Tag Archives: hockey

Tourney Reflection 2018

14 Mar

I’ve been to every AA Tourney game for ten years running, but this one drained me more than any of them. From emotional investment in my alma mater to the rigors of running commentary for Youth Hockey Hub to a simple desire to delight in every possible moment of Tournament finery, this one took its toll. It was worth every second. Even my knees are bruised from wedging into Xcel seats, the battle wounds of a Tourney well-lived.

2018 ended with a Lake Minnetonka boat party in both classes, as two first-timers ascended to their thrones. The Class A quarters did enough to tease us with upsets, though none delivered; the first day of AA saw three methodical wins from the top seeds and the start of a fourth before the Centennial Cougars roared to life, stunned St. Thomas Academy, and broke their section’s decade of despair in St. Paul. After that, it was all nervous tension, with intrigue in every single late-round game.

This Tourney came to its zenith on Semifinal Friday, always my favorite day of the Tourney: the quarterfinals always have something of a carnival atmosphere, with teams just happy to be there and hair on display, and the Championship Saturday has its own mystique that brings in the winner and the loser. Friday, however, is all business, where dreams are either dashed or passed along to primetime. Class A delivered the goods yet again in the afternoon, as Orono burst out to a 4-goal lead before Mahtomedi blew all the way back, only to see the Spartans finish them off in overtime. Next to me in the stands, Chase from Mahtomedi rode the waves of emotion down and up and then into a crash, but bounced back to chat up the Mora girls in front of us for the nightcap. Helping the rebound was the stunner in game two: down went Hermantown. For the first time this decade, the Hawks would miss the Class A final, their streak undone by a hard-hitting core of Cardinals from Alexandria. While the Cards’ parade to the box on Saturday kept them from being able to interrupt Orono’s steady push, they certainly sent the state their message.

The evening session began with a match-up that has become synonymous with the Tourney, the very phrase saying it all: Duluth East-Edina on a Friday Night. East answered the first Edina punch and refused to crumble as the Hornets piled on, and the giants of the north continued their great run against the state’s foremost hockey power. Scrappy Centennial again threatened to upend the Tourney in the second game, but Minnetonka kept churning away, and once they got one, it was no surprise when four more followed. Those Skippers kept the momentum rolling into Saturday. The stars came to play in this Tourney, with Bobby Brink slicing, Sammy Walker dicing, and Garrett Worth sniping. But for my money the difference-maker was the Minnetonka top defensive pair of Josh Luedtke and Grant Docter. They were the fulcrum for the Skippers’ seamless motion machine, their fluid breakouts doing just enough to break through the Duluth East barricades that had turned back the Hornets the night before.

A deep run by one’s alma mater only adds to the drama, and I did my part for the cause when I defended Duluth East pride with a bubble hockey win over some Minnetonka kids before the championship. We’ve been here before in my time as an East fan, but this one had the infectious spirit of a deep run where we loyal Hounds knew we had a very good chance. Out came the former players, the familiar faces among parents, and some alumni I hadn’t seen in years. I met some Red Wing guys with no direct tie to Duluth East who nonetheless proudly sported their Greyhound gear, and shared a couple drinks with the legendary Blackout Todd. I even had brushes with some Hounds in the student section like Tommy and Superfan Sam, who now get to learn how deeply the Hound hockey legacy can linger.

The Tourney mixes and matches us with people from beyond our own little tibes. I spent the Thursday night upset next to a diehard Cadet and directly in front of a box of Centennial moms, their reactions to events a perfect yin and yang. The next night, the box was home to some vicious Edina squirts, while in front of us, a dignified Hornet couple who appeared to have mistaken a hockey game for a night at the opera sniffed at our primal reactions to Greyhound goals. But even the Cake can join the fun: an Edina dad at McGoverns passed along a gift, and I consoled a Hornet alumnus friend who came down to visit for the second AA game on Friday. Toss in a couple of Tourney Virgin friends who fed our motley collection toward the back of Section 108 that night, and we had our own little party under way. “Why so sleepy?” we chanted at the Fairview Health ad when it appeared on the screen for the umpteenth time. Why? Because we’ve given it all in our nonstop hockey carnival, and it’s time for a good, long rest.

Not yet, though: the cast of characters goes on. There was The Lady, a posse of private school coaches at Grand Seven, and the St. Thomas parents. There were the familiar faces down the row playing the quarters game, and the press corps friends who sought out Danny and I in the lower bowl: Randy from Hibbing, Tim from Moorhead, and Zach from White Bear, the only one to bring us cookies. (Perhaps the Hockey Gods will smile upon the Bears in thanks for your kindness, Zach.) Some of the old hands stopped by, too: Dan from Plymouth,  the Bemidji guy who jokingly sought my autograph on his printout of my game previews, the Saturday session break with the Ryans, and Eric and Kara, who snuck away from their newborn for a little while to maintain a tradition. Finally, I owe a shoutout to my normal Thursday dinner date at the St. Paul Grille, whom I missed this year because he was too busy doing his part with a team on its way to a state title. I’m sure I’ve left off someone who should be on this list, and if you’re not here there’s always room for more.

I also spent more of this Tourney brushing shoulders with kids still in school than I ever have. “The Tourney is kind of our thing,” one of our Eveleth friends told us, as true a statement as there ever was. I made my annual Friday night circuit of the 200 Level, a sure way to make oneself feel like a fossil, and found myself googling cell phone games I’d never heard of. The Tourney is a jarring study in emotion that only teenagers can produce, from schoolboy raunchiness in the upper deck to some antics on the ice, from Joe Paradise’s selfie celly to Edina’s Jake Boltmann setting up Centennial goalie Travis Allen for a one-timer as they mucked around during a stoppage in third place game garbage time. And then, on the other side, sheer raw emotion: the remarkable poise amid tears of joy and pain for Joe Molenaar, Minnetonka’s winner of the Herb Brooks Award who lost his father all too soon.

That weight hit me again in the postgame reception area, where the Hounds players emerged from the locker room to meet their families and dedicated fans. I’ve seen kids’ season-ending tears dozens of times now, written of their moments of realization in Tourney Reflections past, but this was one where I needed to repeat certain phrases over and over again to get myself to believe them. Six years ago, I failed to find the right words for a distraught Jake Randolph in the bowels of the X; this year, I found some of that wisdom that hockey has taught me. It’s all over now, and spring is upon us yet again. But yet it isn’t over, and never does really end for those of us who lived it for four days in March. We are the heirs to something transcendent, and we must never forget it.

