Tag Archives: hockey

Tourney Reflection 2020

10 Mar

The sun came out on St. Paul this year, an early arrival of Minnesota spring. It’s Tourney Time, it seemed to say; time to roll through all the normal routines for that first full week of March. Danny’s dinner party Tuesday, Cossetta’s on Wednesday, St. Paul Grille on Thursday, Friday at New Bohemia, Grand Seven between sessions on Saturday. The rotation of familiar faces here and there, the friends I may see just once a year but feel like I’ve known since birth now. It’s all automatic, a vital corrective to a season from hell for a Greyhound, a reminder that there is still order in a chaotic world. I may have the schedule down to clockwork, but no one can ever script the pieces that come in between.

In a year where three powerhouses headlined Class A, a west wind blew in form the east side to steal the show. Mahtomedi, so long the second fiddle program, stormed back from a late deficit against Delano in the quarterfinals and had full belief from there. They snuffed out the glow of Warroad’s return to the Tourney and played the perfect game for 50-plus minutes against Hermantown, only to see a lead slip away. But in a season in which no team could dominate from start to end, the resilient took the spoils. The Zephyrs went back to work in overtime and wrote themselves a Hollywood finish: Colin Hagstrom, broken leg and all, fought his way back to carry his Zephyrs to their first ever crown. He accepted his Herb Brooks Award from his old teammates the Paradise boys, whose agony was among my defining memories from a season ago.

AA’s wide-open field lived up to its billing, from a seesawing thriller between Blake and Maple Grove to an eye-popping upset from a St. Thomas Academy team that bore little resemblance to their star-studded title contenders of the past. Semifinal Friday, ever my favorite night of the Tourney, provided two thoroughly fun affairs, as Eden Prairie did enough to hold down high-flying Blake and Hill-Murray rallied past plucky St. Thomas in overtime. Like their Metro East conference brethren, the Pioneers only doubled down when they coughed up a lead. That set the stage for Hill’s triumph on Saturday, a complete team effort that left no doubt they had earned their crown. The big-game black jerseys came through again for Bill Lechner and his Pioneers, the team that peaked above the parity at the right time.

As always, a few kids played their way into my memory. Warroad’s duo of Grant Slukynsky and Jayson Shaugabay redefined aesthetic beauty in a quarterfinal against Hutchinson, and Joey Pierce was often an unstoppable force for Hermantown. Ben Steeves of Eden Prairie, new to Minnesota, marveled that the Tourney had lived up to the hype and more. Some years back, when I lived near Lowry Hill, I’d often see a kid up the block in his backyard rink; that kid, it turns out, grew up to be Joe Miller, who gave Blake its first brush with Tourney success. But the headliners in 2020 were the showstopping goaltenders, first Tommy Aitken and then Remington Keopple, but most dramatically in the diminutive form of Ben Dardis, another Zephyr whose tears from a season ago turned to ecstasy on Saturday afternoon.

This Tourney was a homecoming of sorts for me: after three years in exile, I made my way back to the press box, a convenience that spared me the tedium of lines and tickets and fueled me with an endless supply of cookies and popcorn. I’d made peace with watching the Tourney among the fans—how can’t I love the opportunity to climb on bandwagons and brush up with other grassroots lovers of the game?—but I felt a certain vindication in watching from on high once again. For once, they Youth Hockey Hub contributors were all in a row; despite weekly podcasts and calls, Tony Zosel and I had never sat together and watched games together before. I also got to brush shoulders with the grandees of the press box: Harry, who saunters down the row to take names for the press conferences and share his little glimmers of optimism, as he has since probably the very first Tourney in 1945; Fran, the reliable pilot of the elevator; and Julie, our guardian who broke out her pep band bingo card on Friday night. They are the quiet heroes of the Tourney who work behind the scenes to keep it humming along, the necessary antidote to the bureaucracy and painfully repetitive ads that otherwise afflict this event.

Trent Eigner of St. Thomas took time to thank the media in a press conference: high school hockey wouldn’t be what it is without the hype machine, he told us, and needs us to tell its story. If that’s my contribution here, I’ll embrace it, and I find myself in plenty of good company. This writer was delighted to meander through a series of book tours: I attended a signing with Tony at Zamboni’s for his Jersey Project and stopped by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson’s prime location in the hall to the Expo, where they hawked Tourney Time; in the concourse, I met Matt Jasper of Home Ice fame. We live in a golden age of high school hockey coverage, and perhaps, someday, I can throw a cover in front of a collection of my own sprawling work that now spans a decade.

As always, there were some moments of poignance to pierce through the chaos, the flashes that make this essay easy to write. I brought a longtime friend along on Saturday, a Tourney Virgin who ate it all up and let me see it with fresh eyes again. Late on Friday night, Josh from Warroad nursed his sorrows at the Liffey and reminded me how much this game means in those small towns up north. After they won it all, Bill Lechner and his Hill boys lifted their wheelchair-bound assistant, Pat Schafhauser, to the dais so he could share his deserved piece of the glory. And as I packed my bag late Thursday night, I looked down to see Moorhead goalie Hudson Hodges, alone, slumped into the boards. He gazed up and around the arena after the rest of the Spuds had made their way up the tunnel in defeat, searing that scene in his memory forever. On the opposite side, a few Moorhead moms took note, waited him out, and offered a loving applause when he finally left the ice.

One man who is no stranger to such reflection is Lechner, the dean of Minnesota high school hockey, now twice a champion in convincing form. Lex has sky-high expectations for his team, yes, but that demand is just as sincere off the ice, and he conveys it with patience and a graceful humor, a pithy wisdom I can only aspire to. If I am ever to be a coach, let me be a Bill Lechner, the steward of a Pioneer tradition that long predates even his lengthy tenure. And for this Hill team, victory truly was an affair that spans generations: Charlie Strobel and Dylan Godbout’s fathers were on the 1991 title-winning team. This is the Tourney’s gift, fathers down to sons, whether on the ice or in the stands, an offering we can make even as we move further and further away from those glory days.

