Tag Archives: mike randolph

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.


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.

Duluth East 2017-2018 Season Preview

30 Nov

The start of a new season can never come fast enough in the aftermath of a double-overtime section final loss, but at long last, an agonizing wait is over. The Duluth East Greyhounds start their 2017-2018 season on the road in White Bear Lake tomorrow, where they hope to avoid a repeat of last season’s upset loss in the opener. They’re right back at it the next day with a home game against Wayzata, another potent opponent that gives this East team an immediate chance to set the tone. As well they should want to: on paper, this is the best East team since the 2011-2012 dream team that got upset in the first round of the State Tournament.

The similarities between these Greyhounds and that group six years ago are almost uncanny: a high-flying top line with a long history together, two excellent supporting lines, a deep and offensive-minded defense, and a new goalie who is the obvious heir apparent. Sure, there are some differences: the top line has yet to reach the point totals of Jake Randolph, Trevor Olson, and newly minted NHLer Dom Toninato. Both teams lost to the state champion in several overtimes the season before, though this incoming group went down in the section final, whereas the 2011 Hounds made the title game. Missing the Tournament two seasons in a row brings a different sort of pressure than coming in as a three-time defending section champion, though there are still four kids on this squad who have seen the bright lights of March and played in the 2015 title game.

The comparison will be especially apt if the Hounds can unleash their Weapons of Mass Destruction. Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan—aka the WMD Line—are in the conversation for the best line in the state. Worth is the sniper, Mageau provides a powerful big body that will go into corners, and future North-Dakota-Whatever-They-Are-Now Donovan is a smooth-skating giant who had a big offseason and could be set for a genuine breakout. This line has the potential to put up numbers on par with the greatest East lines of all time, and if they do so, this team will have every chance to play for a state title.

The factor that could separate East from the field this season, however, is its depth: they may have the three best lines in the state, as their top nine forwards all return. Ricky Lyle took strides over the offseason and now looks very dangerous, Nick Lanigan (once he’s healthy) will bring an excellent work rate, and a full sophomore campaign from Logan Anderson will be welcome after injuries disrupted his second half last year. Austin Jouppi, Brendan Baker, and Jack FitzGerald were all solidly productive a season ago as well, and with all three lines firing and taking a step forward, this team will be able to bury in opponents in ways that few others can. Only a handful of west metro teams and St. Thomas Academy are even close to them here.

The Defense is led by newly committed Wisconsin Badger Luke LaMaster, and in what is admittedly a thin year for front-end senior defensemen, he’s a contender for the Reed Larson Award for the top blueliner in the state. Hunter Paine had a huge second half last season, and with he and LaMaster ranging forward, Will Fisher needs to be the defensive rock to protect Lukan Hanson in goal. Carson Cochran rounds out the top four in terms of talent, and E.J. Hietala is also in the mix; the third defensive pair is about the only spot on this roster where there’s some room for new kids to climb in.

In goal, it’s Lukan Hanson’s time to shine. He looked capable in sporadic action a season ago and in the Elite League this fall, so now it’s just a matter of translating that play into the regular season and holding up under the spotlight. There’s no question the job is his, so he’ll have to deliver.

While the Hounds are the undisputed frontrunner in 7AA, a crowded group will be nipping at their heels. Elk River is probably the best of the bunch top to bottom, and maybe they’re in better shape with less hype and pressure this season, though I’ve said that before. Cloquet has the skill coming up to make things interesting, and if they can jell under a new coach, the rivalry factor will also help close the gap. Marshall isn’t the deepest team to ever grace the ice, but their top unit is as good as anyone’s, and like Cloquet, the Hounds are very much their target. Young Andover will look to crash the party, too. And then there’s Grand Rapids, which is way down from the past few seasons. But they are the two-time defending champs, and the only team in the section that has beaten East with any regularity in recent seasons; if Gabe Holum gets hot, it’s not impossible.

