michigan Tech recruit Brian Halonen (26) and John Keranen (7) are his longtime sidekicks. They’ve started to spread the scoring around some lately, with John Ylitalo (12) scoring plenty and Garrett Pinoniemi (37), a St. Cloud State-committed freshman, starting to show his potential. Andrew Kruse (9) leads the way on the blue line; though depth and ability to break out from the back will the thing to watch here. Junior Jackson Hjelle (29) is in net. They gave Hermantown a one-goal game in December, albeit with a lopsided shot margin; if anyone has a chance here, it’s the Tigers.

NORTHFIELD VS. #3 MAHTOMEDI

1:00 Wednesday

As in the first game, this one features two larger Class A public schools somewhere toward the outskirts of the Metro; this one features a newbie against a young but talented regular that is a mild surprise. There is no recent history here.

Northfield (19-5-3, #13, 1-seed in 1A)

First State appearance

Key section win: 3-2 (2 OT) over 3-seed Red Wing

-The Raiders are unusually balanced for an unseeded Class A team, with 6 forwards over 20 points in the regular season. Jacob Halvorson (22) is the big goal-scorer, with Grant Sawyer (5), Jackson Cloud (11), and Nicholas Kvernmo (9) all having productive years. Griffin Loecher (8) and Jack Fox (3) are their top two defensemen, and Ryan Bielenberg (1) has been very solid in goal. They didn’t play many games outside of southern Minnesota, especially in the second half of the season, but a two-goal loss to St. Cloud Cathedral and a tie against Sartell suggest they’re capable of hanging in there against Mahtomedi.

Mahtomedi (15-11-1, #5, 2-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 8 (first since 2015)

Key section win: 3-1 over #4 St. Paul Academy

-The Zephyrs are back at State following a mild upset of St. Paul Academy in 4A. Luke Posner (2) is the clear star here, with more than double the points of any of his teammates, but they have fairly good depth beyond that. Their next four scorers include one player in each class, from senior to freshman: Matt Vannelli (15), Charlie Bartholomew (27), Dylan Lallier (28), and Colin Hagstrom (4). Sophomore Bailey Huber (32) won the goaltending job over the course of the season and has been hot down the stretch, including some of their big wins. This group doesn’t have the top-end skill of a Delano, but it is battle-tested, with a very tough schedule for a Class A team, and has some chance of making the semifinal interesting.

LUVERNE VS. #1 HERMANTOWN

6:00 Wednesday

Luverne draws the short stick and gets saddled with Hermantown in the first round. These two met at State in Luverne’s 2014 visit, and while Hermantown won 6-3, it was closer than expected.

Luverne (22-5-1, #20, 1-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 2 (first in 2014)

Key section win: 5-1 over 2-seed Marshall

-The Cardinals are back in the Tourney after failing to make it with some top end talent the past two seasons. Junior Kasyn Kruse (14) is their star, and they have a bunch of respectable offensive options beyond him, including Nick Harder (9), Ben Serie (15), Jesse Reed (24), and Declan Beers (4). Kaden Erickson (1) has stabilized a goaltending position that was an issue for them in recent years. If St. Cloud Cathedral loses its semifinal, they could get themselves an interesting consolation round game against their former coach, Derrick Brown.

Hermantown (26-1-1, #1, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 14 (8 in a row)

State championships: 2 (2007, 2016)

Key section win: 5-1 over #9 Greenway

-The Hawks have been as dominant as any team in the state this season, and enter the Tourney on a 26-game winning streak, and a 31-game streak against Class A competition dating to the 2015 championship game. This team has more front-end talent than any in Hermantown history, as Mankato recruit and Mr. Hockey finalist Ryan Sandelin (11) teams up with Jesse Jacques (8) on the top line, and Tyler Watkins (18) and Matt Valure (4) lead the second. Dylan Samberg (12), a UMD recruit and Mr. Hockey finalist, anchors the blue line, and has some quality company in Parker Simmons (13), Elliott Peterson (22), and Darian Gotz (14). Cade McEwen (35) is a Brimsek finalist in goal. If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that this team isn’t nearly as deep as last year’s state champs, though they are still deeper than anyone else in this field. Anything short of a championship will be stunning.