Age may or may not bring wisdom, but it does at least bestow knowledge of a somewhat pickier body. I packed my bag with healthy snacks and at one point took a moment to wander off down Seventh Street alone to clear my mind, keep my focus. Over four fifteen-hour days, I need it. I’ve just turned 30, but this week is always a draining swing back through stages of boyhood, from eight-year-olds at the Expo to sixteen-year-olds in the 200 level, my brush with a rash of fantasy drafts and off-color chants. On Friday night I made my annual circuit of the upper deck to fully absorb the inanity and insanity; later, I made my circuit through Eagle Street and McGovern’s to find my people toward the end of each night, a reminder that things don’t really change all that much from one stage of life to the next. The boys are all here for the party, in whatever form it may take, and next year we’ll live once again for those four days in March.

Tourney Preview 2020

1 Mar

Yes, Minnesota, it’s Tourney Time. (Not to be confused with the excellent new book by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson of the same name.) Danny, Tony, and I put together our annual podcast yesterday, which includes an interview with LaVaque, and we’ll be ready for the party. First, though, I present my usual rundown of storylines and quarterfinal game capsules:

The Season of Parity After a chaotic regular season, the AA section tournaments had surprisingly few upsets, with a regular power having a somewhat down season, St. Thomas Academy, being the only real surprise in the field. That leaves us with six of the top eight teams in the final regular season poll at State, plus another (Maple Grove) that spent some time in that neighborhood over the course of the season. This Tourney may not promise any of the heavyweight clashes between 1-3 loss teams that have punctuated some recent affairs, but anyone in this field seems capable of beating anyone.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt To underscore the previous note, the AA quarterfinals include two matchups that took place on the season’s final day and saw the lower seeded team win. Blake is the 2-seed but faces Maple Grove, who beat the Bears in what was a vital win to wake up an offense that had been moribund late in the season. Hill-Murray, meanwhile, knocked off Moorhead in their traditional late season meeting; the rematch is a fun nightcap between two Tourney institutions and the two top goalies in the state. In a different sort of rematch, Eden Prairie and Lakeville South reprise their three-overtime affair from a season ago in the second quarterfinal. Even in Class A, where there is generally less history between teams, we have a Monticello-Hermantown clash for the third time in four years.

Class A’s Big Three It’s worth noting that Monticello has given Hermantown good games in those two previous meetings, and Hutchinson is respectable for a 3A entrant, too. But it’ll be a shock if the first three Class A quarterfinals produce winners not named St. Cloud Cathedral, Hermantown, and Warroad. The Warriors, by virtue of a win over Cathedral, have the perk of the top seed, though the winner of Delano and Mahtomedi isn’t exactly a free pass to the final. That leaves Cathedral and Hermantown, who tied each other in a regular season thriller, on a collision course in the semis. In a season in which the top Class A teams are loaded with star power and have been atop the rankings all season, we could be headed for a couple of great games.

Fine Lines There’s only one Mr. Hockey finalist forward in the AA field, and while Eden Prairie’s Ben Steeves is a fine player, he’s also not on some different level from the players around him. No AA team can win on the back of one star this year, but a lot of teams do have good top lines who could tip the balance. Gess-Triggs-Johnson for Moorhead, Steeves-Blake-Mittelstadt for Eden Prairie, Miller-Sabre-Best for Blake, and the Pierre-Strobel combo for Hill Murray: if one of these groups can take over a game, they can carry their team a long way. It’s a bit different on the Class A side, where Warroad’s Grant Slukynsky and Hermantown’s Blake Biondi are the stars of their respective shows, but St. Cloud Cathedral also brings the dominant line approach.

Someone New? Six of the eight entrants have never won a AA Tourney, though there’s some range in there between the total newbies like Blake and Andover and the St. Thomases and Moorheads of the world who know their way around St. Paul but don’t know what Saturday night success looks like. One of the old hands, Hill-Murray, hasn’t had a lot of Tourney success in their past few appearances, either. Even Eden Prairie, the preseason favorite and frequent finalist over the past decade, has some recent struggles to overcome. No one comes marching into this tournament with the swagger of a recent champion, so we’ll see who can find that edge in the next week.

Now, capsules for each quarterfinal:

MANKATO EAST VS. #2 ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL

11:00 Wednesday

-The Tourney opens with the defending champs taking on the lowest-rated team in the field. Cathedral has won all five meetings between these two dating back to 1997.

Mankato East (14-13-1, Unranked, 4-seed in 1A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section wins: 5-3 over 1-seed Dodge County, 5-3 over 3-seed Mankato West

-The Cougars had an up-and-down season, but the most talented team in 1A put it together at the end and made its way back to State for a second time in three years. Junior Layten Liffrig (22) is their big star, and Matthew Salzle (6) is also plenty productive and carried the goal-scoring load in sections. There’s a gap after that, but Jake Kazenbach (23) is their next highest-scoring forward, and they’ve got a couple of quality junior defensemen in Brett Borchardt (8) and Jake Schreiber (11) who can contribute offensively as well. There are some pieces to work with here and they may be even better next season, but this quarterfinal will be a long shot.

St. Cloud Cathedral (23-3-1, #4, 1-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 10 (2 in a row)

Championships: 1 (2019)

Key section win: 8-1 over #8 Alexandria

-The Crusaders are back to defend their title and loaded with the star talent to achieve it. Blake Perbix (27), Jack Smith (20), and Nate Warner (8) form a lethal top line. Mack Motzko (18), back from his one-year adventure in Minnetonka, works with Cullen Hiltner (6) to provide a supporting cast. The defense, led by Reid Bogenholm (2), Jon Bell (4), and C.J. Zins (15), can also move the puck well and contribute to the cause. That said, this team has coughed up a few goals in recent games against top competition, so the pressure is on for them to lock down and keep the heat off goaltender Grant Martin (35). If they can withstand the Hermantown attack, they’ve shown they have the experience in big moments to pull out the repeat.