The Hounds’ schedule is unique in that they don’t play any of the other three teams in the top preseason top four (Edina, Moorhead, St. Thomas). But, they do play nearly everyone else who’s ranked: 19 of 25 opponents are in my preseason AA top 25, and a couple of the non-ranked teams aren’t exactly pushovers. As usual, the toughest stretches come right away and again in early January; things ease up with a lot of somewhat lighter home games toward the end, though they do have big section games with Cloquet and Elk River in that later stretch. Lots of teams will be gunning for East, as they’ll be the favorites in most games they play. There are few opportunities for off nights against this schedule.

Given all of that, East’s evolution over the course of the season will be key. The 2012 team, and also the 2008-2009 squad that was East’s other no-doubt preseason top five team in the past decade, both came out of the gates looking dominant, but seemed to stall as January and February wore on. The warning signs for their first round State Tournament upset losses were all there. Of course, no East fan would complain if they ran the table, but if they don’t, a little adversity wouldn’t be the worst thing to hit this team, so long as they respond well. One just has to trust that Mike Randolph’s systems will continue to grow, and not settle into tedium.

Randolph was the subject of an excellent profile by the Louie St. George in the News Tribune earlier this week, one that hits on many of the same notes about his career trajectory that I’ve mentioned over the past few years. In this golden stage of his career, Randolph sits at 597 career wins, and should track down number 600 in the first couple weeks of the season. The next milestone, in my mind, is even more significant: with a 20-win season, which seems like a realistic goal, he will surpass Willard Ikola for third place on the all-time coaching wins list. 600 is just a number, but joining a man like Ikola goes to show the depth of the influence he’s had over twenty-nine seasons as a coach.

The sky is the limit for this team, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: March is still a long way off. Whatever comes next, this ride will be a memorable one.


What’s “Wrong” with Duluth East?

11 Jan

A year ago, I wrote a post that tried to explain why a powerhouse program seemed to be struggling so much over the first half of a season. I had my theories then, and in retrospect, they look pretty good. Many of the details of that post, from the 6-7 record to the ugly upsets to the results against the same three opponents over the course of a week, could all apply to this season’s Duluth East team as well. This time, however, there wasn’t supposed to be an inexperience card to play: many of these players are veterans of last year’s Tournament run. Why, then, is this squad so seemingly mediocre, despite its talent?

First off, yes, this is life under a coach who uses the regular season to tinker in anticipation of playoff games. Mike Randolph is still playing around with different strategies and combinations of players to find what works best with the group he has. This is apparent to anyone who watched the Hounds spend most of the first two periods trapping against Grand Rapids before finally turning them loose in the third. This is a strategy East has used before with some success, and rests on a clever premise that allows the Hounds to frustrate talented opponents and then suddenly unleash their offensive talent when they have the mental edge. It very nearly pulled out the Rapids game, as East pulled out a third period comeback, but I think it also accorded a little too much respect to Rapids. It failed to attack them at their weakest, which is on defense in their own zone. It let Rapids dictate things for a little too long, and didn’t quite have the effect of winning the mental war that it can against teams that expect to win.

Randolph’s record speaks for itself, but there are risks in endless string-pulling and tinkering. It can backfire sometimes, and anyone who’s watched East hockey for long enough can point to games here or there and grumble about apparent micromanaging. I hinted at this last year, and think it’s more pronounced this year: the emphasis on systems at this point is probably holding the offense back some. Still, the only real recourse is to keep the faith. The man knows what he’s doing, and the worst thing that could happen to this team would be internal division, with players or parents whispering and pretending they know better. There’s no guarantee of success, but in recent years, Randolph has shown he knows how to adapt his teams to their strengths and get them where they need to be by late February.

Next, this team isn’t nearly as experienced as it may seem. Despite the apparent experience of last season, there are only three junior or senior forwards who played a regular shift last year, and with all of them on the top line, the “experience” on the lower lines is very young; Garrett Worth is the only one of them who really had a regular shift for most of last year. In addition, Randolph has tossed a few more sophomores and freshmen into the mix this year, most notably on defense; there will probably be more of that in coming weeks following the scary injury to Nathaniel Benson on Saturday. The youth movement is also something Randolph has done a number of times over the years, and often with some success, though it’s been less of a theme in this most recent run of Tournament teams.