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The Power and the Glory: Duluth East 2017-2018 in Review

13 Mar

Those of us who follow Duluth East hockey don’t really know the meaning of an unmemorable season. The storylines always seem to fall into place, and win or lose, the Greyhounds find some way to entertain us. But the 2017-2018 team, runners up in the state of Minnesota, somehow found a way to make themselves to stand out above the rest. It was a remarkable year.

While these Hounds had a few more hiccups against mid-tier teams than the other top teams in the state, they still finished with the second-best regular season since the last championship in 1998, and they rolled into the playoffs with more jump than that one team that was better than them on paper, the 2012 group that lost to Lakeville South in the quarterfinals. They flashed their formidable talent in solid wins over the likes of Wayzata, Andover, Centennial, Elk River, and top-ranked Minnetonka, and the only concerning wobbles came against local rivals like Cloquet and Duluth Marshall. After they slaughtered the Hilltoppers in the section semis and found a way to dig deep and overcome scrappy Andover in the section final, they had all the makings of a team on a championship run.

The Hounds faced a spirited test from the Knights of St. Michael-Albertville in the Tourney quarterfinals, but a sudden detonation of WMD (plus some Logan Anderson for good measure) in the second period put away the Knights. Garrett Worth pulled his best Dave Spehar with a hat trick, and at 5-0 the Hounds had their largest Tourney margin of victory since the days of said Mr. Spehar. Parker Kleive logged a shutout in net to prove East goaltending would be no weakness in this Tourney, and Mike Randolph was able to rotate in some depth players to keep his most dangerous weapons in tune for Friday night.

For the fourth time in eight years, the first game on Friday night had the Hounds matched with Edina, a titanic clash between the two best programs of the two-class era. This war has come to define Tourney semifinals, and this Edina squad, which blasted so many quality opponents into running time, looked every bit the most lethal one in the field in its romp to the semifinals. It all ended there. A Worth snipe, an Ian Mageau power move, a Randolph lockdown defense, a Carson Cochran diving save, and a bit of luck on a fluttering puck off the stick of Frederick Hunter Paine proved the formula for a Greyhound victory. Worth fired one last rocket into the open net to punctuate the night: one of the most skilled Hornet squads in history was history, vanquished yet again by their great nemesis of the North.

The Hounds got off to a slow start and an early deficit against Minnetonka in the state championship game, but with a few in-game adjustments they still found a way to generate their share of ever-so-close chances. The second line in particular was flying, with Austin Jouppi and Ricky Lyle providing the offense for the night. WMD, however, was snakebitten, and the tight defensive corps took a beating as the clock ticked down on their third straight game. None of those close chances went in, and with a little puck luck of their own, the smooth-skating Skippers denied the Hounds the crown.

I’ve been through a lot of East year-end losses now, but save for the unique pain that comes from the end of one’s own senior year, this one hurts the most of all of them. Even if it didn’t have the heartbreak factor of a Kyle Rau triple-overtime dive or the lingering what-ifs of losing to a less skilled opponent in 2009 or 2012, it hurts because this was such an easy team to like, and more than any of them seemed to have both the talent and the heart to win it. The team just felt like a loose, goofy group that knew its mission. It said something Mike Randolph’s first hug after a big win always seemed to be for Worth, a kid who had to aggravate him at times, but remained lovable in spite of it, and certainly showed his share of growth over his years as a Hound. (Garrett listed Randolph as his greatest fear in the team program.) The buy-in was complete, and the right blends of skill and balance, of experience and confidence, of coaching and freedom, were all there.

This team wrote its way into the East record books. Worth’s 47 goals were the most by a Hound not named Spehar, while Ryder Donovan’s 48 assists were the most by any Hound not named Chris Locker. The top line of Worth, Ian Mageau, and Donovan will go down as one of the team’s best, and certainly the one with the best nickname. Ricky Lyle’s gritty second line added the power and a strong dose of offense, the third line kept grinding away, and the four-man defensive corps grew into one that outplayed Edina’s bevy of D-I blue line talent. By the end, there wasn’t a weakness to be found.

And so we say farewell to one of the more special classes of seniors to wear the red and grey. This group lived up to its considerable hype, and its longest tenured members both began and ended their East careers with second place finishes and upsets over Edina. One last roll call: Parker Kleive, who came from somewhere completely off my radar to win the goaltending job this season, and was rock-solid when the pressure was on. Porter Haney and Hunter Hren, who provided valuable depth, and Tommy Higgins, with his state record save percentage. Will Fisher, a captain and a rock in the four-man defensive corps, and Nick Lanigan, the scrappy third liner who was always rocketing around the ice and getting his nose right in the thick of things. Austin Jouppi, who blossomed into a superb power forward and put it all on the line on the state championship game. Ian Mageau, a top line force who set up the dagger to finish Edina in 2015, scored the go-ahead goal this time around, and quietly slid his way up the East all-time scorer ranks. Luke LaMaster, named the top senior defenseman in Minnesota for his two-way play. And the sniper, Garrett Worth, whose goal barrage earned a place in the annals of East history. As always, we wish them well, both in hockey and in life, and hope they learned a bit about the latter while living it up as the former as a Greyhound.

I usually keep some distance from East players. I don’t want to come off as some weird old fanboy, and sometimes I’m probably better off not knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. This is about them, not me. But this year, I couldn’t help but throw out some hugs to players as they emerged from the locker room after it was all over. They’d invested everything they had in a game, and I’d invested a healthy amount of the past few months watching their exploits. The boys of winter didn’t disappoint: there is no better, more convenient entertainment than this, and when it’s part of a community that one can call one’s own, all one can do is offer up some appreciation. I’ll miss this group, and after a healthy rest, we can start the countdown to next November.

State Tourney Preview 2018

4 Mar

The annual carnival is about to begin, so here are my annual storylines and quarterfinal previews. Tony Scott, Danny Ryan, and I have preview podcast for your enjoyment, and my Danny and I will also put out our itinerary for the week on Youth Hockey Hub so that our loyal followers may stalk us. As usual, I’ll be tweeting regularly here, though don’t come to me for score updates—there are 583 other people doing that, so I see it more as my role to add scattered insight, along with some inane humor to go along with the Tourney. So, here are some things to watch this Tourney:

Fab Four Final Four? The AA field is one of the strongest ever at the top: the same four teams have stayed ranked somewhere in the top four since December, and those four have all made the State Tournament. (Listen to the podcast to get an idea of just how rare that is.) Edina, Minnetonka, St. Thomas Academy, and Duluth East are all loaded. All three are very complete teams, with several lines that can score and deep groups on defense; Edina has the most firepower, followed by East, while St. Thomas has the best goaltender, and Minnetonka is probably the most balanced across the board. None exactly have a free pass to the semis—just ask the 2012 field, which was nearly as loaded and saw all the top seeds lose in the first round—but if it is those four, or even three of those four, battling it on out Friday night, it could be one of the most memorable sets of semis in recent memory.