MONTICELLO VS. #3 HERMANTOWN

1:00 Wednesday

-The Moose and Hawks meet for the third time in four seasons at State, with the Hawks eking out a 2OT win in the state championship game in 2017 and winning 4-2 in 2018.

Monticello (19-7-2, #12, 1-seed in 5A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section win: 6-4 over 3-seed Pine City

-The Moose return for a third Tourney in four years, this time after being the clear favorite in 5A for much of the season and were competitive in losses to a few top ten Class A teams. Jeffrey Henrikson (5) is their top offensive player, but they’ve had fairly good offensive balance, with Brian Cornelius (11), Wilson Dahlheimer (22), and Gunnar Sibley (21) all putting up quality seasons. Chase Bocken (34) is a scoring threat from the blue line, alongside Jacob Sorensen (10). Nash Wilson (33) will need to be on top of his game for the Moose to give Hermantown another good run. They lost in running time in their game to Cathedral and will need to show a bit more than they did in that game to go anywhere this week.

Hermantown (21-3-4, #3, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 16 (last in 2018)

State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)

Key section win: 6-0 over #9 Duluth Denfeld

-The behemoths of Class A return after a one-year absence. They’ve done it with star power, with Blake Biondi (27) among the Mr. Hockey frontrunners up front and junior Joey Pierce (18) one of the most complete blueliners in the state. They have good depth up front, with Zach Kilen (10) and Ethan Lund (24) serving as Biondi’s sidekicks on the top line and an all-junior line of Aaron Pionk (11), Aydyn Dowd (6), and Cole Antcliff (14) providing the secondary punch. Jacob Backstrom (32) is the goalie. The Hawks did blow a 3-goal third period lead in a regular season tie with Cathedral and lost their last two games against AA competition, so there’s some question about their ability to respond when caught up in the moment of a big game. But there’s no doubt this group has the talent to bring back its third title in five years.

HUTCHINSON VS. #1 WARROAD

6:00 Wednesday

-Warroad makes its return to the X and faces a team with whom they have a surprising amount of Tourney history. The Warriors won a 2009 quarterfinal 7-1 and a 1997 quarterfinal 7-3.

Hutchinson (19-8-1, #17, 1-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 5 (last in 2009)

Key section win: 8-1 over 2-seed Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato

-The Tigers head to State with one of the stronger resumes of a 3A champion in recent memory. Like many southern teams, they rely on the star power of a few players. Austin Jozwick (9) is far and away their leading scorer, and Hayden Jensen (11) is a clear number two; after that, they have a jumble of players with point totals in the teens. Austin Hagen (33) has had a strong season in goal. This team gave Delano and Orono reasonably competitive games in their Wright County clashes and rolled through 3A, so it’s not out of the question that they keep it close with the rather unknown Warriors, but it will be a tall order.

Warroad (26-2, #1, 1-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 21 (8 one-class, 13 in Class A; last in 2010)

State championships: 4 (1994, 1996, 2003, 2005)

Key section win: 4-0 over #2 East Grand Forks

-One of the Minnesota’s most iconic programs returns to State after a 10-year absence, and they’ve done it in style, losing only to rival Roseau during the regular season and controlling a very good East Grand Forks team in the 8A final. Grant Slukynsky (27) had an electric senior season, while freshman wunderkind Jayson Shaugabay (17) combines with him to create one of the top lines in Class A. Anthony Foster (19) and Owen Meeker (23) also put up plenty of points, though this team lacks the top-to-bottom offensive depth of Hermantown and Cathedral. Their defense, led by Blake Norris (5) and Carson Reed (37), has been rock-solid, while Zach Foster (35) has been reliable in goal. If their lower lines can hold up against some of the deeper teams in this field, they have the front-end flair to claim their first title in 15 years.

#5 DELANO VS. #4 MAHTOMEDI

8:00 Wednesday

-Two fairly regular recent faces in the Tourney meet in what should be a quality quarterfinal following three games with heavy favorites. Delano won an 8-1 consolation round game between these two in 2017.

Delano (22-6, #5, 2-seed in 2A)

State appearances: 3 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over #19 Armstrong/Cooper, 4-2 over #18 Breck

-The Tigers once again went on a second half run and are making something of a habit of these Tourney appearances; this is the second straight season they’ve been the 5-seed. They can roll out three decent lines; Adam Brown (13) was their leading goal-scorer over the course of the season, and Gunnar Paulson (12) and Jesse Peterson (11), Michael Weber (17), and Trevor Oja (18) round out the list of scoring leaders. No one on the defense is a huge offensive force, but Jack Keranen (3) has been a reliable presence. Cade Lommel (35) was solid in goal in sections. Can they break through and win their first quarterfinal?

Mahtomedi (20-8, #7, 1-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 12 (4 in a row)

Key section win: 5-1 over 6-seed South St. Paul, 2-0 over 4-seed Tartan

-The Zephyrs head to a fourth straight Tourney after cruising through Section 4A. Nikolai Dulak (9) is probably the most dangerous goal-scorer they’ve had through this run, while Adam Johnson (10) led the team in points. Ethan Peterson (6) and Ryan Berglund (7) are also steady contributors offensively, while J.D. Metz (11) is their defensive leader. They also enjoy the services of arguably the strongest goalie in the A field, sophomore Ben Dardis (32). A healthy Colin Hagstrom (4) could be a difference-maker here. Expectations this season aren’t what they were the past few seasons; can that help them break their seemingly eternal fate to be a semifinalist and nothing more?