East has no glaring weakness, but there’s also room for improvement everywhere. The top two lines are scoring some, but must up their output to meet their potential, and we’ll see how the Hounds handle the third and fourth lines down the stretch. Like last year, the defense has some talent and can control games fairly well (they’ve only been outshot once this year, by Eden Prairie), but like last year, they have to clean up the periodic lapses that leave them exposed in back. Kirk Meierhoff is the man is goal, and he’s been passable, but there’s certainly room for a little more.

Section losses have all but guaranteed they’ll play a team that’s at least something of an upset threat in the first round, just like last year. Nothing will come easy. The 7AA State Tournament entrant, however, will be one of three teams, and Elk River and Grand Rapids aren’t running away with anything yet. Rapids just played its most complete game against East since the 2011 section final, with some added (controlled) physicality and a Gavin Hain-reinforced blue line making a difference, but the Hounds still nearly won. Their meeting with Elk River awaits near the end of the season, but we all know the history there, and for all the Elks’ success so far, I’m not sure they have the star player that can break things open against an East system in the way that the teams beating East recently. Riley Tufte with Blaine, Mitchell Mattson with Rapids, and Casey Mittelstadt for Eden Prairie were all the primary protagonists in their wins, and raw talent is one of the best ways to overcome the integrity of an East system. Elk River might—might—have that in a healthy Jax Murray, but otherwise a game between these two will be a grind-it-out slugfest, and with the clock winding down and a State Tournament berth on the line, where would you put your money?

Finally, there’s one other, less tangible thing that last year’s team had that this one may or may not. Randolph lauded his 2014-2015 captains, Brian Bunten and Nick Altmann, in a way I’ve never heard him praise his players before. That kind of leadership is tough to replace, and this isn’t necessarily to indict the current captains, all of whom had some big moments in last year’s run.

Still, there is a risk here of complacency. A risk of “we’ve done it before, so we can do it again” becoming a crutch and a wish instead of cool confidence. A risk that comes with growing up barely knowing what it’s like to not make the State Tournament, and assuming it is one’s birthright. (These seniors were in 4th grade at the time of the David Brown Incident, which was the last time East lost in sections.) These kids are the kings of East after last year’s run, but a bunch of hungry teams are out there to take them down, and they’ll have to embrace that target and find that fire that spurred them along last year. They must keep working and denying losing, or the 7AA crown will find a new home.


The Golden Years of Mike Randolph

26 Feb

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


East Side Ingenuity

6 Feb

The final week of the high school hockey regular season begins next week. For Duluth East fans, this season is lurching oddly toward the finish line, filled with more uncertainty than any time in recent memory. There have been signs of progress along the way, as they’ve held two of the of the state’s best offenses under two goals, and had a few more offensive outbursts lately, but on the whole they are still a .500 team, headed for their first serious section quarterfinal game in over 15 years.

The most encouraging outing came on Saturday night in Elk River, when the Hounds played the Elks dead-even on the road en route to a 1-1 tie. After a slow start, a crushing hit by Alex Spencer jolted East to life, and the Hounds took it to the Elks for a majority of the rest of the game, bottling them up superbly and generating their own share of chances. A shot in the final minute of overtime might just have slipped in under the crossbar—no one will ever really know—but the statement mattered more than the final score: when they play well, East is on par with the section’s best.