The Class A Mystery Ride Half the (all public school!) Class A entrants have at least 10 losses, and none have fewer than six. After last year’s stunning upsets by usual doormats from 1A and 5A, and a spirited run at an upset by the 3A representative as well, no one should be overly shocked by a big result out of one of those sections this season against someone other than Hermantown. And while the Hawks are the clear favorite for a fourth straight season, even they are more beatable than usual, with an offense reliant on one top line. While the favorites remain clear, the gap between the historically weaker sections and the powers is smaller, especially in a year when Class A lacks teams that are on par with AA’s best.

North vs. Metro, 2018 Edition Normally there are bitter grumblings from everywhere north of St. Cloud when the 7AA and 8AA winners meet in the quarterfinals, but since St. Michael-Albertville isn’t exactly a northern team, there won’t be much of that this season. A year removed from an all-north final, Duluth East is alone in carrying the weight of area code 218. In Class A, barring upsets, the semis could likely feature a Mahtomedi-Orono battle for the metro area championship in the first game, and a contest between Hermantown and Alexandria or Thief River Falls for northern bragging rights thereafter. The winners of those would then collide in a North vs. Metro championship.

Depth of Field A year after Grand Rapids rode one incredible line to a AA championship, we have a Tourney in which most of the top teams are defined by balance. Minnetonka has three excellent lines, Edina has two elite scoring lines, East has three that can score within the machine-like Mike Randolph system, and St. Thomas also has a solid supporting cast behind its top group. Even in Class A, Mahtomedi and Orono exhibit more depth than most usual contenders for the small-school crown. The notable exceptions among the seeded teams: Centennial, who will look to ride Lucas McGregor as far as he can take them, and, surprisingly, Hermantown—though the Hawks’ depth is certainly still respectable by Class A standards.

Stars in Abundance As usual, there’s no shortage of front-end talent at the Tourney. Edina’s Sammy Walker, the odds-on favorite for Mr. Hockey, will try to become the first player to win that award and a state title in his senior year since Kyle Rau in 2011. His teammate Demetrios Kouzmontzis is also a Mr. Hockey finalist. Duluth East sniper Garrett Worth and assist machine Ryder Donovan will be on hand, as will the aforementioned Lucas McGregor of Centennial and Luke Loheit of Minnetonka, plus his sophomore sidekick, Bobby Brink. It wasn’t a deep year for defensemen in Class AA, but it may not be a coincidence that the three top seniors—Luke LaMaster of Duluth East, Chase Foley of St. Thomas Academy, and Garrett Daly of Lakeville North—are all in this Tournament. Edina’s corps, while all underclassmen, is as loaded as it gets, and Minnetonka’s is no slouch either. In Class A, it’s mostly about balance, save for the Hermantown top line featuring Tyler Watkins and Blake Biondi, and Alexandria’s Ben Doherty. We’ll see if any stars on the less heralded teams can make a name for themselves, as Ben Ward and Nick Zwack did for Monticello last season.

Class A Quarterfinal Capsules:

MANKATO EAST VS. #2 MAHTOMEDI

11:00 Wednesday

-For the second straight season, Mahtomedi faces the Section 1A entrant in a Wednesday morning quarterfinal. These two have no recent history.

Mankato East (16-10-2, unranked, 2-seed in 1A)

State appearances: 2 (first in 2006)

Key section wins: 3-1 over 3-seed Minnesota River, 6-1 over 5-seed Rochester Lourdes

-Unlike many unranked Class A entrants, the Cougars are not a team to ride just one great player. No one had more than 23 points in the regular season, but they are balanced, Sam Shulz (16) was the top point-getter, while Matthew Salzle (6) and Layten Liffrig (22) led the way in the goals column. Defenseman Jake Anderson (14) is their second-leading scorer, and a strong defensive game will likely be the key to this first round match-up. Jack Cusey (29) had a strong season in goal. The Cougars are probably the biggest mystery in this field; they did tie Mound-Westonka in their lone game against a top ten Class A team and seemed to get stronger as the season went along, though they have some questionable losses, too.

Mahtomedi (21-6-1, #2, 1-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 10 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 6-3 over #16 Simley

-The Zephyrs return to State as a balanced squad with scoring up and down the lineup. Charlie Bartholomew (27), Kory Pilarski (10), and Nikolai Dulak (9) are their most productive forwards, but their top nine forwards were all in double digit points in the regular season against a fairly tough Class A schedule. Noah Skillings (8) and Tommy Broten (14) are the top defensemen. They also have the top goaltender in the field in Bailey Huber (32), who boasts a .939 save percentage. They can match Hermantown’s depth, but must find a way to contain the Hawks’ top line if those two meet, as they can’t match that star front-line talent. And, of course, they have to get there first: for all their Class A success, they’ve never made a final.

LITCHFIELD/DASSEL-COKATO VS. #3 ORONO

1:00 Wednesday

-Two Wright County Conference schools (despite the fact that neither is located in Wright County) collide in the quarterfinals. Orono won both regular season meetings in convincing fashion, with 10-0 and 7-1, and has won 36 straight games in this conference series dating to a Litchfield win in December 2001, including four playoff games when both were in 3A.

Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato (16-11-1, unranked, 2-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 4 (first since 2016)

Key section win: 4-1 over #19 Luverne

-The Dragons return to State after offing Luverne in a mild upset to win 3A. Brandt Pederson (4) is their unquestioned star offensively, while defenseman Orrin Grangroth (18) is their second leading scorer, both in goals and points. Paul Raisanen (27) and Dylan Schutz (10) round out the top line, and also had productive seasons. They’ll need a big performance out of Darby Halonen (30) in goal to have a chance, and he comes in hot off a strong performance over Luverne. Special teams were not a strength, so staying out of the box will be key to their hopes of flipping the script.