#5 ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL VS. #4 EAST GRAND FORKS

8:00 Wednesday

Two Class A Tourney regulars collide for the right to face Hermantown in the semis. These teams tied 4-4 in a December meeting. East Grand Forks won their lone State matchup, a 2-1 game in a 2014 semifinal.

St. Cloud Cathedral (20-6-2, #6, 1-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 7 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over #8 Alexandria

-Two big-time forwards, Jake Van Halbeck (4) and Michael Spethmann (19), lead the Crusaders into battle. A couple of potent freshmen, Nate Warner (8) and Mack Motzko (18), provide some scoring depth, along with veteran Connor Beltz (11). Jeron Hirschfeld (10) is the standout in a fairly balanced group of defensemen. Jake Levinski (1) will start in net. They’ve played everyone but Luverne in the field and have the Cardinals’ former coach, so there won’t be any secrets here, though if they win this first round game, their Hermantown meeting wound up an ugly 7-1.

East Grand Forks (17-8-2, #7, 1-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 8 (first since 2015)

State championships: 2 (2014, 2015)

Key section win: 5-1 over 3-seed Warroad

-The 8A champion hasn’t lost a first round Tourney game since 2006, but will face their largest test in a while this season. This East Grand group doesn’t have the firepower of their back-to-back state champions, though there are some kids on this team who have done it. Two lines handle most of their scoring, with productivity from Nick Lund (14), Hunter Olson (8), Coby Strauss (21), and Bauer Brown (9). Defenseman Casey Kallock (18) might be their top player, and they’ll bring the usual Green Wave grinding style. Tucker Brown (30) is the goaltender. If they get through Cathedral they do have a strong track record against Hermantown, albeit with far more talented teams.

Class AA

LAKEVILLE SOUTH VS. #2 ST. THOMAS ACADEMY

11:00 Thursday

Two teams from the south metro meet to start off the AA Tournament.

Lakeville South (18-8-1, #18, 2-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 3 (first since 2012)

Key section win: 3-1 over #8 Lakeville North

-It all builds from the back for the Cougars, who are back in the Tourney for the first time since their 2012 first-round stunner over Duluth East. Sam Malinski (21) and Wisconsin recruit Josh Ess (10), both defensemen, are two of their top three scorers, while Bradley Golant (3) and Cory Checco (19) lead the forward corps. They have a strong goaltender in Isaiah DiLaura (35). This isn’t a high-scoring team, but with respectable depth and their strength in back, they can control the pace of games. They’re probably getting the least hype of anyone in this tournament, but as long as they can sneak a few in, they could be a quiet upset threat.

St. Thomas Academy (23-4-1, #6, 1-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 2 in AA (first since 2015); 8 in Class A

State championships: 5, all in Class A (2006, 2008, 2011, 2012, 2013)

Key section wins: 7-0 over 6-seed Bloomington Jefferson

-The well-balanced Cadets make their second AA State appearance. Senior Willie Reim (23) leads the team in scoring, but much of their forward talent is younger, including the Christy brothers Ray (15) and Rob (11), plus Payton Matsui (14). Two-way defenseman Robbie Stucker (2) will make an impression in the offensive zone, and they have good depth around him, too. They have strong goaltending in Atticus Kelly (30). The pieces are all there; the question with the Cadets, as is often the case, is whether they can hang in there against a physical opponent that doesn’t make any glaring mistakes.

HILL-MURRAY VS. #3 MOORHEAD

1:00 Thursday

Two State Tournament regulars meet in a quarterfinal with great potential. Moorhead won a February meeting between these two 4-3 in OT. Hill leads the State series 2-1, the most recent meeting being their 2-1 OT win in the 2012 semis.

