Tag Archives: elk river

7AA Takes Shape

7 Feb

Duluth East had been rolling along in the second half of its season, with wins in eight of nine games heading into a section showdown in Elk River on Saturday. That run came to an end with a dull thud, as the Elks imposed their will in a 4-1 win. The victory gave the Elks the top seed in 7AA, and consigned the Hounds to a 2-seed and a likely road through Grand Rapids to make a ninth straight section final.

Saturday’s result probably says more about Elk River than anything, and revealed a team well-built to resist a team like East. They’re deep and break out smoothly, building from that great defense in back; the Hounds’ signature forecheck and puck control game never really got off the ground. The Elks were remarkably disciplined, which is a major testament to new coach Ben Gustafson, who appears to be a significant upgrade. This team could be a lippy and loose at times in recent seasons; a stupid major penalty cost them a three-goal lead in the section final just two seasons ago. And where last season’s team might have folded after a seeming goal was waved off and East immediately followed it up with a shorthanded goal, this Elks group had an immediate response. They didn’t take a single penalty the entire game, thereby avoiding an improving Hounds power play that can pile on the pressure, even if its overall numbers aren’t remarkable. Their stars came to play as well, with their D-I defensemen, Nick Perbix and Benton Maass, scoring the two early goals and a healthy Jax Murray controlling play for long stretches.

The biggest bright spot in defeat for East was Kirk Meierhoff, the goaltender who has come into his own as a senior; the line of Jack FitzGerald, Austin Jouppi, and Brendan Baker, a pleasant surprise all season, had a decent effort, too. Any other effort to take anything out of this one as a Hounds fan probably starts by noting that Elk River was at the peak of its game, while East was not. The Hounds’ top line in particular spent much of the game running around its own zone; a handful of shifts aside, many of their rushes forward degenerated into failed dangles through a dominant defensive corps. Those moves may work against Superior, but the team game wasn’t quite at the level it needed to be. If Elk River has a weakness, it’s probably in goal, yet they failed to put much rubber on a goaltender who only lasted ten minutes in the playoff meeting between these two last season. The Olympic ice sheet in Elk River is not friendly for a team that relies on setting up a forecheck and closing down space. The return of injured Logan Anderson could help shore up the forward depth as well. Despite being outplayed for long stretches on Saturday, it was still a very tight game until late in the 3rd, and the Elk faithful around me was leery of East popping a quick one on a breakaway.

The Hounds rebounded on Monday night with a 5-1 win over Cloquet, an effort similar to their 5-0 blanking of the Jacks back in December. This time they had no trouble keeping the forecheck rolling, and clean rushes for the boys in purple were few and far between. This Lumberjack team has done a good job of cleaning up on the second tier in 7AA, but is too young and too thin to hang with the likes of the Greyhounds at this point in time. If nothing else, it restored order for East, and reminded me why this is still one of the most enjoyable rivalries out there, even with one team in solid control. A large crowd packed in under the arched wooden ceiling in Cloquet, and the two student sections went at it relentlessly, showing both their love for their teams and creative disdain for the opposition. (Anytime the renditions of “The Wheels on Your House” come out, it’s probably an entertaining night.)

7AA seeding will be pleasantly free of drama this season. Elk River has been its most complete team since day one, and while East’s win over Grand Rapids flipped the 2 and 3 seeds, it doesn’t alter a whole lot in the big picture. Rapids, winners of six straight since its loss to East; they’ve played no one in the top 15 over that stretch, though they do have Moorhead this coming weekend. Duluth Marshall’s second season in AA, much like its first, has me raising an eyebrow at their performance down the stretch, as losses to Andover and Cloquet have likely consigned the Hilltoppers to a 6-seed. Andover has a lot of losses, but has also had its share of respectable showings against good teams, including a tie to Grand Rapids.

In the end, though, this is a three-team race for the title, as has been the case over the past several seasons. Elk River has set the standard and remains the most complete team in the field, but must exorcise its Amsoil Arena demons. Grand Rapids has its front-line skill, and will have to ride it to heroics in big games. That leaves the Greyhounds as something of the wild card, which seems weird to say in a season where their ranking has barely budged all season long. But when they’re on their game, they can roll a deep group and frustrate any opponent. Do that, and they have a shot; after that, they could use a step up from some of their top players on the highest stage. East’s top players have been there before, just two short years ago; can they find that level again? Over the next month, we’ll learn the answer.