Orono (20-7-1, #5, 1-seed in 2A)

State appearances: 9 (first since 2014)

Key section wins: 6-3 over #11 Minneapolis, 2-1 over 6-seed Breck

-The Spartans put together their strongest season in recent memory and came out of one of Class A’s deepest sections. Senior Jack Suchy (16) is their star, and Thomas Walker (23) is next in line on their list of point-getters, but like Mahtomedi, this is a relatively deep Class A group, as they have eight forwards over 15 points. The forwards take care of most of their offensive production, with Daniel Eckerline (37) and Jack Kubitz (22) leading the charge on defense. Evan Babekuhl (33) is one of the stronger netminders in the field. Given the regular season results they should cruise to a date with Mahtomedi for a metro area championship of sorts, but they did lose to a 3A team in Hutchinson this season.

MONTICELLO/MAPLE LAKE VS. #1 HERMANTOWN

6:00 Wednesday

-The evening session opens with a rematch of last season’s double overtime championship game thriller. That Hawk win was their only recent meeting.

Monticello/Maple Lake (19-7-2, #15, 1-seed in 5A)

State appearances: 2 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 4-1 over #18 North Branch

-The feel-good story of last year’s Tournament returns for an encore, and this time around they didn’t sneak up on anyone. They’re without their two big scorers from a season ago, but they do have the highly productive Troy Dahlheimer (18) leading the way. Nick Foldesi (29) is their second leading scorer, Jeffrey Henrikson (5) is second on the team in goals, and Jack Saunders (15) is a productive defenseman for the Moose. Goalie Tyler Klatt (33) is a veteran of last season’s great run. With Hermantown up first they face a tall task, and their handful of games against top Class A teams have not gone well. But they have won on this ice before, and gave the Hawks all they could handle, so a repeat performance isn’t out of the question.

Hermantown (20-6-2, #1, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 15 (9 in a row)

State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)

Key section win: 5-4 (2OT) vs. #3 Greenway

-The goliaths of Class A return as the favorite yet again after escaping against Greenway in 7A. This time they’re led by senior Tyler Watkins (18), who seems to rise to the occasion in big gaems, and sophomore star-in-the-making Blake Biondi (27), who is the lone D-I committed player in the Class A field. Jacob Herter (7) rounds out the top line, and while the scoring depth isn’t what it has been in recent seasons, the Hawks’ lineup can still hold its own with any other Class A team, and Elliott Peterson (22) adds a physical presence to lead the second line. The Hawks are strong in back, where Darian Gotz (14) is the leader, and Sam High (21) is a Tournament veteran as well. Cole Manahan (33) had a strong season in goal. This Hawks team is more beatable than the past two, but they also have a knack for pulling out the tight ones.

#5 THIEF RIVER FALLS VS. #4 ALEXANDRIA

8:00 Wednesday

-North meets west in the Class A nightcap. Their only two recent meetings came in the past three years, with Alexandria winning a 2015 meeting and Thief River returning the favor in 2016.

Thief River Falls (16-10-2, #20, 4-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 14 (9 in one-class tournament, 4 in Class A; first since 2016)

Championships: 2 (one-class tournament, 1954 and 1956)

Key section wins: 6-4 over #13 Warroad, 4-0 over #10 East Grand Forks

-The Prowlers, after a steady but unremarkable regular season, found their way to St. Paul with upsets over Warroad and East Grand Forks in sections. Aaron Myers (16) is a goal machine, while Tucker Skime (2) provides the assists on the top line, and Jace Jorde (17) rounds out the top group. While the forward corps is not deep, they do have one of the most productive blue lines in the state, with Brady Anderson (12), Keaden Kempert (19), and an emerging star in sophomore Evan Bushy (6). If that group can hold its own in front of star goalie Nick Corneliusen (35), the Prowlers could make their way to a Friday afternoon game.

Alexandria (17-10-1, #12, 3-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 4 (1 in AA; first since 2011)

Key section wins: 4-0 over #7 Sartell, 3-2 (2 OT) over #4 St. Cloud Cathedral

-Their run through sections might look like a surprise on paper, but the Cardinals were an early season favorite, and have now delivered on that promise. Ben Doherty (7), who missed some time this season due to injury, is their star, and Jack Westlund (10) and Caleb Strong (3) round out an all-junior top unit. Jack Powell (21) and Andrew Revering (2) make for a productive defense as well. Their depth isn’t exceptional, but freshman Jakob Stender (27) also did put up double-digit goals. Jackson Boline (30) emerged as the starting goaltender and was strong in sections. This is a young group and their success in a deep section shows their potential, so now it’s time to learn if they can deliver on it on a big stage.

AA capsules:

LAKEVILLE NORTH VS. #2 EDINA

11:00 Thursday

-Two powers collide in a rematch of the 2014 championship game, and the 2015 championship game that wasn’t. This will be their first meeting since North’s 2015 regular season win.

Lakeville North (16-10-2, #17, 1-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 7 (first since 2015)

Championships: 1 (2015)

Key section win: 4-3 over #21 Lakeville South

-The Panthers haven’t had a dominant season, but they stayed competitive with top teams most of the time, including a tie with Minnetonka and a one-goal loss to Duluth East in December. Blake Brandt (7) and Spencer Schneider (14) are their big guns offensively, with Shane Griffin (25) rounding out the top line. Garrett Daly (16) is one of the top senior defensemen in the state, and they also enjoy the services of a very solid goaltender in Will Johnson (31). The top line can match up with a number of the others in the state, but their depth is where they will be tested, especially against a team like Edina. The list of things that need to go right to avoid Mariucci is long, but not impossible to achieve.

Edina (26-2, #2, 1-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: 38 (6 as Edina East/West in 70s and 80s; first since 2015)

Championships: 12 (1969, 1971, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1997, 2010, 2013, and 2014 as Edina; 1974, 1978, and 1979 as Edina East)

Key section win: 8-1 over #11 Wayzata

-The Hornets may be the second seed, but they’re the force to be reckoned with in this Tournament, as they’ve made some good teams look bad this season, and have lost only to Minnetonka. They have the most explosive top two lines in the state, with presumptive Mr. Hockey Sammy Walker (10) and his linemates Jett Jungels (22) and Mason Nevers (18) are front-line talents in their own right. Their second Mr. Hockey contender, Demetrios Koumontzis (23), leads the second line, and is joined by Lewis Crosby (11). Ben Brinkman (17) has some of the best high-end potential on defense in the state, and combines with Jake Boltmann (2), Mike Vorlicky (20), and Mason Reiners (21) to form an elite blue line club. There are some questions in goal, where Garrett Mackay (30) is their man, and the young defense can get thrown off some at times. But if they play up to their potential, they are the prohibitive favorite.

ST. MICHAEL-ALBERTVILLE VS. #3 DULUTH EAST

1:00 Thursday

-A Tourney regular faces this year’s lone AA upstart. East leads the series 5-1, including a 15-0 playoff win just five years ago; the Knights did beat East in their most recent meeting, in 2015.