Hill-Murray (19-5-4, #12, 2-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 27 (first since 2015)

State championships: 3 (1983, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 6-3 over #4 Stillwater

-This certainly isn’t the most talented Hill squad ever, but they play coach Bill Lechner’s signature tight defensive style. They do have a few flashy forwards, including Wisconsin recruit Ben Helgeson (14), the diminutive Brock Bremer (20), and Kyler Yeo (9), the son of the former Wild coach. Emmet Nath (27) has also had a productive year. The defense lacks a real standout, though Joey Petronack (12) was the most productive of the bunch, and they all know what to do within the system. Backing it all up is Jake Begley (1), arguably the top AA goaltender this season. This all makes the Pioneers a nasty draw, and if they can score enough, they’re a threat to go a long way.

Moorhead (22-3-3, #9, 1-seed in 8AA)

State appearances: 15 (first since 2013)

Key section win: 6-0 over #25 Roseau

-The Spuds are back at State after a three-year absence, and upsets have cleared their way to a top-3 seed. The offensive production is not especially deep, but Carter Randklev (6), Cole O’Connell (11), and Jack Stetz (21), make up a very dangerous top line. Sophomore North Dakota recruit Ethan Frisch (5) is one of the silkiest defensemen on display, and with Carson Kosobud (2), Parker Larson (22), and Carter Howell (13), the Spuds can lock down in back, as evidenced by three straight shutouts in the 8AA playoffs. Lance Leonard (30) had a strong season in net. They’ve been on a roll, and are undefeated in their last 18 games; if this young group can handle the bright lights, they have the pieces to play on Saturday night.

WAYZATA VS. #1 EDEN PRAIRIE

6:00 Thursday

Two longtime Lake Conference rivals collide in a juicy first round rematch of last year’s title game. Eden Prairie won the regular season meetings 8-2 and 4-2, and this series is dead even at 5-5 in its last 10 installations.

Wayzata (10-17-1, #21, 3-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: 5 (2 in a row)

State championships: 1 (2016)

Key section win: 3-1 over #2 Edina

-The Trojans are one of the wackiest stories this season, as the defending state champs floundered to a 7-win regular season before rattling off three straight playoff wins, including an upset of Edina. They don’t have the forward depth of last season, but they do know how to play within Pat O’Leary’s signature defensive system, and Griffin Ness (22) and Colin Schmidt (3) can put the puck in the net. Andrew Urban (2) and Tyler Stevens (19) also had productive years. Grant Anderson (21), a Nebraska-Omaha recruit, is their star on defense, where Jack Carlson (20) also plays a leading role. Reid Waszczenko (1), despite a 1-win regular season, is a good goaltender who was the star of their run through sections. Stringing together enough wins to repeat will be a tall order, but it’s not too crazy to imagine them winning a game or two here.

Eden Prairie (21-4-2, #1, 1-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 10 (4 in a row)

State championships: 2 (2009, 2011)

Key section wins: 2-1 over #15 Prior Lake, 4-3 over #5 Holy Family

-The Eagles enter this tournament on a mission, with 15 straight wins since Casey Mittestadt announced they’d run the table. Of course it all starts with Mittelstadt (11), the certain Mr. Hockey winner and a generational talent, but there are plenty of others worth watching in the stable. Sophomore Gopher recruit Jack Jenson (18) joins Mittelstadt on the top line, while steady Nolan Sullivan (12) and agitator Hunter Johannes (27) carry the load on the second. Notre Dame recruit Nick Leivermann (4) is prolific from the blue line, and the rest of the defense knows its role and doesn’t try to do too much. For all the top-end talent, this team’s season came together when they started rolling three deep lines and grinding other teams down; they feel much more like a team than last season’s runners-up. Speedy Spencer Olson (5) anchors the third line, and Nick Wiencek (30) will be in goal. Discipline remains the mild concern.