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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.

Summer 2016 Hockey Headlines

19 Jul

As I sit here wilting in some sweltering summer heat, a hockey arena sounds like a pleasant escape. Fortunately, I’ll have that opportunity on Saturday, when a number of the state’s top teams take the ice at Braemar Arena in Edina for some scrimmages. I’ll have some notes on the games I catch, but in the meantime, here are some of the high school hockey headlines since I last sat down to write.

Get Well Soon, Andrew Kerr

First, an update on some less than happy news: Andrew Kerr, the Duluth East defenseman who graduated in 2013, remains hospitalized after a freak water trampoline accident on Saturday. He was found unresponsive by friends, given CPR by a former teammate, and airlifted to a Duluth hospital. He has been responsive since his arrival, but the extent of his injuries is unclear following a broken bone in his neck.

Kerr immediately established himself as a fan favorite in the East lineup. In December of his sophomore year, he grabbed attention when he led the defense of several teammates in an on-ice skirmish after a win in Cloquet. He put himself on the statewide radar with his highlight reel of crushing hits on Kyle Rau in the state championship game. He wasn’t big and didn’t amass the points of some of his fellow D-men on those great East teams from 2010-2013, but he was an absolute rock defensively, and one of the most reliable pieces for what was, arguably, East’s most successful class this century. Kerr spent the past three years in the NAHL and USHL, and was set to play at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire this coming winter. Off the ice, he had a reputation as a mild-mannered, quiet individual, so unlike the enforcer he became for the Hounds.

Kerr’s CaringBridge site is available here, and his GoFundMe page is here. Every bit helps.

Trouble in Cakeville

After missing its first state tournament since 2006 this past March, Edina has had an adventurous offseason. It all started when coach Curt Giles named Ben Brinkman, a rising sophomore, captain for the coming season. I can’t think of another instance in which a sophomore was named a captain, and the move, predictably, riled up some of the Hornet faithful. Now, we have a mild Edina exodus on our hands, with at least two players headed for Holy Family. If some of their stronger talents make USHL teams, their departure could be imminent as well.

None of this is to question Brinkman’s talent or leadership abilities; he is going to be a great player. But he’s also only played a handful of high school games, and in this case, Giles may not have thought about the optics for the rest of his team. Edina is deep enough to withstand some losses, but they can’t go on losing people forever. Two years ago, this program looked ready to continue its dominance for a generation, and while there’s still plenty of reason for optimism, there are also a few more questions now. Stay tuned for any further fallout.

The Elks Go Back to Basics

Elk River’s choice to replace outgoing coach Gordie Roberts is a familiar face: Ben Gustafson, a fixture in the Elks program who also replaced legend Tony Sarsland for a few games following his midseason ouster in 2012. He isn’t the flashy name that Roberts was, but he’s a well-respected local institution, and the Elk River crowd appears to be behind him.

In retrospect, that 2012 team now looks pretty good. It had three D-I defensemen and some talented young forwards, went 3-0 to close out the regular season after Gustafson took over, and won a first-round playoff game before running into top-ranked Duluth East in the semifinals. While the Hounds took a lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the first minute of that game, the Elks did a good job of hanging around, and East won 4-2 with an empty-netter. Compared to the agony of recent seasons, that’s a result in which the Elks can take resolute pride.

It’s become common to poke fun at the Elks for their playoff failures, and after the agonizing defeats of the Roberts years, I understand why people think they might never win 7AA at Amsoil Arena. Still, new blood can change things in a hurry (just ask Grand Rapids), and there’s no doubting the depth of talent coming back to Elktown this winter. Right now, I’d snap up the Elks at the low odds some others are giving them in 7AA. They’re going to be very good.

Stay or Go?

As usual, summer is a time to watch many of the state’s top players to see if they’ll stay in the high school system or try out other routes. This spring, Casey Mittelstadt provided high school hockey fans with some cause for excitement: the Eden Prairie wunderkind, fresh off a loss in the state championship game, will return for his senior year. He’s one of the highest-profile players to stick around in recent memory, and now has a chance to follow the other two great Eden Prairie megastars, Nick Leddy and Kyle Rau, in winning a state title his senior year. The Mr. Hockey race is a foregone conclusion, but he should put on a few shows for us this winter, and as someone who tries to predict what will happen, I also appreciate the very early announcement on his intentions.