St. Michael-Albertville (23-5, #19, 2-seed in 8AA)

First State appearance

Key section wins: 4-2 over #13 Brainerd, 6-5 over #9 Moorhead

-The Knights pulled the biggest upset of the AA playoffs when they took down Moorhead in the 8AA final, and ride season surge into their first ever Tournament. Sophomores Luc Laylin (9) and Adam Flammang (11) are their top offensive threats, along with senior Blake Spetz (2). They also had a productive second line, and will need a good performance from those depth players to advance in this tournament. Garrett Sandberg (12) and Cole Lehmann (4) are their top defensemen, along with Val Popowski (8). Justin Damon (1) will man the net. If they can hold up under the East assault, this team can move the puck well enough to produce some goals and have a shot at the upset.

Duluth East (23-2-3, #4, 1-seed in 7AA)

State appearances: 23 (first since 2015)

Championships: 3 (1960, 1995, 1998)

Key section wins: 9-1 over #14 Duluth Marshall, 3-2 (OT) over #8 Andover

-Like Edina, the Hounds return to State after a two-year absence. East’s top line of Ian Mageau (23), Ryder Donovan (22), and sniper Garrett Worth (5) leads their assault, but this team’s top three lines are all learned in the ways of the Mike Randolph puck control system. Ricky Lyle (15) leads the way on the second line, which was as productive as the first late in the season. Luke LaMaster (25) is the two-way star of a mobile defense and the only defenseman Mr. Hockey finalist, and is joined by his partner, Hunter Paine (20), on a strong top pair. Parker Kleive (41) came on to win the goaltending job down the stretch. When at their peak the Hounds’ game is probably second only to Edina’s, but they need to avoid the periodic lapses of mediocrity that plagued them more than the other top four this season.

HILL-MURRAY VS. #1 MINNETONKA

6:00 Thursday

-Another battle of two heavy hitters in Minnesota hockey, and a rematch of a 2010 4-overtime classic won by the Skippers; Hill also beat Tonka in the 2006 quarters. Minnetonka won a regular season game 4-2 in December, while Hill leads the all-time series 11-7-1.

Hill-Murray (13-11-4, #20, 2-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 29 (2 in a row)

Championships: 3 (1983, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 3-1 over #6 White Bear Lake

-Despite a losing regular season, the Pioneers came on strong toward the end, and their upset of White Bear Lake was no stunner. The late season call-up of eighth grader Nick Pierre (11) catalyzed the offense, but he’s just one of a number of very young players with bright futures here. Junior Ben Helgeson (9) and senior Michael Fleischhacker (15) are the veteran leaders, and sophomore Charlie Strobel (27) brings a familiar Hill-Murray name. Like most good Hill teams, they have a couple of veterans leading the way on the blue line in Brett Oberle (19) and Joey Petronack (12), while Matthew Fleischhacker (14) is a freshman standout. If this group continues to play the disciplined hockey we’ve come to expect out of Bill Lechner-coached teams in the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out. They come in with a five-game losing streak in Tourney play.

Minnetonka (24-2-2, #1, 1-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 6 (first since 2010)

Key section wins: 4-1 over #23 Chaska, 5-4 (2OT) vs #6 Holy Family

-The Skippers claim the top seed with two wins in three games against Edina, and put forth a team with no real weaknesses as they pursue their first state title. They roll three quality lines, and distribute their top forwards to create balance. Sophomore Bobby Brink (9) and junior Jack Bayless (29) pace the offense, while Mr. Hockey finalist Luke Loheit (8) brings a heavy game and will be matched against other teams’ top lines. Joe Molenaar (10) and Teddy Lagerback (34) round out the leading scorers. Josh Luedtke (3) and Grant Docter (2) are both dynamic defensemen, while Charlie Glockner (1) is one of the stronger goalies in the state when he’s on his game. This group won back-to-back Bantam state titles, and will now aim to deliver on its promise under first-year head coach Sean Goldsworthy.

#5 CENTENNIAL VS. #4 ST. THOMAS ACADEMY

8:00 Thursday

-Two quality programs in search of a first round breakthrough wrap up the quarterfinals. St. Thomas has won their only two recent contests, including a 4-1 Schwan Cup meeting last season.

Centennial (19-6-3, #10, 1-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 4 (first since 2014)

Championships: 1 (2004)

Key section win: 6-4 over 2-seed Maple Grove

-The Cougars roll into the State Tournament as a team that sits somewhere below the big four top seeds, but clearly ahead of the three unseeded teams. Mr. Hockey finalist Lucas McGregor (11), who carries the offense, is as important to his team’s success as any one player in the field. Three additional forwards, Hayden Brickner (14), Carter Wagner (8), and Jack Menne (10) were also highly productive, and Will Francis (7) is their clear leader on defense. They don’t have exceptional depth beyond that, but generally play tight, trapping hockey. Travis Allen (1) is an experienced, solid goaltender. If they can lock in to their defensive style and spring their top forwards a few times, 5AA will have a shot at its first quarterfinal win since 2009.

St. Thomas Academy (25-2-1, #3, 1-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 3 in AA (2 in a row); 8 in Class A

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

Key section win: 4-1 over #12 Eastview

-A year after a quarterfinal upset loss, the Cadets are back at it in search of their first AA quarterfinal win. They didn’t lose in regulation this season, though the schedule was somewhat easier than the other top four. Payton Matsui (14) joins brothers Ray (15) and Rob (11) Christy in leading the offense, while Brendan McFadden (21) has also emerged as a serious threat. Chase Foley (17) is one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the state, and Blake Holmes (5) also anchors the blue line. The one edge they do have over the other top four seeds is goaltender Atticus Kelly (30), who is a finalist for the Frank Brimsek Award. They boast a lethal power play, but will need to avoid the looseness that has plagued them in some big games in recent seasons.

Let the fun begin!

The Greyhound Restoration

3 Mar

The Heart Attack Hounds struck again in the 7AA final. For a sixth straight year, this affair delivered playoff hockey at its absolute best, with late drama and overtime again winning the day. This section final invariably sends those of us in the stands through about as polarizing swing of emotions a team can inspire, but East found a way yet again.

The Hounds opened their playoff run looking like a team on a mission. Despite Grand Rapids’ struggles this season, there was a bit of intrigue in opening with a game against a team that had vanquished them the two previous seasons and an elite goalie. No such worries, as Garrett Worth scored 23 seconds in, Logan Anderson piled on two minutes later, and East was off to the races with a 6-0 win. The section semifinal performance was even more clinical, as they humiliated a Duluth Marshall team that had taken them to overtime in the regular season, 9-1. After five straight nervy section finals, this finally seemed like one in which the Hounds were comfortable favorites.