#5 GRAND RAPIDS VS. #4 MAPLE GROVE

8:00 Thursday

The quarterfinals will close with a North vs. Metro battle, as potent Grand Rapids squares off against unheralded Maple Grove. There is no recent history between these two teams.

Grand Rapids (20-7-1, #11, 4-seed in 7AA)

State appearances: 16 (2 in a row)

State championships: 3 (1975, 1976, 1980)

Key section wins: 5-3 over #3 Elk River, 3-2 (2 OT) over #13 Duluth East

-The Thunderhawks had their ups and downs this season, but burst to life with a flair for the dramatic in the 7AA playoffs, and have the talent to make a deep run. The top line of St. Cloud-bound Micah Miller (20), North Dakota-bound Gavin Hain (8), and Blake McLaughlin (7) is as good as it gets in high school hockey. They don’t have a ton of depth beyond that, but the lower lines have been doing just enough. John Stampohar (24) is their rock on defense, and Michael Heitkamp (2) has also come on to help shore up the back end. Zach Stejskal (35) has been strong in goal, though they have last year’s playoff starter in Gabe Holum (30) waiting in the wings, too. This team did beat Eden Prairie in December, and even though there are shortcomings, someone needs to prove they can stop this top line.

Maple Grove (22-6, #10, 2-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 2 (first in 2012)

Key section wins: 4-3 over #7 Centennial, 3-0 over #24 Blaine

-The Crimson enter the Tourney without much fanfare, but were strong from start to finish and have some interesting talent. Sam Huff (19) is their big offensive threat, and he’s supported by a cast that includes Justin Kelley (9) and Jarrett Cammarata (16). They have some emerging sophomores in Trevor Kukkonen (4) and Tyler Kostelecky (5), and Jack Kelly (6) leads the D. Freshman Ethan Haider (33) is a star in the making in goal. If he can play well and the top line can take advantage of its opportunities, they can make their first trip to the semis. They’ll have to overcome 5AA’s ugly recent record at State, as the section has just one win this decade.

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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.

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.

State Tournament Reflection 2016

9 Mar

Here’s my annual reflection essay on the State Tournament, which first appeared on mnhockeyprospects.com.

Sixteen games across four days, gone in a blur and ending in a daze: another Tourney has come and gone, and as always, I’ll put fingers to keys to find what few words have not yet been said. By early March my mind is all too ready for a trip to some exotic locale, but the vacation I really need takes me just a few miles east. We make our yearly pilgrimage to the spectacle in St. Paul, a dip into tradition that somehow offers a compelling new drama, night after night.

For a second straight year, a first-time champion hoisted a trophy. Wayzata proved all those old clichés about depth and defense true, as they locked down in the first two rounds and rediscovered their game with their backs to the wall in the final. The winning goal came from pure grinding hockey, a steady offensive zone cycle that wore down Eden Prairie, forced a turnover, and a set up a shot from the point. Their hard-nosed effort warmed this Northern boy’s heart, and the relentless push was a vindication for coach Pat O’Leary, who has made an art of overpowering hockey and finally brought his crew along, rolling his four lines right down to the final horn.

The lockdown Trojans were never a given, as their midseason stumbles inspired a sea of skeptics. But by the end Alex Schilling pounced on every loose puck while Hank Sorensen hammered all in sight, and they just managed to find a healthy channel for that simmering fire. They stole the headlines from Casey Mittelstadt, the Eden Prairie golden boy who nearly willed a team to a title. Casey’s dazzling show throughout puts him in elite company, his performance comparable to Besse or Rau in recent years. But he saved his most genuine moments for after the game, pulling himself from tears to speak with poise about his loss; even in defeat, he quickly righted any wrongs, and began to learn the burdens of stardom that will likely follow him for years. His Eagles fell short in the title game for the first time, but gave every last ounce for their teammates and their inspiration behind the bench, Steve Ollinger.