MAPLE GROVE VS. #2 BLAKE

11:00 Thursday

-Blake makes its AA Tourney debut against a deep west metro team that pulled a mild upset to make this game. Maple Grove won a late regular season meeting 5-4 and leads the all-time series 2-0.

Maple Grove (20-8, #17, 2-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2017)

Key section win: 3-0 over #14 Blaine

-Call it a study in perseverance: with an entire unit of elite players in juniors or at the NTDP and their biggest current star out hurt for the year, the Crimson found a way to avenge two regular season losses to Blaine and secure a Tourney berth. They’re one of the strongest skating teams in the state, but even strength offense has been a deficiency at times. Their leading scorer is defenseman Henry Nelson (12), a Notre Dame commit, and Cal Thomas (22) also put up good points as a D. The forward production comes by committee, with Sam Jacobs (21), Tyler Oakland (15), and Chris Kernan (27) leading that group. They’ve rotated goalies between senior Parker Slotsve (32) and junior Jack Wienecke (1), who had a 45-save shutout in the section final. This team did find a vital scoring touch in the season’s final week when they knocked off Blake; we’ll see if they can repeat that performance.

Blake (22-6, #5, 1-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: First in AA (5 in Class A)

Key section wins: 4-3 over #6 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 5-1 over #13 Edina

-The Bears make their AA Tourney debut on the heels of a dramatic overtime penalty shot from Gavin Best (8). Best’s linemates, Joe Miller (20) and Jack Sabre (9), form one of the more dynamic combinations in the state, and they get some scoring depth from the likes of Will Matzke (27) and Brett Witzke (6). Their mobile defense has plenty of talent as well, most notably via Ben Dexheimer (4) and Will Svenddal (19). Aksel Reid (30) mans the net. They can skate with anyone, so if they can get some scoring depth and find some consistency, the path is certainly there to make a final. They’ve already beaten Eden Prairie once this season.

LAKEVILLE SOUTH VS. #3 EDEN PRAIRIE

1:00 Thursday

-The Cougars and Eagles collide in a rematch of this very same quarterfinal a season ago, a triple-overtime thriller won by Eden Prairie. This will be their third Tourney meeting in the past four years, as the Eagles also won the 2017 third place game in overtime. They lead the all-time series 16-1, with much of that damage coming in the early days of South when they shared a conference.

Lakeville South (21-7, #8, 1-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 5 (2 in a row)

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

-The Cougars had to scrape their way out of 1AA, but have shown flashes of front-line quality over the course of the season. Zack Oelrich (7) leads the team in points, while Cade Ahrenholz (16) is the leading goal-scorer. Cam Boche (4) also had a productive season, while Jack Novak (14) is an assist machine. Griffin Ludtke (3) and Jack Malinski (21) are their top defensemen, but this group has reasonably good balance across the board. Cody Ticen (30) came on strong in goal this season. This junior-heavy group has some Tourney experience and isn’t some run-of-the-mill mediocre Lakeville entrant, but we’ll see if they have the horses to stick with the most talented team in the state.

Eden Prairie (21-5-1, #2, 2-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 12 (3 in a row)

Championships: 2 (2009, 2011)

Key section wins: 6-1 over #21 Minnetonka, 3-2 over #23 Chaska

-In a season when some of the state’s top recent teams dropped off, the defending runners-up are back for a sixth Tourney in seven years and a chance to atone for recent near-misses, from the blown lead against Edina a season ago to the failure to finish out a championship in the Casey Mittelstadt days. No team can match their six D-I commits, who include Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Steeves (6) and John Mittelstadt (9) on the top line. Junior duo Drew Holt (8) and Carter Batchelder (11) lead the second line. On defense, Luke Mittelstadt (27) and Mason Langenbrunner (22) will need to lead the way in front of Axel Rosenlund (30) in goal. The difference-maker down the stretch, however, was sophomore Jackson Blake (10), who gave their offense another dimension; if the chemistry is intact and they can score the way they should, they are the slight favorite to win it all. Their depth, while fine, is not quite on the level of an Andover or perhaps even a Maple Grove.

ST. THOMAS ACADEMY VS. #1 ANDOVER

6:00 Thursday

-The Thursday primetime bill features a first-time favorite against a Tourney regular who wasn’t supposed to be here. These two have never met.

St. Thomas Academy (18-8-2, #18, 5-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 5 in AA (4 in a row); 8 in Class A

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

Key section wins: 2-0 over #16 Burnsville, 3-1 over #11 Rosemount

-The Cadets had their weakest regular season in years but went on a run at the right time, winning 13 of their last 14 to win 3AA as a 5-seed. First year coach Trent Eigner’s adoption of the Mike Randolph 2-3 has given more talented teams fits. Jackson Hallum (15) is their one legitimate front-line star. Jarod Wright (16) and Riley O’Brien (19) are next in line in productivity. Andrew Boemer (17) is their top scorer on defense, and McClain Beaudette (5) is a steady defensive presence. Senior Tommy Aitken (30) came on strong down the stretch and will be vital to their chances at an upset in their tough quarterfinal draw. Is a unique system and one player’s star power enough to break down the Huskies’ relentless attack?

Andover (24-3-1, #1, 1-seed in 7AA)

First State appearance

Key section wins: 8-1 over 6-seed Elk River

-The Huskies waltzed through the 7AA tournament with three straight shutouts and have barely been tested over the past month and a half. In some respects, that’s a testament to their quality: this is a team with excellent depth and skating ability top to bottom, and they were the most consistent team in AA this season. Wyatt Kaiser (5) is the top senior defenseman in the state, and Mitchell Wolfe (4) gives them a duo that is as reliable as they come in back. Up front they have no true superstars but the most depth in the state, with two interchangeable top lines and a quality third group. Luke Kron (7) may be the most complete of the bunch, Hunter Jones (11) is their leading scorer, Gunnar Thoreson (12) had a productive year, and Garrett Schifsky (17) is the leading goal-scorer and the rare junior star on this senior-laden squad. Will Larson (35) has done the job in goal when tested. Now, how will they hold up in their first trip to St. Paul, and against quality competition for the first time in a while?