But if the East faithful expected an easier path, they were soon set straight. The final matched the Hounds with Andover, a young, speedy finesse team that arrived a season early under the diligent work of head coach Mark Manney. The Huskies withstood East’s early barrage, and their confidence began to build. East was a mess throughout much of the second period, with Andover springing an endless series of odd-man rushes. The deficit was two after the period, but it could easily have been more, despite what the shots read on the scoreboard. Uncharacteristic mistakes began to mount, from sloppy defense to selfish offense to fluky swings and misses and collisions among teammates. The game set off bad memories of the 2012 Lakeville South loss, in which East slowly but surely lost control against a speedy team that outworked them and created chance after chance in the other direction.

And so the Hounds began to chip away, and resigned themselves to dumping and chasing to break a trap. All three goals were of the dirty variety, with two tips off of Luke LaMaster shots, and a bank shot from behind the net by Ryder Donovan. The team just kept grinding and denying losing, to use an old phrase of Mike Randolph’s. As so often seems the case, an upset-minded team crumbled when the favorite began to surge. Once they tied it up, any doubt went away. The Hounds were going to rewrite a well-worn script, as they tied a section final with under two minutes to go for the third time in eight years, and finished off their opponent in the first overtime. This was the most excruciating of the bunch, thanks both to their heavy favorite status and the length of the overtime, but the Greyhounds were back on their game, and found a way yet again.

Mike Randolph, meanwhile, added to his legend as he locked up his 17th State Tournament berth. This was a season in which a head coach could have just taken off the leash and turned his team loose, and relative to some other good East teams, he did that with this group. But there were still some of those subtle tweaks he makes that help make a good team great. Of note: the late season flip of the second and third line centers, Logan Anderson and Brendan Baker. On paper it looked like a minor flip, but with Anderson on the second line, that group practically outpaced the top line in production in the late stages of the season, and Baker’s net-front presence on the gritty third line was a bonus, too. In the section final, Baker was credited with the goal that began the comeback, and Anderson took home the game-winner. East fans will know the Hounds work traffic in front of the net and tips more than anyone so that the team is ready to break down a packed-in defense in a playoff game, and sure enough, those two goals both came on tips.

As Baker and Anderson exemplify, the defining trait of this East team remains its depth. Two-thirds of the top line was held to zero points on Thursday night, but East won anyway. The one-loss 2012 Hounds probably had as much talent across three lines, but they didn’t achieve the balance of this group, especially late this season. Thursday night’s struggles notwithstanding, the defense also became far more solid as the season went on, and if they can revert to February form in St. Paul, the Hounds will stand a good chance. In goal, the Hounds just ask Parker Kleive not to lose things for them, and to date he has delivered, as he takes no chances and does what he needs to do. He was certainly not at fault for the closeness of the Andover game, and has earned his place among East State Tournament starters.

The Hounds now head to St. Paul, where they’ve landed the 3-seed and will face Tournament debutant St. Michael-Albertville. If the Hounds get past the Knights, that most epic of tournament matchups, East against Edina, looms for Friday night. If things go according to form, the last two rounds could be as good as ever, but history tells us to expect the unexpected here.

For now, though, Duluth East can bask in its restoration to the 7AA throne, and a 23rd State Tournament trip. A skilled senior class bookends its time at East with a second Tourney trip, and gets a chance to show how far it has come since 2015’s magical ride, when Worth beat Elk River in double overtime to win the section and Ian Mageau fed Ash Altmann for the goal that slew Edina’s dynasty. We’ll see what they can do for an encore.

Pyeongchang Pursuits

25 Feb

Another Olympics has come and gone. As usual, it began with stupid political talking points, which this year took the form of lurid fascination with Kim Jong Un’s sister, who represented North Korea at the games. All the geopolitics, as usual, came to nothing. The Games themselves, on the other hand, had their ups and downs amid drama and intolerable talk show-style coverage. Through it all, though, there were still plenty of golden moments in which I could appreciate people attaining greatness in whatever pursuit they’ve chosen.

This was not a banner year for American Olympians, but by the end it proved a respectable one, thanks to a surge in a couple of sports the country has not medaled in much in the past: Minnesota’s Jessie Diggins’ rush to the finish in the cross-country team sprint, immortalized by the call of Duluth’s Chad Salmela, was the U.S.’s first Nordic medal in over 40 years, and a ragtag group of curlers, all but one of whom calls the Duluth area home, set off a night of revelry at the Duluth Curling Club when they stunned the curling world en route to gold. The women’s hockey team’s upset of longtime rival Canada in the gold medal game was backstopped by Maddie Rooney, the former Andover High School star now at the University of Minnesota-Duluth. (Are you sensing a theme here? You’re welcome, America: we Minnesotans, and Duluthians in particular, are your saving grace.)

The one sport where Americans did clean up as expected was snowboarding, where Shaun White cemented his Olympic legacy in the half pipe, and Jamie Anderson and Chloe Kim also took home the top prize on the women’s side. Red Gerard, who seemed every bit a 17-year-old boy as he claimed gold in slopestyle, rounded out the American domination. Gerard’s performance was impressive but a little jarring: he’s a decade younger than me, and for the first time, it seemed like the vast majority of the Olympians are younger than I am. I guess I’m doomed to never be an Olympian, unless I up and move to some Pacific island nation that wants to send a mediocre cross-country skier to some future Games.

The skiing hero of the games was Johannes Klaebo, Norway’s 21-year-old wunderkind who will be its next in a long line of Olympic superstars. (How awesome is a country where cross-country skiers become superstars?) Klaebo won golds in the classic and team sprints, and put on perhaps his most stunning performance in the 4×10 relay, one of the more storied events in cross-country skiing. He played with his food for a spell as he skied the anchor leg, and let an Olympic Athlete from Russia hang around, gliding along effortlessly while the Russian poured out all his effort to keep up. With a few kilometers to go, though, he left his trailer in a powdery dust, flying up a hill that had been named after him before he ever even skied it. He pulled into the viewing area with enough time to grab a Norwegian flag on his way by the stands and cruise across the line towing it behind him. It was a statement of national pride in a nation that usually eschews such pageantry: Norway restored order in the 4×10 after a three-Olympics drought, cleaned up the medals in cross-country, and set a new record for total medals in a single winter games. In Pyeongchang, a nation about the size of Minnesota put the rest of the world to shame.