Wayzata’s physical play was far from the only throwback in a Tourney field devoid of its usual suspects. The Halloween Machine from Grand Rapids made its way south for the first time since 2007, and the old northern giants flashed some of their nostalgic magic on their way to a third-place berth. They were no match for Middelstadt, but for a spurt in the second period on Friday night they had all of 218 Territory rising in unison, as the band cranked out one of its impeccably timed Olés and the west end of the arena, painted in orange, bounced in unison. United with the mass of Wayzata yellow on Saturday afternoon, Grand Rapids pulled off one last stirring comeback to bring home another trophy for 7AA.

The Burnsville black and gold also made its way back to St. Paul for only the second time in twenty years, and for one period gave us a hint of past glory. Thief River Falls, another claimant to dynasty in a more distant age, cruised to small-school third place behind a pair of genuine stars. Anoka’s Tornadoes shocked the world by spinning their way back to the Tourney, and the Lumberjacks from Bemidji axed their way through the consolation bracket. Their effort against Rapids gave us the Tourney’s only overtime affair, and its one true thriller before Saturday night. All four northern squads went home with at least two wins and a trophy in tow.

But even as the old guard kept up its proud legacy, newer faces showed the changing tides in hockey and beyond. As the suburbs grow, so goes the high school hockey success, and Farmington and Stillwater gave us glimpses of the future with their tight opening game. There is a learning curve for these teams, as there is for the southerners who got shellacked on the first day of Class A, but whole towns turned out anyway, and who can forget Mankato West’s display on that first skate up to the line? The flow poured forth from buckets left and right, its perfection driving me to self-consciously run a hand through my own mediocre mane at the intermission.

There were no surprises in Class A this year: everything went according to seed, up and down the bracket. But there was sheer, sweet relief, as Hermantown finally threw off a burden worthy of Buffalo and brought a title back to northeast. The Hawks left no doubts, dominating each and every game, and while they’re no longer the scrappy upstart story they were a few years ago, they are out of a long shadow and ready to claim a higher mantel. One hopes they embrace the challenges that may come their way next, and whatever Bruce Plante decides for the future, he has now earned himself a less anxious summer on his lake.

With no Duluth East in the field, I thought it might be a more relaxed Tourney for me, but the infectious nerves still swept through on Saturday night as the Trojans ran the clock down. That emotion never gets old, nor does this yearly dive back in to meet friends old and new, to revisit those Tournament institutions along Seventh Street or opposite Rice Park. I can even enjoy a momentary foray into that cloud of adolescent male hormones that hangs over the upper deck of the X, though before long I’ll beat my hasty retreat back to the land of free popcorn up in the press box. It’s a reminder of who we are and where we come from, even if our immediate alma maters may not have made this trip this year. It’s all timeless, and we can all go back, if only for a little while.

It’s all over now, headed into history books and video vaults and the realm of memory. Memory and that sense of rightness, emblazoned in the mind’s eye, a home where it will stay longer than in any pictures or words that try to capture it. An early spring is already melting away any icy dreams, but there’s work to be done, and it won’t be long before we begin the cycle anew. Thanks, boys, for another memorable year.

Midseason Musings 2016

4 Jan

The high school hockey season is around its midway point, and the next two months should offer their share of high drama. If you haven’t heard enough of my blather on the Cold Omaha podcast, here you have it in prose.

The field is almost always an unpredictable open brawl, but this 2016 takes it to the extreme. Of the four most regular Tournament entrants of the two-class era, none are presently favored to win their sections. Moorhead is buried behind Bemidji in 8AA, while Edina is in the running but has top-ranked Benilde in its section, and may have to deal with rival Wayzata in a semifinal as well. Hill-Murray is serviceable, and has the benefit of a pretty thin section, but will have to get past some Ponies. Duluth East, meanwhile, is attaining new levels of weirdness. (More on the Hounds next week, after they play some big games against Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie.) Still, an unranked Hounds team looked perfectly capable of beating #2 Blaine this past week, showing just how wide open things can be.