The game showcased Mike Randolph’s spurt of ingenuity this season: a 2-3 forecheck, with the center manning the point along the blue line between the two defensemen. It’s something I haven’t seen out of a prominent high school program before, but it makes intuitive sense: with a struggling defense and a lack of talent to maintain the dominant forecheck of years past, the Hounds have resorted to doing everything they can to bottle up the opposition in its own zone. This approach comes at the obvious expense of bodies down low—with only two forwards deep in the zone, the offense runs the risk of becoming a very predictable series of passes around the perimeter—but it can make it difficult for even good teams to break out with any rhythm, and protects the defensemen from overexposure. The presence of the center on the blue line also frees the defensemen to pinch more freely than they might otherwise, keeping some semblance of the classic East cycle alive. To give an idea of its effectiveness, Elk River hadn’t been held under 3 goals all season long, but needed a late power play just to tie this game at one.

That cycle was on display again on Monday. East continued to work the 2-3 in Cloquet, a decision that may have sacrificed a chance at a win in the short term in the interest of preparing the system for the playoffs. They kept Cloquet bottled up for long stretches of the game, to the point that the Jacks’ offense degenerated into a string of icings, but the go-ahead goal never came, as East never generated quite enough in front of the net of sophomore Eric Newman. This is the weakness of the system: it gives East a shot against most anyone, but it also lets less skilled opponents hang around, and that is an especially important concern given the likely first round match-up against Andover, a team built around a great goalie and the occasional offensive surge forward.

The lack of offensive zone presence wasn’t an issue on Thursday against Blaine’s porous defense, but the sloppy defense reared its ugly head again, especially in the opening twelve minutes of the game, when East spotted the Bengals a 3-0 lead. While they showed their mettle as they battled back to twice tie the game, the game was already being played on Blaine’s terms, and that did not bode well for a team built around defense first. It was a second straight toss-up game with a top-ten team, but these track meet games are too volatile, and reminiscent of their most recent losses in sections, a 6-5 loss to Cloquet in 2008 and a 5-4 loss to Grand Rapids the year before, when East lost control for long stretches before coming back and ultimately failing to close the deal. Blaine is a top-ten team and deeper offensively than anyone in 7AA, but Grand Rapids and Elk River certainly have the firepower to get East into that sort of game (as Rapids did in January) and render all of this pining for systems useless.

The East defense remains the most profound concern. There are too many blown assignments and bad decisions leading to odd-man rushes, and occasional long stretches stuck in the defensive zone quickly deflate momentum. Stupid penalties have also been rally-killers at times. Gunnar Howg has won the goalie job back for good and has proven a savior at times, though he can’t do it all himself. I’ll avoid naming names, but a couple of players are frequent culprits, and must avoid the lapses that may end up costing this team its season.

The offense is showing more potential after a slow start. The longtime top line combo of Nick Altmann and Brian Bunten creates the most chances, many of which come agonizingly close but don’t quite make their way into the net. The all-junior second line, after leading the way early on and going a bit cold midway through the season, erupted in the Blaine game, giving some hope there. Luke Dow is certainly the most dynamic of the centers, and can run things from the point when East sets up the 2-3 in the offensive zone. The third line, usually featuring freshmen Ian Mageau and Garrett Worth with Matt Lyttle playing the high center role (with occasional Nick Funk and Ryder Donovan sightings) is now scoring with some regularity as the young snipers come into their own. The three freshmen on the roster have all come along nicely as this season goes on.

And so the Hounds head for their reckoning. They have two games in the final week, both against higher-ranked but beatable teams, Lakeville South and Minnetonka. Between those two games is the 7AA seeding meeting, which should be put on pay-per-view, but is most likely to hand the Hounds a 3-seed and a first round date with Andover. (There’s an outside shot St. Michael-Albertville could poach the 3 and leave East playing Cloquet in the quarterfinals, but I’ll be surprised if their schedule gets much respect at the meeting.) It doesn’t matter a whole lot, since the section is such a mess. Elk River has its best player in Jake Jaremko, but the depth, especially on defense, is not phenomenal, and Amsoil Arena has not been kind to them. Grand Rapids is bipolar, looking like world-beaters one moment and sickly the next; who knows if they can string together three straight wins. STMA is reasonably deep and hungry to prove themselves, but venturing into uncharted territory; Dave Esse has hard-working Cloquet rising to the occasion down the stretch. Andover has a goalie and a handful of skaters who can be difference-makers, and are plenty capable of stealing a game or two. Even Forest Lake, despite a poor year, has a history of doing well against Rapids, whom they are almost certain to play in the first round. And then we have these Hounds, trying to find that right balance and get back that East side energy and confidence that have kept them atop this section for the past six years. We’ll see if this group has it in them.