# 5 HILL-MURRAY VS. #4 MOORHEAD

8:00 Thursday

-Two Tourney bluebloods meet in the nightcap in a battle that includes solid defenses and the state’s two best goaltenders. Hill won a late regular season meeting 4-3. They’ve split their four previous Tourney meetings, with the Spuds taking a 2017 quarterfinal 4-2. Hill leads the all-time series 17-11.

Hill-Murray (19-6-3, #7, 1-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 30 (last in 2018)

Championships: 3 (1993, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 3-2 over #23 White Bear Lake

-The Pioneers weren’t always the most consistent team this season, but they come in with plenty of talent and boast a strong record against Tourney entrants. Sophomore Nick Pierre (7) is their star up front, and Charlie Strobel (27) also helps carry the load; Matthew Fleishhacker (14), Henry Eischen (6), and Dylan Godbout (17) give them some scoring depth across two lines. Their biggest strengths are in back, where Joe Palodichuk (2) had a very productive season and is supported by a deep, steady defensive corps. Brimsek finalist Remington Keopple (1) has the best numbers of any goalie in the Tourney. Their key will be generating enough offense to break a 7-game Tourney losing streak that dates back to the 2013 title game.

Moorhead (21-5-1, #3, 1-seed in 8AA)

State appearances: 17 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over 3-seed Roseau

-The steady Spuds may not have the depth of Andover or the star power of Eden Prairie, but they are a well-built team across the board. They continue their recent tradition of dominant top lines with the trio of Cullen Gess (14), Caden Triggs (27) and Carter Johnson (10), while Michael Overbo (19) gives their goal-scoring punch some depth. The Spuds do have some star power in back: Mr. Hockey finalist Luke Gramer (3) runs things from the blue line and Hudson Hodges (31) is a Frank Brimsek Award finalist. They’re liable to get outshot by some of the deeper, better-skating teams in this field, but they’re built to withstand some of that, and if they can impose their style on opponents, they have a shot at a deep run.

See you in St. Paul!

The Art of the Duluth Winter

29 Feb

I have enjoyed this winter. Of course, it has (knock on wood) cooperated more than most so far; after we took a beatdown from a snowstorm over Thanksgiving, it’s been relatively balmy, with a welcome lack of polar vortexes or repeat snow events. The addition of a remote starter to my driving life has also added a new dose of luxury. A pile of blankets and a good book gets me through the routine nights; visitors from afar, so common in and a round the holidays, help the cause as well. But in my fourth year back in this city, I’m coming to perfect the art of the Duluth winter, a necessary challenge for anyone who wants to make this city a true home.

As the absence of most other topics from this blog this time of year shows, much of that free time is devoted to hockey. I average of two games in person a week, plus a few more evenings where I’m home but have a game streaming in the background, and a few hours of podcast work every Sunday. The hockey life also means frequent phone calls with co-conspirators, periodic drinks with the parents before or after games, and the occasional trek to Eveleth or Grand Rapids to see one of the state’s grand old arenas and rub my shoulders against some new friends. From Thanksgiving to the first full week of March, I have a diversion that can get me through any amount of cold, and make myself a part of a sprawling, squabbling, loving community.

Hockey is just one element of my attack on winter, though, and the second these days is my continued progression into a reasonably capable cross-country skier. I’m out twice a week, gliding about the local trail systems: that usually means one evening on the lit course at Lester Park, plus a longer excursion to some other ski area on a weekend. Lester is a home course of sorts for me, as I grew up within walking distance of it, and my younger self would indeed sometimes just pick up his skis and hike over to plow around its lit loop, one of those delights of a Duluth childhood one can only appreciate after losing it. I’ve done the initial loops from the playground up through the first few cutoffs countless times, and I know the unlit Lester River loop so well that I now run it in the dark, its rises and falls encoded in my muscles, and I can pause to gaze down the moonlit slopes to the river below.

Still, I try to get out to different areas. Hartley’s circuits can grow a bit inane for someone seeking to do eight-plus kilometers, but the part of trail that rises up into the pines is magnificent near sunset, and I attempted it with a headlamp once this year and found I was far from alone. Out west, Piedmont provides a reliable loop, while the constant ups and downs of Magney-Snively afford magnificent views of the St. Louis River estuary. To the north is Boulder Lake, an old favorite of my dad’s; for the first time this year I did the entire system, including the prisoner’s dilemma forced by two trails at the end of an esker on the Ridge Runner trail. Up the shore, the Finns have left their mark: Korkki offers some adventurous hill work, while Erkki Harju in Two Harbors allows for some of the smoothest long, coasting downhills. Every course offers some different challenge, some new diversion that can vary with the conditions each week.

My special place remains the Northwoods system in Silver Bay, with its outlet on to Bean Lake and the ever-alluring Tettegouche connector through Palisade Valley, a trek that has become an annual tradition. Palisade Valley feels like a journey in a way no looping trail system can, a quest outward and back through winter in perfect repose. I made the trip in record time this year, even with the trail crumbling in places due to warmth. I pause briefly in the camp on Mic Mac Lake to gaze skyward and breathe in winter as deeply as I can, and linger a while longer on Bean Lake to reclaim life without that breakneck instinct, negotiate the peace between two competing but necessary forces. My furnace burns up all of my calories, and a stop at Cedar Coffee in Two Harbors is in order once again.