The other top junior forward in the state, meanwhile, is taking a unique path: Ryan Poehling accelerated and graduated from Lakeville North a year early so that he can join his twin brothers in starting at St. Cloud State his freshman year. This one made too much sense, really: the three Poehlings have incredible chemistry, and putting them together again will make up for any inexperience on Ryan’s part. We’ll see how he handles the NCHC gauntlet.

One other elite player hasn’t made any sort of public statement. For now, I’ll assume that Scott Perunovich, the silky Hibbing defenseman, will be back, but that isn’t based on anything other than speculation. It has been a weird offseason in Hibbing, as an investigation into coach Todd Versich led to his dismissal. There’s no public record of what went wrong, but based on the unseemly rumors coming down from the Range, a clean house was probably necessary. Star goaltender Ryan Ullan has already bolted for Ann Arbor, so we’ll see what Perunovich makes of an evolving situation. Hibbing’s slim chances at knocking off Hermantown all come down to him.

A Grand Rapids Exit

If you’ve had any interest in Grand Rapids hockey over the past few years, you’ve probably encountered GRHS Hockey Online, a website that provided heaps of information on every game, and kept close tabs on players and alumni. It was never officially affiliated with the program, though the information was good enough and the sources close enough that it might as well have been. No team site put in more effort, and its curators were unfailingly loyal to their alma mater. That site is gone now, however, as the Rapids program has created its own official website.

Coach Trent Klatt’s rationale for the new site makes sense: the team wants to make money off the ad revenue. Still, the apparent lack of communication between the people setting up the new site and the GRHS people is unfortunate. I interacted with the GRHS people some, and had the pleasure of doing a couple of podcast segments with Tim How, its founder, where we sparred amiably about section 7AA. Even if we didn’t always agree on things, they’ll be missed. I appreciate all the time they put in, and the new official site will have a high bar to meet.

Up Next…

In addition to summer tournaments in the upcoming weeks, Elite League tryouts will occur on Sunday. As USHL rosters come out, we should get a more definitive answer as to who’s staying in high school and who’s leaving. Meanwhile, I’ve been messing around with some side projects on historical rosters, one of which is several years in the making. With any luck, I’ll be able to share part of it before long. Stay tuned.

Exit Gordie Roberts

5 Apr

Another week, another notable piece of news on a 7AA coach: Gordie Roberts, the former Minnesota North Star and four-year head coach of Elk River, has resigned to take an assistant position in Maple Grove. He ends with a 76-31-2 record, with two section semifinal losses bookending a pair of overtime section final defeats.

During the 2011-2012 season, a coup led by a single Elk River family pushed out Elk River icon Tony Sarsland, a man who had become synonymous with the program and built it up from scratch into a regular state contender. The fiery Sarsland was a difficult act to follow, and the drama surrounding his unfortunate exit meant his successor would be under a microscope. The Elks scored Roberts to fill that gap, hoping his NHL credentials would carry the gravity necessary to return to glory. Indeed, Roberts enjoyed a strong wave of goodwill at the start, and seemed a sensible way to turn the page.

He also came into Elk River at a good time, as an upsurge in talent promised more success than in the previous few years. While the Elks were usually toward the top of the section in their seven years in 7AA prior to Roberts’ arrival, they weren’t as strong as they were in the 1990s and early 2000s, with only two teams that had a serious shot at a section title. (Those came in 2006 and 2010, and in both years, the Elks faced stiff competition.) There were still roadblocks, from grumpy parents to that long road trip to Duluth in sections, but Roberts’ Elks looked like they’d have the talent break through.