Part of the trouble comes from no team having a truly elite defense. The closest to having one is Benilde-St. Margaret’s, so that’s a big part of why they’ve beaten the odds to remain undefeated into January. Still, the margin for error is thin: with Connor Mayer out hurt during the Sports Authority Holiday Classic, they looked awfully beatable. Benilde has treated fans to some wildly entertaining games in St. Louis Park over the past month; maybe they know how to win, or maybe that just shows how thin their margin for error is. The Red Knights deserve their #1 ranking, but it also probably means less than any other #1 I’ve ever handed out.

Eden Prairie, the preseason favorite, has largely lived up to its billing. They were always a flawed favorite, so their two losses shouldn’t be any great shock. Casey Mittelstadt and Michael Graham are doing their usual thing, and the defense and rest of their top two lines do the job, but there are some rough spots around the margins. And as big as those two Eden Prairie stars are, they’ve been eclipsed by another so far: Blaine’s Riley Tufte is running away with the Mr. Hockey race with a monster start to the season. I don’t think a forward has ever carried an elite AA team as totally as Tufte is doing right now, but his wingmen are all able, smart players, and the Bengals have their formula down.

Elsewhere in AA, the teams jostle about: Holy Family’s fine puck possession game has them in the top five, while Lakeville North’s troubles in back drove them from it. Minnetonka is quietly rising through the ranks, and Stillwater could be dangerous if they ever played a serious opponent. With all of these teams, success seems possible on any given night. But nearly all of them are equally at risk of a tumble in the section semifinals. Wayzata can’t quite seem to decide if they want to be a front-line contender or a total train wreck, and could use some decisiveness as they make up their minds.

This was supposed to be a banner year for the northern AA schools, but most of them haven’t quite lived up to the billing. Bemidji lost to Cloquet in a battle of Lumberjacks, and isn’t winning with quite enough authority to leave me sold. Grand Rapids has had flashes with its wins over Edina and Minnetonka, but the familiar Rapids demons on the blue line still rear their heads from time to time. And then there is Duluth East, still trying to shake off a spate of questionable mid-December losses.

Class A northern teams, meanwhile, have a better story to tell. Hermantown is being its usual self; they may not be quite as deep as last year’s favorites, but the front-end talent is there. The only unbeaten and untied team in the state is Hibbing, led by the sublime Scott Perunovich; the Bluejackets should, at least, be able to give Hermantown a game. Greenway, too, is on its way back up, and gave Hibbing a good game. It’s been a dark year on the Iron Range, but there is newfound life in some of its most historic arenas. Even North Shore, the Silver Bay-Two Harbors co-op, has a gaudy record. And while they may not be elite teams, Thief River Falls and two-time defending state champ East Grand Forks should battle to the wire for the 8A crown.

Down the stretch, a lot of big games will come down to those old sports clichés about coaching and knowing how to win. In those cases, it’s not a bad idea to bet on the old favorites, even if they seem a bit down. Being conditioned and battle-tested will matter, and whoever wins it all isn’t going to do it by overwhelming the opposition, but by taking these games and gaining the confidence to pull out the tight ones, as Benilde has been doing so far. To that end, I’m wary of betting on anyone who has a weak schedule toward the end. Running it up on conference opponents just doesn’t quite cut it.

So, where do we go to find the teams who will emerge in March? Look to see who is battle-tested, and pulling out wins in tight games. Look to the play on the blue line; defense really does win championships. Watch to see who’s putting things together, and in a year when everyone is flawed, look to see whose issues look most correctable. Look to see which coaches are adjusting their systems to their talent, and which ones are beating the same old themes in desperate hope that it will work. Even in a year of parity, the cream will rise to the top.