After that, it’s back to the blur. Mountain Iron on Monday, Aurora on Tuesday, Eveleth Wednesday, North Branch Friday. Two hockey games where I’ll make my circuit, have five people stop me to chat and fifteen tweets to answer. Board games on Saturday night; hearty meals, wine or stouts or a steaming tea. As February wears on, my reading turns to travelogues, and I might drift off on my couch on a sunny afternoon following some traveler through Delhi or Samarkand, a dose of escapism to feed my wanderlust. I plan a real-world escape sometime in April, in that grotesque Minnesota season when the hockey is done and the ski trails are slop but the weather has yet to release us for summer activities. That, for me, is the only truly challenging season in this city.

We all have our own coping mechanisms, and no doubt this city tries me at times. But I don’t live in Duluth to endure it. I live here because I want to love it.

How the Other Half Lives

21 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sick as Dogs

5 Feb

It’s been a season unlike any other for Duluth East. We knew coming in that the talent level wasn’t on par with previous seasons, and that this team would need to work more than any other to get the results it wanted. But the issues compounded from there. A blizzard in November disrupted the schedule from the start, and as vicious an attack of the flu as I’ve ever seen left basically the entire team and coaching staff in bed sick for over a week. The roster has bled a few players whose other priorities in life proved too much. Only a strong 4-1 finish in their last five will keep them from the program’s first losing record since the Eisenhower administration. Nothing has come easily for this group.

I’ve started and stopped this post about five times now, largely because any time I want to start to say something sweeping about this team, their next game immediately disproves it. After a sluggish start, they picked up some respectable wins against teams like Blaine and Lakeville North; after a brutal loss to Lakeville South, they upset Minnetonka. When the season seemed to be teetering on the brink this past week, they responded with a 5-0 shutout of rival Cloquet. Somehow, in spite of it all, they could yet go on a run in the playoffs, or they could be done in the quarterfinals for the first time since 1993.

In previous seasons Mike Randolph has tended to settle on a lineup by late January, but as with last season, the rotations have continued right into the season’s final weeks. The team still feels unsettled, and every time I get the sense I’m on to Randolph’s plan, it all crumbles and he throws in some other wrinkle. The one recent season that was somewhat comparable to this one, 2014-2015, involved a radical and successful tactical innovation that turned the corner; this group to date lacks such a defining shift. There has been some modest success with a 1-1-3 forecheck this season, but whereas the 2-3 in 2014-2015 could actually produce some serious offense, the 1-1-3 felt more like a Hail Mary to hang on for dear life. For now, the experimentation goes on.

The Greyhounds’ great challenge this season has been their poor showing in section play. There was no real surprise in a loss to Andover; and narrow defeats to Grand Rapids and the first Cloquet game, in which the team played relatively well, are defensible. Less so are the more recent losses to Forest Lake, a team largely carried by its goaltender, and an Elk River squad that is also at its lowest point in decades. In a year when 7AA is not among the better sections in the state, the Hounds have, curiously enough, found more success outside the section than in it. The Cloquet win was a sudden break from this trend; time will tell if it was too little, too late.

Through it all, the Hounds still have some pieces that can make a run. Charlie Erickson has put the offense on his back at times, and Zarley Ziemski can be a weapon. They found some December success behind a potent power play and offense from the points, and after the opposition caught on, there now appear to be some adjustments that are making it look threatening again. Konrad Kausch is capable of stealing a game when he is on form, and from a raw talent standpoint is the best East goalie in years. One of the rare glimmers in a season that often has me shaking my head is the play of freshman Cole Christian, whose shiftiness and vision portends a strong Hounds career, even if he could stand to double his weight and grow a few feet. Randolph’s decision to give a couple of freshmen top six forward minutes has its detractors, but as I think back to Keegan Flaherty stunning White Bear Lake in 2005 or Ian Mageau setting up Ash Altmann’s dagger to Edina in 2015, I have to recognize it’s worked before. I’ll never critique the search for answers; there just need to be clear answers at some point.

One gets the sense that, regardless of the talent level, half of this team’s challenge is mental. If they get off to a strong start, this team can roll past other decent teams and compete with the very best; if they fall behind early, things often snowball into unwatchable ugliness. Maybe their ever-scheming coach can press the right buttons to get them to believe in these last few weeks; maybe it’s all been overthought to death and has left us only with frustration. Teams like the 2014-2015 edition don’t come along every day, but at least there is a model, and for all the deserved credit we give the 2-3, that group twice had to come back from three-goal deficits to make its great run, which is something no coach can plan for. That group, riding some exemplary senior leadership and some star turns from younger kids, found the heart to win four straight games they had no right to win. This team will need to dig just as deep, if not further, to find its own measure of success over the next month.

MN HS AA Rankings for 1/12/20

12 Jan

Due to an outage on the USHSHO forum, weekly rankings are appearing here this week. Apologies for the interruption in regularly scheduled programming.

Well, so much for this getting any easier as the season went along.

1. Eden Prairie (11-2-1)

-First off, let’s acknowledge what the Eagles are not: they are not an elite, surefire #1 on the level of recent state champions like Edina or Minnetonka. We should not be surprised that this team needs to fight to scrape out one-goal wins against teams like Cloquet, whatever the rankings may say. That’s just how tight things are this season, and beyond their star players, it gets thin pretty quickly. What the Eagles are, however, is a team that continues to collect plenty of decent wins while suffering only a few losses, and they’re also the only team that can claim to have a cavalry on its way later this season, when Jackson Blake finally becomes eligible and Carter Batchelder becomes healthy. If they can survive four tough games over the next two weeks, they’ll certainly have earned this spot.

This week: Thurs vs. #10 Minnetonka, Sat vs. St. Michael-Albertville

2. Moorhead (13-3-1)

-I almost found it in me to put the Spuds at #1, but an overtime win over St. Cloud, which continues a run of tough games against section opponents, doesn’t exactly inspire confidence. They are often even less controlling of big games than Eden Prairie, so hence my skepticism, but the East Grand Forks win was another in a growing collection of quality wins. They head to Duluth in their only action this week.