It never happened, and the inability to win big games only snowballed, and grew worse every year. The Elks entered the 2013 semifinals on fairly even terms with Grand Rapids, and seemed like they’d scrape out a workmanlike 1-0 win. But with ten seconds left in regulation, Avery Peterson struck to tie it. The Elks lost in overtime. The next year they beat five-time defending section champion Duluth East during the regular season, and seemed very even with them heading into the section final. This time, they coughed up the lead with a minute and a half to go. The Elks lost in overtime. In 2015 they entered the clear favorite, with Mr. Hockey and a 20-win regular season in tow, and ran out to a 3-0 lead over East after the first period. In the ultimate gut punch, the Elks lost in overtime. Finally, this past season, a strong regular season despite injuries had them as a popular upset pick to knock off a vulnerable-looking East. They were down 4-0 before fans had settled into their seats. The wheels had come off, and the Elks’ Amsoil hex had become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That sloppy loss finally brought some murmurs of discontent into the open. While I wouldn’t give it excess attention, Roberts’ request to move up the time of that game so that he could attend the North Stars’ alumni game at TCF Bank Stadium that evening (while fellow ex-NHLer Curt Giles skipped it to coach his team) seemed to show conflicting priorities. Roberts did nothing glaringly wrong tactically in any of the losses; I didn’t pick up on any unusual locker room angst, and his regular seasons all seemed to meet expectations. Still, playing in the NHL is no guarantee of coaching success, and reputation alone does not win section titles. Nor does it automatically create respect in the locker room, and Roberts, for all his decency, never seemed to quite inspire players to expend every last ounce the way Sarsland did. Following in the footsteps of a giant is never easy.

To pick up on a theme from the Trent Klatt discussion, being a head coach has huge challenges beyond pulling strings on the bench, and Roberts had to handle a big-time program with sky-high expectations. He deserves credit for running a clean ship, and for recognizing the mounting frustrations and making a graceful exit. His new position with Maple Grove should allow him to share some wisdom in a rising program that could use some stability at the top, and will free him of the heavy commitment he had with the Elks. With Elk River’s youth program looking as strong as any in the section, Roberts’ successor will once again have the pieces necessary to head to State in the next few years. Whether the team is able to capitalize on that is an open question.

The Golden Years of Mike Randolph

26 Feb

Three years ago, one of the most loaded teams in Duluth East history finished off a 4-1 win over Eagan on a Saturday in early March. That game, however, was not at the Xcel Center in St. Paul; it was at a consolation final in front of a half-empty Mariucci Arena. Their pride was intact, but Greyhounds Nation was left wondering what could have been. Mike Randolph, the Hounds’ longtime coach, made his way across the ice to salute the East fan base, as he always does at the end of the season.

I made sure to preserve that sight in my memory. At the time, there was good reason to think Randolph would call it quits after 23 seasons; his son was about to graduate, and he had just hit 60. Had he left then, his legacy might have been a somewhat complicated one. Yes, any reasonable observer would acknowledge his work in building up the program in the 1990s, and his two state titles with those loaded teams back then. But after that came a wacky saga that saw Randolph dismissed for a year before getting his job back, a series of section playoff upsets, and two bad upset losses once they did get back to State, the most glaring of those the 2012 affair that had wrecked his best season in over a decade. Every year, there was some grumbling from the stands, and while I had plenty of respect for Randolph, I would have been fine starting off a new era, too.

Randolph, however, came back. The results since have been nothing short of golden. Tonight’s 5-4, 3-goal comeback, double-overtime win over heavily-favored Elk River is the crowning moment of one of the all-time great runs in Minnesota high school hockey history, a streak of seven straight tournament berths, each more impressive than the last.

Sure, he still has plenty of talent to work with—though it’s gone down some each year. And yes, whiny southern fans, the section final is in Duluth. But anyone who thinks for a moment that this is at all a fluke or a function of game location isn’t paying close enough attention. In watching this team closely over the past three years, I’ve picked up on so many of the little things he does, so many of the little strengths he brings to the table that no other coach in the state does.  It helped that I had a chance to sit down with him and pick his brain for a while during that stretch, but it took careful observation to realize the totality of his control, and just how unique it is. Minnesota high school hockey fans are in the presence of a master at his craft.

Did anything change over time, to turn those disappointments into three straight thrilling Tourney berths, each more improbable than the last? Probably. Randolph sure thought so, saying “everything” had changed in how he handled his players over the course of his career. After the 2013 run, a few players joked about his wry sense of humor, a side of him I don’t ever recall hearing about when I was in high school. I told friends that he was going soft in his old age; I don’t know if the current players would agree with that after one of his famed bag skates, but whatever it was, he found a way to strike the perfect balance between pushing his players to give all they could without going overboard. This is the essence of good coaching, and performance in any sphere of life: to know how to push things to the limit and stay there, getting the most out of one’s own unique strengths.

