Tag Archives: state hockey

Tourney Reflection 2019

13 Mar

Less than a week after it all comes to an end, it seems like some other life left behind. I’ve recovered some sleep and escaped the comedown, but my mind is still caught up in my annual reunion with good friends and those once-a-year acquaintances who make their way to St. Paul for four days. From Eveleth to Mahtomedi, from Pine City to Plymouth, from the old Duluth crew to people who come from across the country for just this week, we all unite for our annual revival. Sleepless nights and marathon days, the rhythm of the commute to and from the X, the circuits around the concourse to bring life back to sleeping legs, to say nothing of the revelations that come late at night at Eagle Street. A few moments of wonder pierce through the mad blur and endure beyond those 96 hours, and as always, I look to collect a few of them before my memory fails me.

A steady exodus of old powers and one colossal section final upset left Class A as fresh as it has ever felt. Debutants came in from North Branch and a stretch along the Minnesota River to show their newfound puck pride; Mahtomedi found itself in a new favorite status, while Delano suddenly looks like a program on the rise. The small school division crowned a first-time champion, a ruthlessly efficient St. Cloud Cathedral team that left little doubt over three days that they had the formula down right. Derrick Brown and his merry band set a new standard for Class A, and we can expect them at noon on Saturday again in the near future.

In AA, an old guard that has ruled this past decade took home most of the hardware. The Lake Conference guaranteed its eight title in eleven years before the title game even began. St. Thomas Academy’s Vannellis, in their final season, finally broke through to a semifinal, their Cadets bringing a physical and defensive edge that had eluded them in AA quarterfinals past. The Cadets in the stands brought a refreshing energy to their student section and livened up an unusually straightforward Friday night. Lakeville South made a valiant push for a third stunning upset in a decade behind Henry Welsch, whose performance in net pushed toward the record books and came close to derailing Eden Prairie before their run began. But Jack Jensen spared us the chaos of a morning restart with a game-winner late in the third overtime, and the Eagles took flight the next night against Blaine as they stormed back to topple the powerful Bengals.

For a stretch on Saturday night, it looked as if Eden Prairie’s depth would lift the Eagles to a state title. But Edina, ever the gold standard for Minnesota high school hockey, lived up to their legacy yet again. The Hornets stung twice in the third to take the lead, but the Eagles had an answer. Seize the moment, Peter Colby: the unsung senior buried a feed from Jett Jungels and added his name to a list that includes just one other in the two-class era, that of Kyle Rau. Beneath a blanket of snow on championship Saturday, the Hornet revelers took to the icy streets to celebrate a thirteenth crown in fifty-one years.

As always, a handful of players rose to the occasion. Greenway’s Casadonte Lawson dazzled against the background of his brother’s kidney transplant, and his pairing with Ben Troumbly gave the Tourney its most dynamic duo since perhaps Locker and Spehar. Jon Bell recovered from his introduction adventure to claim a spot on the All-Tournament Team. For the AA finalists, glory fell to the less famed names: Clayton Shultz, Louden Hogg, and Colby all took their turns stealing the spotlight from their teams’ established stars. In its swan song, the All-Hockey Hair Team video captured a full range of flow that has become a full-on sideshow. And sometimes, the most jarring sights are not those of glory: Joe Paradise, heir to Herb Brooks’s legacy, lingered in the arena long after everyone else had left the ice after his Mahtomedi team lost to Greenway, gutted by a final defeat at the X.

The truly exceptional combatants in this Tourney came down from Itasca County, where Greenway showed championship resolve in a second-place run. Coleraine, Bovey, Taconite, Marble, Calumet, Pengilly, Nashwauk, and Keewatin relocated themselves to St. Paul for a week. The support came from down the generations, an array of letter jackets dating to the dawn of Iron Range hockey littering the stands across one half of the arena. Already the darlings of the Tourney after an upset of mighty Hermantown, the Raiders made up a two-goal deficit to Delano and then gave us the finest game of the Tourney, a thrilling semifinal against Mahtomedi in which Ben Troumbly’s heroics unleashed a wave of green on St. Paul. The Raiders’ two lines, their legs beaten to mush, somehow kept on coming nearly all the way through the final against St. Cloud Cathedral. Greenway lost a hockey game but won in everything else.

Only two seasons ago, when Monticello showed us the raw excitement of a newcomer, have I seen anything that approached this level of commitment. Greenway in 2019, however, had a different feel, that of a giant from the past roaring back to life. This was a collective identity that left eyes wet and bars dry, a show of support so profound that it took any cliché about tradition or community and made it real. Greenway’s return to greatness was a celebration of everything that high school sports can be, and a reminder that, in some places, it is far more than just a game. To join that nation in the stands and drink it in, if only vicariously, is the Tourney at its best.