This week: Sat at Duluth East

3. Blake (12-3)

-Give this team its due as it heads down the stretch: they’ve now won eight in a row, and while the schedule hasn’t been the hardest, they’ve beaten just about everyone with authority, which is not something any other team is doing right now. They deserve some hype as they head into their Hockey Day appearance.

This week: Tues at Burnsville, Sat vs. #14 Blaine (Hockey Day)

4. Andover (10-3-1)

-The Huskies received the kiss of death last week and both lost and tied in the past week. A narrow defeat at the hands of the defending Class A champs isn’t overly concerning in my book; failing to beat middling Totino-Grace, on the other hand, sounds some alarm bells. The Maple Grove rematch this week will be instructive.

This week: Tues at #6 Maple Grove, Thurs at Armstrong/Cooper, Sat at Anoka

5. Rosemount (13-3)

-The Irish had a chance to claim the top spot when Andover lost, but blew it in a loss to Lakeville North. They rebounded with a convincing win over Eastview, which has value in the section. They haven’t allowed more than two goals in their last six, which is the right formula for this squad to make a deep run; they just have to avoid total outages offensively to continue winning. They continue with conference play this week.

This week: Thurs vs. Burnsville, Sat vs. Shakopee

6. Maple Grove (10-3)

-The actually somewhat consistent Crimson picked up a win over Centennial to restore some order to 5AA seeding, but it wasn’t exactly the sort of effort that will quiet any doubters. They got run over by Andover in the teams’ first meeting, but with the Huskies now looking a little more vulnerable, we’ll see if the Crimson can improve on that result.

This week: Tues vs. #4 Andover, Thurs at Elk River, Sat vs. Rogers

7. White Bear Lake (10-2-1)

-The Bears picked up an important section win over Stillwater, but lost a chance to move up with a loss to Minnetonka. On paper they should roll through their next few weeks of section play, so they need to get it done here if they want to stay in the conversation as a top team.

This week: Thurs at Woodbury, Sat at Park (Cottage Grove)

8. Cretin-Derham Hall (11-3-1)

-The Raiders picked up methodical wins over Stillwater and Forest Lake and then rallied to pick up a quality tie with Hermantown. They’ve lost just once in their past 13, and their next four should probably be wins, too.

This week: Thurs at Mounds View, Sat at Woodbury

9. Prior Lake (9-4-2)

-This is the point where I just start making things up. A tie against Burnsville put a momentary damper on the Lakers’ run, but they turned it around with a quality win over Lakeville South later in the week. Statewide parity might just allow this team to arrive ahead of schedule and make a real run at 2AA. Road tests against Duluth East and Lakeville North could allow them to further cement a quality position.

This week: Tues at Duluth East, Thurs at Lakeville North, Sat at Farmington

10. Minnetonka (8-7)

-The Skippers knocked off White Bear Lake and have now won seven of their last nine, which keeps them moving up these boards by virtue of their momentum; while they also have more losses, they’re also among the leaders in quality wins in the state right now. If they can keep that going against the top-ranked Eagles, things will suddenly be looking pretty rosy for a team that had fallen off a cliff about a month ago.

This week: Thurs at #1 Eden Prairie, Sat at Bloomington Jefferson

11. Benilde-St. Margaret’s (7-5-2)

-A shutout win over Hill was a step in the right direction for the Red Knights, and their upcoming schedule gives them a chance to build on it, too. If this offense is ever going to get on track in the way we thought it might back in November, now is the time.

This week: Thurs at Bloomington Jefferson, Sat vs. Chaska

12. Hill-Murray (9-4-2)

-Nothing is trending in the right direction for the Pioneers, who got shut out by Benilde and lost to a Mahtomedi team they’d beaten by five in December. This team is getting increasingly paradoxical after its hot start. The coming week which features a similarly inconsistent opponent and a Hastings team that just made a splash against another traditional AA power.

This week: Thurs vs. #13 Wayzata, Sat at Hastings

13. Wayzata (9-5-1)

-Trojans will be Trojans: a loss to St. Michael-Albertville hurts, and a narrow escape against a Buffalo team that the rest of the Lake has been slaughtering doesn’t exactly help the cause, either. This sort of lurch is par for the course with this program; the coming week gives them a chance to make their customary adjustment back in the other direction.

This week: Thurs at 1#12 Hill-Murray, Sat at Edina

14. Blaine (9-5)

-The Bengals took care of business against weaker Northwest Suburban opponents, which is something we really shouldn’t take for granted this season. An interesting Hockey Day test with chart-climbing Blake looms.

This week: Tues vs. Spring Lake Park, Sat at #3 Blake (Hockey Day)

15. Roseau (12-3)

-The Rams boosted their stock some with an impressive comeback win against previously undefeated Warroad. That’s the only game they’ve played against a quality team in either class over the past month, so they’re hard to gauge right now; their lone game this week will give us a bit more to work with.

This week: Tues at East Grand Forks

[u]The Next Ten[/u]

Edina (7-7-2)

-The Hornets suffered a tie to St. Michael-Albertville but recovered to record a quality win over Lakeville South. After producing little in recent weeks, the offense finally seemed to be on track some. We’ll see if they can keep that rolling against two beatable conference opponents this week.

Grand Rapids (7-5-1)

-The Thunderhawks had themselves a very positive week: they tied a very good Hermantown team, edged Duluth East in a key 7AA fight, and fought past Greenway to reclaim bragging rights in their greatest rivalry. A win over Cloquet on Tuesday can put them in firm control of the race for the 2-seed in 7AA.

Lakeville North (9-4-1)

-The Panthers engaged in the sort of nonsense that has defined this season over the past week, as they upset Rosemount before turning around and losing to Eagan. They can improve their station by doing something against Prior Lake this week.

