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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.

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