Now, though, that great Greenway run is nothing more than a memory. A brutal winter that took out too many games is starting to melt away into Minnesota spring. We add their exploits to the record books, write down what we remember, and stash away recordings to pull out at some distant date when we want to remember what it meant to dive straight into the pursuit of glory for one’s friends, to sacrifice one’s mind and body for a game, to care only about the results on the ice and where the party might be afterward. It goes by all too quickly, though we can always pass it along to that next group to descend on St. Paul for four days in March. We’ll do it all again next year.

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State Tourney Preview 2016

29 Feb

It’s finally time for Minnesota’s most important holiday: the boys’ state high school hockey tournament, which begins at 11:00 on Wednesday. Needless to say, there’s plenty of reason for excitement.

You can find me covering the Tourney in lots of places:

Twitter: @KarlEastHockey

Cold Omaha podcast preview with Danny Ryan, Tony Scott of Youth Hockey Hub, and myself: https://audioboom.com/boos/4240868-2-28-16-high-school-hockey-podcast

Quarterfinal game capsules for MNHockeyProspects: Class A | Class AA

Predictions with State of Hockey News: http://stateofhockeynews.com/2016-articles/2016-minnesota-boys-state-high-school-hockey-tournament-preview.html

Longer updates, press conference commentary, and arguments with random anonymous people on the Forum: http://www.ushsho.com/forums/viewforum.php?f=32

Also, check out the Dave LaVaque’s Star Tribune story on Wednesday about the 20th anniversary of the Greatest Game Ever Played, the five-overtime affair between Duluth East and Apple Valley in 1996. I had a minor assist in its creation.

Finally, you can also find me (and a few other Forum members) at McGovern’s on Saturday afternoon after the Class A championship game. Come join the party if you’re around.

To whet your appetite, here are some of this tournament’s biggest storylines:

Who are these people, anyway? No Edina. No Duluth East. No Hill-Murray. No Moorhead or Roseau. You have to go back to 1954 to find the last Tourney without one of those five. Even Lakeville North, which has become a regular and seemed a safe pick to come out of 1AA, is nowhere to be found. This AA field is a mix of throwbacks and newbies, with Eden Prairie being the only real regular entrant in recent years. Grand Rapids, celebrating its 15th berth, is the most regular entrant, but this is only their third of the two-class era, meaning they’ve finally caught up with Rochester Century on that front. (Sorry, Thunderhawks, we wounded Hounds have to get our digs in here and there.) The Halloween Machine is back for the first time in nine years, as is 80s power Burnsville; Anoka, whose best years were in the late 90s and early 2000s, has also unexpectedly crashed the party. On the other end of the spectrum, Farmington makes its AA debut, while Stillwater is suddenly among the favorites in its second State trip.

Can Anyone Stop the Hawks? If the AA field is highly unpredictable, A is just the opposite: Hermantown is a clear favorite, and would seem to be on a collision course with Breck in the final. If ever there were a time for the Hawks to end their long run of second-place finishes, it’s this year—though, of course, I said that last year, too. Barring a Thief River Falls upset of Breck, Hermantown’s road to the title will also go through two private schools, which would really be a nice touch for our old friend Bruce Plante. Hermantown has come a long way in the past few years, going from a plucky upstart trying to hang with St. Thomas to the goliath of Class A

Casey Time This year’s whacky section playoffs drained the Tourney of some of the state’s top talents, but one will be there in primetime: Casey Mittelstadt of Eden Prairie, the top player in the state and arguably the best in his age group in the nation. His talented Eagle team hasn’t always jelled, so if they are to win a third AA title in eight years, it’s likely on the shoulders of the junior Gopher recruit. There’s some debate over whether Eden Prairie deserved the top seed, but in a Tourney with no Edina or private schools, they’re certainly the ones with the targets on their backs.

Debuts on the Big Stage The less predictable Tourney field means the state will get a chance to see many of the top players who might not get as much recognition on the regular circuit of top teams. Isaac Johnson of Anoka is one of the state’s top juniors, while Farmington defenseman Tyler Jette got a Mr. Hockey finalist nomination as something of a sleeper. Ethan Johnson is the heart and soul of Thief River Falls, and the Prowlers will have to ride him as far as they can. Even Stillwater’s stars, such as the Cates brothers and Jesse Bjugstad, should get a little more attention than they did while steamrolling through the weak Suburban East Conference.