Learning How to Win

11 Jan

It’s been an unfamiliar sort of season for the Duluth East boys’ hockey team. With a new core and the burden of history, they’re off to a slow start, and there’s been a bit of declinist hysteria (all from outside the program, from what I’ve seen) surrounding a team that would, in a vacuum, simply be finding its way through a difficult schedule. But this is the burden of putting on the jersey of a six-time defending section champion with a target on its back. That burden can also be a source of inspiration, as was the case last season, when 7AA’s confident bluebloods stole a section title away from rising Elk River. Which story will be that of the 2014-2015 Hounds? My visit to Duluth this past week coincided with three of their biggest home games of the year, a stretch that included a decent win, an ugly loss, and a quality effort in a losing cause. As we enter the second half of the regular season, here’s my report on the state of the Hounds—a team that, in the words of its coach, is still “learning how to win.”

The week began in front of a packed Heritage Center for the yearly renewal of the crosstown rivalry with Duluth Denfeld. Long cannon fodder for the Hounds, the Hunters surged to relevance two years ago when they beat East and made the 7A section final, and this year’s team looks to be on par with that one. The Hunters came out fired up and led 2-1 after a strong first period, but East regrouped in the locker room and went on to play solid system hockey the rest of the way. The only real issue from then on was special teams; Denfeld briefly tied the game on a late second period goal, and East squandered numerous power plays in the 3rd before giving the Hunters a breath of life with two late penalties of their own. Even so, they limited chances effectively, and held on for a 4-3 win.

The stakes grew higher on Thursday, when Grand Rapids came to town in a crucial 7AA battle. The Hounds embarrassed the Thunderhawks in Grand Rapids last season, and Rapids was only too pleased to return the favor this year. Once again, a poor first period was East’s undoing, as they were completely worked over by the Rapids forwards and down 2-0 at the intermission. Once again they did a reasonably good job of getting to their systems in the later periods, but another defensive breakdown made it 3-0. The Hounds got one back in the third and the momentum seemed to swing, with history creeping back into everyone’s minds, but an ill-timed penalty allowed Rapids to score the back-breaker, and they added an empty-netter when Mike Randolph pulled his goalie with 3 minutes to go. The power play goal and the empty-netter were Rapids’ only two shots on goal in the third period, showing that the Hounds could stifle Rapids when they did get to their game, but they took far too long in getting there, and it doesn’t take much for the Thunderhawks’ top forwards to leave their mark. The 5-1 final is more reversible than East’s 5-0 win in Rapids last season was, but it’s a mountain to climb.

Things only got more difficult on Saturday, when sixth-ranked Eden Prairie pulled into Duluth. Not only are the Eagles among the state’s elite, they bear a number of similarities to 7AA frontrunner Elk River with their dominant top line; to retain the section crown, East will have to beat a similar team. Finally, East had itself a good first period, grabbing an early goal and playing the Eagles even, and they kept that energy going through most of the rest of the game, ending with the most complete performance I’ve seen out of them this season. They were beaten on two moments of individual brilliance by Casey Mittelstadt, the state’s top sophomore, and despite plenty of chances, the tying goal just wouldn’t come. Mittelstadt finished his hat trick with an empty-netter, giving the Eagles their first ever win over East that did not require three overtimes.

East now sits at 6-7-1, and is at some risk of its first losing season since 1953. The nasty schedule continues on Tuesday, when the team visits undefeated, top-ranked Lakeville North. Things ease up somewhat after that, with five straight opponents outside the top 20, but this team can’t take any of them for granted, and every one will likely be a battle.