If Klaebo brought the youthful power, the grace came in the form of German Aliona Savchenko, who, as a figure skater in her fifth Olympics, defied the march of time to deliver perfection. I’m usually a halfhearted skating follower, but every now and then, a performance is so obviously a gold medal that I can forget the vagaries of the judging system and Johnny Weir’s efforts to look like a Hunger Games character and admire sheer artistry. This time around, it was Savchenko and her pairs partner, Bruno Massot, who made me drop everything and watch in awe, and the commentators had the good sense to go quiet when it became clear just what we were watching some ways into their performance. In a year in which the Olympics allowed songs with lyrics and had us drowning in Coldplay and “Hallelujah,” Savchenko and Massot’s performance to La terre vue du ciel, a mesmerizing classical score, fit perfectly with the moment. It was the best-judged pairs free skate in history, and erased a deficit from the short program to earn the pair of immigrant Germans a gold. Savchenko fell to the ice, heaving and spent, after her performance; as the scores of their rivals rolled in she seemed nonplussed, but the emotion finally poured forth when she learned she’d finally claimed a prize that long eluded her. It was as golden a moment as you’ll ever see.

While the U.S. women’s hockey team took home the hardware, the men weren’t much to write home about, with a loss to lowly Slovenia in group play and an ultimate defeat at the hands of the Czechs. I liked the idea of going back to amateurs, but let’s stick with the kids, please: washed-up ex-stars do nothing for me. It’s back to the drawing board for the American men in Olympic hockey, who need to do a lot more to garner the attention the women earned in Pyeongchang.

And so the curtain comes down on another year of Olympic glory, from Klaebo’s power on skis to Savchenko’s sublime skating to a bunch of Duluth guys who can throw rocks and sweep ice better than anyone on earth. And sometimes glory comes in several forms for one person, as in the case of Ester Ledecká, the Czech athlete who seemed genuinely surprised when she won a gold in the downhill Super-G: she is, after all, a snowboarder who also won gold in that sport’s parallel giant slalom. We have an entertaining world, though the closing ceremony could probably survive without a painful rendition of John Lennon’s Imagine, as we heard back when we started two weeks ago. Cross-cultural sharing at its finest, I suppose. Thanks for the fun, PyeongChang, and let’s do it again in another four years in Beijing.

A Team on the Brink

7 Feb

Duluth winters crawl along, unless one measures them by hockey: somehow, just a week and a half remains in a high school hockey regular season that feels like it began just yesterday. Those of us in the stands get to know a team over the course of a season, and suddenly it seems like we may be done with them all too soon. Back in November I figured this would be one of the more entertaining Duluth East seasons in a while, one way or another, and it has certainly delivered on that promise. The team hasn’t left the top four all season, and while it’s had its bumps in the road, the promise of something special remains, too.

East demolished Elk River 7-0 on Saturday, a performance that showed just how thoroughly this team can dominate. Elk River stuck around for a bit and kept it 0-0 through one period, but the Hounds’ relentless three-line push quickly wore them down, and the goals began to pour in from there. The game left Elk River resorting to some less-than-savory tactics in an effort to slow down the Hounds, including an incident that resulted in four penalties on a single Elk player and produced a seven-minute power play. You see something new every day. But the statement win capped off a run of nine straight wins in which East was basically never not in control of a game.

Fast forward two days to a standing room only Heritage Center for the second regular season battle with Cloquet. After a 6-6 tie in the meeting at the Lumberdome in December, this would be a good barometer of how much each team had improved, and would tell us if that first meeting, with a gaudy East shot margin and four Cloquet power play goals, was a bit of a fluke. In the early stages, that seemed more or less right: East cycled with authority for long stretches, plugged away to collect a pair of goals, and had some chances to build an even bigger lead.

But it wasn’t to be. The Lumberjacks, after lying in wait, sprung for two goals to tie the game. East seemed to restore some order with an immediate answer from Austin Jouppi, but two ensuing bad penalties gave the Jacks the chances they needed to tie and take the lead. (East’s penalty kill, which clips along at a 93.9% rate against all other opponents, is an atrocious 3 of 9 against the rivals in purple this season. The Jacks have scored six power play goals in two games to East’s other 21 opponents’ four.) After that, momentum was firmly on the side of the Lumberjacks, and an empty-netter sealed East’s second loss of the season.

Cloquet’s win helps push the Jacks out of a convoluted middle tier in section 7AA and into pole position for the 3-seed, which creates the tantalizing possibility of an East-Cloquet section final. Somehow, it’s been 13 years since we last had one of those, and despite the regular season meetings, this East fan is hungry for another one. If any of the uninitiated think the atmosphere for East-Grand Rapids these past two years was fun, well, you ain’t seen nuthin yet.

Both teams have a ways to go to get there, though, and for East, that road will likely start with their old friends the Thunderhawks. While the Hounds will likely put 60 shots on net in that prospective quarterfinal, Gabe Holum makes Grand Rapids more interesting than your average 8-seed, to say nothing of the history between those two teams. The regular season meeting was a 3-1 East win that was about as thrilling as a colonoscopy. If the Hounds get by that exercise in carpet bombing a bunker, they’d likely face the winner of a Duluth Marshall-Elk River quarterfinal. Both of those teams are reliant on a single top line for most of their offense, but are capable of playing top teams tough if enough goes right; I have more faith in one of those teams’ ability to prepare for East than the other, but that one too will involve some rivalry intrigue. Upstart Andover, despite its 9-3 December loss to East, has been on a tear and will collect the 2-seed; the Huskies pounded 7-2 Cloquet in January. For that matter, 6-seed Forest Lake is no safe quarterfinal for Jacks, having beaten them 1-0 just last week.

Prior to crumbling against Cloquet, East had been on one of its more impressive runs in my time watching Hounds hockey. Their ownership of most opponents was complete. The productivity of the second and third lines over the past month has been exceptional, and in recent games, the second line has been outscoring the vaunted WMD line. Not that WMD isn’t racking up the accolades, as Garrett Worth has the most goals by any Hound since Dave Spehar in 1996, and Ryder Donovan could end up in select company on the single-season assists list as well once all is said and done. But there are still times when WMD gets bogged down in its own zone, which can limit its chances to do what it does best. The top four defensemen have crystallized into a very solid puck-moving core that can stack up with just about any in the state. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the performance of Parker Kleive in goal; Cloquet game aside, he’s been on a tear down the stretch, and has won the job convincingly after a lengthy battle with Lukan Hanson.