He’s pulled just about every lever imaginable over the past three years, though I don’t doubt that there’s something else left in the bag of tricks. The 25 regular season games are merely a training ground for those three in late February that decide East’s fate. He preaches his systems, and makes his players believers, even when down 3 goals in the first period to a more talented team. 2013 and 2014 saw the creation of the most lethal power plays in the state, using East’s handful of top players in perfect positions to make up for a relative lack of scoring depth. Defense always comes first, and yet East never falls too far back into its shell, and by season’s end he’ll turn them loose on the attack when need be. This current season tested the limits of his ingenuity, with the radical adoption of a 2-3 forecheck after the defense was repeatedly shredded early in the season—only to abandon it at times in the section final against Elk River, when necessity demanded that they throw players forward. They hold back until they know they have the other team doubting themselves a little bit, smell blood, then strike.

Randolph will ride his top players at times, but everyone on the team has a role, knows it, and it’s no surprise to see some of them coming up big in the clutch. The second and third lines each scored twice in this year’s section final against Elk River, and in each of the past two seasons, players who I would have benched, being my impatient self, have made key contributions. It’s a complete cast of characters, from lunch-pail senior Nick Funk scoring the tying goal to freshman phenom Garrett Worth popping in the game-winner. He’s even played goalie psychology perfectly, benching both Dylan Parker and Gunnar Howg after struggles in their senior seasons, only to give them back the starting job with something to prove down the stretch. Both have taken the Hounds to the Promised Land, with Howg’s heroics in the semifinal against Grand Rapids the latest testament to that success.

The Hounds head to the State Tournament greater underdogs than they’ve ever been, and with an otherwise loaded field taking shape, it would be easy to shrug and say that this is enough of an accomplishment this year. And yet Randolph will surely demand that his team “deny losing” once again, and nothing is assured as they head into a first-round matchup with one of the state’s three elite teams. And even if the favorites advance, no matter what happens, a legacy is intact. It is one of brilliance, and we East fans are spoiled to enjoy it once again.

The Dynasty Lives

28 Feb

It was supposed to end last night. Five in a row was quite enough. The Elk River Elks had beaten the Duluth East Greyhounds during the regular season, and whatever the seeds said, everyone knew they’d had a slightly stronger season. The Elks were feted on Hockey Day in Minnesota this year, touted as a team returning to glory. When a star player left midseason, they pulled together. They weren’t remotely intimidated by the hostile environment in Amsoil Arena, keeping the mood light during pregame introductions and controlling the opening minutes of play. Star goalie MacLean Berglove was on top of his game; it took two rebounds for East to finally get a puck past him late in the second period, and the Elks had an immediate response just ten seconds later. It was a tight game at 2-1, but the Elks were in control. The clock ticked down on the Duluth East dynasty, and up in the stands, I was already writing a requiem in my head.

Not so fast.

East plugged away methodically for much of the third period, but despite a widening edge in shots, Berglove held firm. Then, with four minutes to go, a break: a penalty, the first one of the game. The refs had let the teams play, but Dylan Bouten’s takedown of East’s Alex Trapp was a bit too obvious to ignore. East’s lethal power play went to work, but the top unit, which included a wounded Jack Kolar, didn’t generate much. Out came the second unit, a line of three sophomores, including Alex Spencer, a converted defenseman whose primary purpose is to screen the opposing goaltender. Trapp very nearly found Spencer on a long breakaway pass, but the referees called it back. No matter, Hounds: back to work. With 2:08 on the clock, Spencer swatted a back-hander past Berglove to tie the game.

The clock ran out on regulation. Overtime. The Hounds smelled blood. Two minutes in, leading scorer Nick Altmann spotted daylight between Berglove’s pads, and fired his shot. I couldn’t see it from my angle, but I didn’t need to. It was bedlam at Amsoil. Sticks and gloves exploded in every direction, the student section toppled into a black-clad mass up along the glass, while Mike Randolph barreled out on to the ice to hug his student manager. The party went on through the awards ceremony and on into a frigid Duluth night, car horns echoing through the parking ramp and giddy kids hanging out of windows, jawing back and forth. The Hounds will head back to St. Paul for a sixth straight year, and the fifteenth time in the past twenty-one.

The odds had rarely been longer. Yet somehow, this Hounds team that needed overtime to beat an awful Cambridge team in November found a way. Their coach, Altmann said, told them to “deny losing.” The finish was a carbon copy of their stunner over Grand Rapids in 2011, and not terribly far off from an even more excruciating upset of Cloquet in 2005. Randolph’s record in section finals speaks for itself: 15-1, those fifteen wins now tied for second-most in state history, behind only Edina legend Willard Ikola.