Lakeville South (9-5)

-A week after looking like world-beaters, the Cougars had a rough week in which they lost to Prior Lake and Edina. Eagan and Eastview this coming week will be telling: is this team a front-liner in the South Suburban, or are they part of one very large, crowded conference?

Stillwater (8-3-1)

-While competitive, meetings with higher-ranked teams did not go well for the Ponies, as they fell to Cretin and White Bear; more glaringly, they tied Forest Lake after all of that. On paper they should win both of their conference games this week.

St. Michael-Albertville (6-6-2)

-The Knights had themselves a quality week with a tie against Edina and a win over Wayzata; at the very least, they’re showing they’re not overmatched by their new conference. Eden Prairie looms this coming week.

Burnsville (9-3-2)

-A tie with Prior Lake is a notable improvement on the Blaze’s previous meeting with the Lakers. This week is a good moment of truth, as they face Blake, Rosemount, and a lurking Eagan team.

Eagan (11-4)

-The Wildcats are starting to build some momentum after quality wins over Eastview and Lakeville North. They really haven’t been tested at all outside of the conference, but are collecting respectable wins and have a chance to make even more noise this coming week against Lakeville South and Burnsville.

Holy Family (7-7)

-Finally, a AA team that won two games with authority this past week! Okay, those wins came against Litchfield and Waconia, but we’ll take what we can get. The Delano game this week could be an interesting one, as the Tigers are coming off a good showing against St. Cloud Cathedral.

Duluth East (7-8)

-The Hounds slid down the table a bit following losses to Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie. The consistency just isn’t there, and they’re still looking for one obvious strength they could ride to more than a distant hope of an upset. The tests keep coming this week as they face sharp-looking Prior Lake and some Spuds.

[u]Sections[/u]

1AA

18 Lakeville North

19 Lakeville South

Hastings

Farmington

-This section has me contorting back and forth as I try to figure out where the Lakevilles stand in relation to the rest of the state and where the rest of the section stands in relation to the Lakevilles. North, with its win over South and South’s recent slide, is back on top; Rochester Century may win 20 games (and may get a higher seed because of it), but if we’re using traditional seeding criteria, the loss to Farmington makes it hard to put the Panthers higher than the 5-seed, despite this past week’s win over Owatonna. Next Saturday will be a defining day in this section, as Century and Hastings face off and the Lakevilles have their rematch.

2AA

1 Eden Prairie

9 Prior Lake

10 Minnetonka

Chaska

-How much does that holiday tournament loss to Chaska have to sting for Prior Lake? Without it, they’d be in the clubhouse with an undefeated record against 2AA competition. Even so, if Eden Prairie and Minnetonka split their Lake meetings, they may yet nab the top spot; if one of those teams sweeps, I’d give it the top seed. I think the top three are clear enough here, but the order they’ll fall in is still anyone’s guess. Chaska is hanging on the 4-seed ahead of Holy Family by virtue of that Prior Lake win right now.

3AA

5 Rosemount

22 Burnsville

23 Eagan

Eastview

-Could St. Thomas be starting the playoffs on the road? With losses to Rosemount and Eastview, it’s now a distinct possibility. Right now, things are making reasonable sense here, as Rosemount and Burnsville are both undefeated in section play and have a meeting looming this week; Eagan has lost to those two but beat Eastview. With plenty of South Suburban games left, though, there’s plenty of time for this section to fall into line and be a mess like all the others.

4AA

7 White Bear Lake

12 Hill-Murray

20 Stillwater

Mounds View

-Finally, a section with relative clarity: the Bears remain in control after a win over Stillwater. The only way I see the Bears falling from the top spot is with a Stillwater sweep of its remaining section games, in which case that Irondale loss would be a factor. The loser of the Stillwater-Hill game will likely be stuck with the 3-seed. Mounds View took a step toward the 4-seed with a win over East Ridge on Saturday.

5AA

6 Maple Grove

14Blaine

Centennial

Champlin Park

-With its sweep of Centennial, Maple Grove is back atop the heap in this one. The Maple Grove-Blaine rematch is next Thursday; both teams still control their own destiny here, while Centennial can go no higher than 2 with a win over Blaine. Champlin has a strong record but went 0-3 against the top 3 and has a test against Totino looming to decide the 4-seed.

6AA

3 Blake

8 Cretin-Derham Hall

11 Benilde-St. Margaret’s

13 Wayzata

16 Edina

-Nothing has fundamentally changed here since our pained check-in two weeks ago: these teams all remain 1-1 or 1-1-1 against each other, and any shifting is due only to placement in the overall rankings. That should change over the next two weeks, as we have the second of three Edina-Wayzata meetings and a big battle between Benilde and Blake. The winner of the Blake-Benilde game, barring a tailspin in non-section play, will have a good claim to the top seed; the Lake teams’ records may end up holding them back and leaving one, or even both, in the 4-5 game. A little clarity, please?

7AA

4 Andover

17 Grand Rapids

Cloquet

25 Duluth East

-A mercifully straightforward section: Andover is the state’s one sure 1-seed, and Grand Rapids has made strides toward the 2-seed. From here, everything really runs through the Jacks, who face Rapids twice and East for a second time in the coming weeks; they also have Forest Lake, which is looming in QRF. East has the Rangers next week also.

8AA

15 Roseau

2 Moorhead

21 St. Michael-Albertville

St. Cloud

-Can a team contend for #1 in the state and not the top seed in its own section? That might just be the case for Moorhead right now, though they have a chance to flip that if they can hang on to this spot over the next two weeks and beat Roseau in the process. STMA, though probably doomed to no more than a 3-seed, is certainly showing it can be dangerous. St. Cloud, with a win and a tie over Brainerd and a good showing against the Spuds, is now in position for the 4-seed.

Rebounding Hounds

15 Dec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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