In trying to figure out the Hounds’ lurching start, the biggest difference is almost certainly the absence of Phil Beaulieu on the blue line. As Mittelstadt’s performance Saturday showed, a certain D-I player can make all the difference in a tight high school game. It’s also not coincidental that many of Mike Randolph’s greatest overachievers—1991, 1998, 2013, 2014—have been built around a fantastic defenseman or two who could run games from the back. Most fundamentally, the East system requires that defensemen be able to hold up one-on-one against other teams’ top forwards with relative frequency, for those moments when opposing teams do pierce through the clogged neutral zone. The East defense, young and unsettled, is taking baby steps in that direction, but when it has lapses, they are profound, and undo a team that is not built to overcome big deficits.

East’s meager 2.43 goals per game average might suggest offense is their biggest problem, but the numbers can lie. Randolph teams build from the back, and though they have decent forward depth, they don’t quite have the skill to win a shootout against Grand Rapids or Elk River. The Hounds don’t need brilliance from this fairly deep group of defensemen; they just need steadiness and intelligence, with no ill-advised pinches and basic competence in holding the zone. If they can move the puck effectively out of their own zone and limit the odd-man rushes, the chances will come; that’s when East can start worrying about cashing in on those chances, and improving the uncharacteristically poor power play. It’s a very achievable goal, but not a guarantee.

The other big part of the equation is the Hounds’ youth. With three freshmen and an eighth grader seeing ice time, there are going to be some rookie moments, as was the case on Middelstadt’s first two goals in the Eden Prairie game; the first came with an all-bantam-age third line on the ice, while he walked around defenseman Luke LaMaster on the second. The promise is obvious, though, as the young line had a very respectable showing in the offensive zone on Saturday, and LaMaster has shown some flashes as well. East has had some success over the years with the young guns when they grow up quickly enough (1994, 2000, 2005, 2010), though the last two seasons when they were not a top-3 seed—1993 and 1999, neither of which saw deep playoff runs—were also teams that had a couple of freshmen seeing regular ice time.

East has also had some unexpected goaltending intrigue, as incumbent Gunnar Howg’s rocky Elite League carried over into a pedestrian start. Ever decisive, Randolph benched the senior Howg in favor of sophomore Kirk Meierhoff, who has been reasonably good, if not quite a game-changer, ever since. It now seems to be Meierhoff’s job to lose, and we’ll see how he holds up against the Lakeville North assault on Tuesday. As with the young skaters, it is sink or swim for Meierhoff, and he will have to grow up in a hurry.

For all the travails, 7AA is winnable. Elk River is the obvious favorite with the record and ranking to match, but there are questions about its defense and goaltending, and Grand Rapids gave them a one-goal game. Rapids has the firepower, but appears an emotionally volatile squad capable of great peaks and valleys, depending on their psyche. Dave Esse has Cloquet improving, but they need a few more big wins to prove they’re for real; St. Michael-Albertville has a strong record against poor competition. Even Forest Lake and Andover appear modest upset threats.

Under Randolph, the regular season is a 25-game warm-up for three playoff games. It means learning a system, a process exemplified by the performance of Luke Dow, the junior center who had 34 points at Duluth Marshall last season. He has 12 at East so far, to lead the team; of course a tougher schedule makes things difficult—no 4-point games against Eveleth this year—but he’s also being asked to track back far more than before, and be a more complete player. The Hounds have also spread their scoring some, with the top two forwards, Dow and Nick Altmann, on separate lines to generate the depth necessary to keep pace with the top teams in the state. Player point totals do not tell this team’s story.

The goal is to have a balanced machine going by playoff time. It doesn’t work out every year, but as history shows, it does more often than not. The players simply need to keep the faith and keep at it through tough results, building on things like the Eden Prairie game, despite the loss. The margin for error may be smaller than ever, but they have the formula, and have had some sustained moments where they get there. If they continue to build on that and quickly get back to consistent execution when things do go wrong, they can play with nearly anyone, and if the clock is winding down late in a close game at Amsoil Arena, it’s hard not to like the Hounds.