They did it with a team with only four seniors, and with only one returning player who had scored more than 15 points last season. Their offensive numbers were hardly dynamic, and the defense, while strong, had its occasional lapses. Goaltending was also a large question mark heading in, yet East got it done all the same.

To be sure, these Hounds were hardly the little sisters of the poor. They were in the top 15 all season long, and defenseman Phil Beaulieu is one of the state’s finest talents. His partner, Trapp, is also an elite high school defenseman, and the Hounds have their customary organizational depth, with no shortage of quality forwards. Yet once again, they are playing in March, while a host of quality teams will watch from the stands.

This East group found its share of improbable heroes, including Spencer and the scorer of the first goal, Bryton Lutzka. While talented, Lutzka prompted his share of head-shaking on my part over the course of the season; on Thursday night, he played his best game of the year. Before the third period, I joked with a friend on whether Beaulieu might just go out there and play the whole period. There was no need for that this season. Randolph had full confidence in his complete bench, and his bench bought what he’d been selling all season long. There are valid critiques that can be leveled at the storied coach, but a man doesn’t stay on the same job for twenty-five years without changing, and the current version of Mike Randolph seems to have struck the proper balance. His intensity is inspiring instead of overbearing, and his wry humor is peeking out more often; more than anything, he is having fun. And when a man can couple a life of hockey knowledge with a confident, fiery swagger, it’s no wonder when the results follow.

The Hounds will learn their opponent for Thursday’s quarterfinal on Saturday morning. For once, East will not be among the favorites; instead, they will head south with nothing to lose. It’s an unfamiliar position, but one in which East could thrive, so long as they stick to their game. While they have a couple of lopsided losses to top teams, they’ve also had a couple of very close games with them, and no one team stands head and shoulders above the rest in this field.

Elsewhere in the state, the playoffs have produced their share of thrillers. Eden Prairie beat Benilde-St. Margaret’s in double overtime to win the always difficult 6AA, while Roseau—whose population is smaller than the enrollment of Eden Prairie High—outlasted Moorhead in a back-and-forth barnburner. There was a fair amount of schadenfreude when St. Thomas Academy, the private school power that had overstayed its welcome in Class A, blew a 2-0 lead and fell to Eagan 4-2 in the 3AA title game. While not entirely unexpected, as the Cadets are a fairly young team, the loss meant at least one of my preseason predictions was right: AA playoffs really are an entirely different story. St. Thomas simply didn’t play deep and physical teams like Eagan in Class A, and beating that sort of team is going to require some adjustments from their default transition game and efforts to set up perfect shot. A few sections were less surprising, as emerging power Lakeville North rolled through 1AA, and an upset loss by Burnsville left Edina with smooth sailing to an eighth straight Tourney.

In Class A, the field may not necessarily be as strong as usual, but it is a unique one with a number of new faces. With St. Thomas in AA and Breck losing a stunner to Orono, only Hermantown remains among the class’s traditional powers. Top-ranked East Grand Forks barely scraped past an excellent Warroad team in double overtime, and another top-five team, Duluth Marshall, was stuck in the same section as Hermantown. That leaves the Hawks and East Grand Forks as odds-on favorites to meet in the final, but there is intrigue elsewhere. Undefeated Luverne rolled through 3A, and while they haven’t played anyone difficult all season long, they do have some talent, and have at least some chance of making some noise. Orono has already proven it can take down giants, and New Prague looks to be a dangerous, physical team as well. The Class A teams will kick off the action at 11:00 A.M. on Wednesday, and after that, it’s four straight days of endless hockey. I’ll have an update on where to find my coverage of the Tourney in the coming days.

A Changing of the Guard in 7AA?

11 Dec

Section 7AA has been Duluth East’s dominion over the past five years, but last night’s result at the Heritage Center—a 3-2 win by 4th-ranked Elk River over the Hounds—has the potential to be a watershed moment.

It was a big night for the Elks in many ways. It was the first win by a 7AA opponent over East since the Elks beat the Hounds in 2010, and only the second since 2008. It was East’s first home loss since the 2010-2011 season (though that comes with an asterisk, as East was the “road” team in their loss to Duluth Denfeld last season). To find East’s last home regular season loss to a section opponent, we have to go back to a December 2006 game against Cloquet. Even without the history, it was a coming-out party for the Elks, who are now 3-0, with wins over state powers East and Edina. They are now the favorites for the section crown.