East closes with a home game against Lakeville South and a visit to Maple Grove, two respectable teams that play the defensive style East will need to solve to get by the likes of Grand Rapids, Cloquet, or Andover, or even Marshall in sections. These teams pack it in defensively and look to capitalize on frustration and over-commitment by sneaking out in well-timed counter-attacks. It’s not much fun to watch, but a few of East’s opponents this season have done it effectively, and knowing how to handle those teams could make or break this playoff run.

Heading into the Lakeville South game, East coach Mike Randolph is sitting on 615 wins, one short of Edina legend Willard Ikola for third on the all-time list. In some respects this has been one of Randolph’s easier years, as he has a bunch of kids who execute his preferred systems to near-perfection, and most everyone seems to be on board for a fun ride. But Randolph hasn’t separated himself from other coaches by plugging players into a system alone; he’s also done it by knowing how to press the right buttons when games hang in the balance. The next few weeks will tell us if this group has that last little spark to get it over the finish line.

Hounds Unleashed

9 Jan

Duluth East hits the halfway point in its 2017-2018 season undefeated, and a tentative #1 in the state. The first half wasn’t without its travails, with a few shaky ties and narrow wins. The Hounds’ crowning moment to date was a 4-2 win over previously undefeated and top-ranked Minnetonka last weekend, a strong effort that, after some rough early moments, allowed them to show off their depth, power, and flashy top line. They followed that with a 13-0 shellacking of rival Duluth Denfeld to roll to a 9-0-3 record through 12 contests, one of the better starts in the history of a program that has had a winning season or 64 over the past 64 years.

The flaws early on varied from game to game. The Hounds put together an incomplete effort against White Bear Lake in their first game, with a fast and furious first period and mediocrity after that, and a rough penalty kill that empowered rival Cloquet into a tie. Struggles to finish kept them from putting away Blaine, and forced a game with Duluth Marshall into overtime. But gradual progress on just about every front has helped clear out most of those cobwebs, and while January is far too early to crown anyone, East can look as complete as anyone when on its game.

The East offense has slowly rounded into form, and the WMD line of Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan showed its class among the state’s best in the Minnetonka win. Donovan has been the assist machine, playing his center’s role with aplomb and finally finding the back of the net a couple of times against Denfeld on Monday, while Garrett Worth is the sniper par excellence. If he keeps up his current scoring pace, he’ll be in some select company among all-time East goal-scorers by the end of his senior season, which currently looks like it warrants a Mr. Hockey finalist nomination. Mageau, meanwhile, is the bull moose who glues the line together, working hard in corners and always putting himself in the right spot.

East’s second line is picking up the scoring pace and has contributed some memorable moments, such as Brendan Baker’s goal to tie the Cloquet game with 4 seconds left and Austin Jouppi’s penalty shot against Marshall. Ricky Lyle is the team’s highest-scoring forward not on the WMD line, and has slotted in on the top line when necessary. A healthy Nick Lanigan adds some scoring punch to the third line, which hasn’t put up big numbers yet, but has certainly done its job carrying play in the offensive zone. Those two lines play classic East possession hockey, and add some necessary stability when WMD isn’t going coast to coast and lighting the lamp.

The defense, after a few shaky moments toward the start of the season, has largely locked in. Luke LaMaster quarterbacks this team from the blue line, while Hunter Paine’s thunderous hits provide him with the ideal partner. The second pair of Will Fisher and Carson Cochran has held firm, and Mike Randolph has rotated a healthy cast through the third pair as well. Between that group and a fourth line that gets semi-regular ice time even against other teams’ best players, East is rolling as deep a lineup as anyone in the state, which should help with freshness down the stretch.

Goaltending was a question mark coming in, and while Lukan Hanson and Parker Kleive had both bright and forgettable moments in the first month of the season, Randolph isn’t one to keep a rotation going deep into the second half. Hanson got consecutive starts over the weekend against Stillwater and Minnetonka, and for now seems to have won the job with his performance against the Skippers, in which he made several key saves when East was down 1-0 early.

The Hounds’ second half schedule is somewhat easier than the first: they’ve played eight top 20 teams to date, but have just four such games in their final 13.  A lot of their other opponents are lurking somewhere just beyond there, able to cause some trouble if they have an off night, so nothing will be easy. This Saturday’s date with Eden Prairie is one of the biggest, along with the Cloquet rematch and an important home game with 7AA foe Elk River. Before they get that far, though, they have a date (weather permitting) this Thursday with the Grand Rapids team that ended their season a year ago.

Statewide, the Hounds are in a tier of four teams that has separated itself from everyone else. East, Minnetonka, St. Thomas Academy, and Edina have separated themselves from the pack, with losses only to each other. The Hornets have the most talent here, but haven’t really played like a cohesive unit in the three times I’ve seen them; St. Thomas and Minnetonka don’t have the front-end firepower of the Hornets or Hounds, but are plenty deep and balanced, and have reliable goaltenders. That would make for an exceptional final four in St. Paul, though these things rarely go according to plan.

First things first: 7AA is its usual interesting self this season, and while the Hounds are a clear frontrunner, nothing much is obvious after that. Elk River is probably the next-deepest team in the section, and has shown some improvement in its weak defense of late. Andover struggled with East and the Elks but pounded Cloquet, and is looking good in the QRF rating system the section is using for seeds this year. Duluth Marshall was off to a fine start, but fell to Cloquet just before I published this post, and the Lumberjacks have brought a complete Jekyll and Hyde act to the table so far. Based on QRF, defending section champion Grand Rapids may get saddled with the 8-seed and a potential first round collision with the Hounds unless it improves markedly over the second half. If ever there were a 1-vs.-8 7AA game worth watching, it would be that.

*    *    *

High school hockey punditry can be a tiring line of work. It takes a lot of time on a weak pay grade, and includes its share of dealings with people who come out of the woodwork and force one to develop some thick skin. The kids are what keep it fun, both the ones who entertain us on the ice and the ones in the stands who give high school sports an incomparable atmosphere. And, over time, a community builds. This past weekend’s road trip to Minnetonka encapsulated that perfectly, from brunch before the game at Ike’s to dinner afterwards at Maynard’s on the shores of Lake Minnetonka. During the game I had the chance to talk with an unending rotation of friends and acquaintances, old and new: loyal readers, podcast listeners, hockey enthusiasts, and loyalists of both teams on the ice. It’s a pleasure to meet genuine people with the same diversion, and I have to thank all of you for your passion and commitment. You make it all worth it.

Now, here’s to a second half with an even bigger helping of Worth (Garrett, that is) and his teammates.