It was an important win, but it wasn’t the convincing sort of win that erases any doubts. The game went back and forth, with each team tallying once in the first two periods. The Hounds struck first on a terrific move by defenseman-turned-forward Phil Beaulieu, who dangled through the Elk defense before firing his shot; the Elks watched him closely for the rest of the night, making sure the East captain had little space to maneuver. The Elks tied it on a tap-in by Kyle Badger, and took the lead not long into the second on a blast from the blue line by Grant Bunker that nailed the water bottle atop East goalie Gunnar Howg’s net. After a penalty kill, East began to assert itself, and tied the game on a wicked shot from sophomore Ryan Peterson. The game-winner came with four and a half minutes to go, and was very similar to the first; there was a scrum in front of the East net, and suddenly the referee signaled a goal.

The gameplay was fairly even, though the teams excelled in different areas. Elk River’s forwards showed off their skill, beating the East defensive corps on the rush at times; the Hounds, on the other hand, relied on coach Mike Randolph’s signature puck possession system, controlling play for stretches in the 2nd and 3rd periods with their steady cycling and ultimately outshooting the Elks, 30-24. The difference-maker was Elk River senior goaltender Maclean Berglove; both East goals were tough to stop, and while Howg had some solid saves for East, he couldn’t quite pounce on the pucks sitting in his crease on the first and third goals, and the second goal came from very far out.

Recent history warns us from taking too much away from this game. Back in 2010, the Elks edged East 3-2 in the regular season meeting in Elk River, a game in which a veteran Elks’ goalie outplayed his less experienced East counterpart, despite a large edge in shots for East. The two teams met again in the 7AA final, and the Hounds steamrolled the Elks in a 5-1 win. As is the case this season, East was very young that year, and took some lumps in the regular season before putting things together in the playoffs.

But these Elks are not those Elks, and the 2013-2014 edition looks like one of the best teams in the state. Their third line scored twice last night, showing off their depth; they also did a superb job of blocking shots in front of Berglove, making his job much easier. With ten seniors on the roster, they have plenty of experience, and they play disciplined, smart hockey. Their second-year coach, former Minnesota North Star Gordie Roberts, has himself a team with no weaknesses. The Elks’ program seems be in a very good place right now, too. After five Tournament berths in seven years around the turn of the century, they moved to 7AA in 2005-2006, and haven’t been back since. They hit bottom near the end of the 2012 season, when longtime coach Tony Sarsland, a man who made Mike Randolph seem cute and cuddly, was axed by the district. Last season ended in pain, with Grand Rapids tying their 7AA semifinal with ten seconds to go and winning in overtime. But now, having done their penance, the Elks look like a force: their youth program has been on even terms with many of the state’s best in recent years, and the Twin Cities exurb will host Hockey Day in Minnesota 2014.

Still, several teams in 7AA could spoil their party; it’s a deep section, and even some of the weaker teams have shown they can stick around with the two top-ranked squads. East only has four seniors (one of whom is out hurt), and they have some correctible problems to fix don’t really have much of an identity yet. Randolph’s teams tend to improve as the season goes along; over the past nine years, they have a December winning percentage of .699, but up their game to an .857 clip in January and February. They may continue to take some lumps; they don’t have a whole lot of offensive firepower, and as a narrow win over Cambridge showed, East will probably get stuck in some close games against less-than-stellar opponents. But the East program continues to put out quality hockey players, and they’ve already shown that this young group can skate with the state’s best.

All we can say for now, then, is that the 7AA race will be as good as any in the state. Elk River and East are very even and are top ten teams at the moment, and a yet-untested Grand Rapids team has some stars it could ride into the conversation as well. It’s a bit early to be saying much about section seeding, and teams like Forest Lake and Andover won’t be easy wins, but at this point, there’s good incentive to grab the top seed and avoid playing one of the other top three in the semifinals. The Elks now have the inside track for that spot.

For both teams, it’s back to work now. Elk River travels to face a quality Maple Grove team on Thursday in a Northwest Suburban Conference game, while East visits archrival Cloquet. The Elks must be careful not to peak in December, as senior-heavy teams sometimes do; the Hounds cannot take future improvement as a given, and while there were no glaring weaknesses on Tuesday night, there were no clearly pronounced strengths, either. We have a long way to go, and whether East extends its dynasty or another team emerges, it’ll be neck-and-neck to the end.