Late-Night Intrigue The best two quarterfinals, as is often the case, look to be the late night battles between the 4 and 5 seeds. In Class A, it’s a clash between two private schools that look pretty similar on paper, with debutant St. Paul Academy squaring off against surging St. Cloud Cathedral. In AA, where the privates have been shut out of the field for the third time in six years, we have an all-North battle, as Bemidji and Grand Rapids collide. This one should be great, even if it deprives the North of two cracks at the crown, and sets up a potential classic between the winner and Eden Prairie on Friday night. (Is there anything better than North vs. Metro on a Friday night?) It’s an excellent clash in styles, as Bemidji’s depth and steady defense collides with Rapids’ star power.

Enjoy the Tournament, follow along, and I’ll do my best to share my thoughts as I make my way through this crazy, fantastic week. See you at the X!

Karl’s 2015 State Hockey Tournament Coverage

2 Mar

Happy State Tournament week! Here’s a quick rundown on what you need to know for four days of nonstop hockey.

I’ve posted game capsules on each of the quarterfinals, complete with players to watch, to mnhockeyprospects.com. Here they are: Class A | Class AA

Brackets are available from the MSHSL here: Class A | Class AA

Throughout the Tournament, I’ll be tweeting from @KarlEastHockey, and will give longer updates on the Forum, including notes from most of the press conferences. Life has conspired so that I may miss a handful of games this Tourney for the first time in eight years, but I’ll try to give some forewarning if and when that happens. As usual, there will be some sort of reflection essay at the end.

To whet your appetite, here are five of the better storylines heading into this Tournament:

Chasing the Jags

Bloomington Jefferson won three straight titles from 1992-1994, and the 1993 champions went undefeated. No AA team has achieved either of those feats since, but there’s a very large possibility of one of them happening this season. Smart money is on Edina, despite being the two-seed, to win a third straight championship, while the one team to beat them this season, Lakeville North, enters the Tourney 28-0. This sets up the possibility of a mouth-watering final, a rematch of last season’s convincing Hornet win. If it’s those two on Saturday night, there won’t be an empty seat in the house.

Northern Hope?

Bemidji and Duluth East are this season’s two northern AA entrants, and they open up against two teams that are not exactly Tourney fan favorites—Edina and St. Thomas Academy, respectively. The arena will be behind them, but they both face very long odds; Edina is the cruelest first round opponent imaginable for Bemidji in their first visit to State since 1985, and East is the surprise team in the field—if East can ever really be a surprise—and will have its hands full with STA’s skilled forwards. Still, both are playing well right now, with Bemidji shutting out everyone in their path through 8AA and East showing sizeable improvement over the season and a knack for pulling out the close ones. We’ll see if either one can carry the 218 pride this season.

Is This Finally Hermantown’s Year?

Five straight second place finishes will strain anyone, and Hermantown coach Bruce Plante might just go ballistic if the Hawks fail to clinch the Class A crown this season. This is the best team they’ve had over this stretch, and there’s reason to suspect they could roll through the field in a manner reminiscent of St. Thomas Academy at its best. Still, there are plenty of possible roadblocks, from the East Grand Forks team that took them apart last season to surging Mahtomedi to one of those dreaded private schools, Breck. Still, this is a golden opportunity for the Hawks to put all those demons to rest.

Star Power

If you want to see many of the top talents in the state, this is a good year for you. The six Metro AA teams have 19 combined D-I committed players, with plenty more to come. Seven Mr. Hockey finalists will be on hand, along with a handful of others who could have easily made the cut. Edina and Lakeville North are about as deep with stars as it gets these days, while it’s no surprise to see Hill and St. Thomas putting out a bunch; the AA quarterfinal nightcap matches two of the best, Blaine behemoth Riley Tufte and Eden Prairie wunderkind Casey Mittelstadt. Mahtomedi junior Jack Becker and Breck junior Chase Ellingson should finally get some recognition this weekend, too. I could go on and on.

A Stacked Field

When Hill-Murray has a strong regular season and still gets stuck playing the top-ranked team in the state in the first round, you know we’re in for some good hockey. Six of the top seven teams, according to nearly every AA ranking, are in the Tournament, and the two northern teams have some intrigue around them as well. The top four in Class A are also there, and St. Cloud Apollo isn’t a pushover, either. It doesn’t get much better than that; the 2012 AA Tourney is about as close as it’s come. That year, in case you’ve forgotten, saw the four seeded teams all go down in the quarterfinals. That seems a longshot this season given the strength of Edina and Lakeville North, but the potential is there for an awful lot of good hockey.

I hope you’ll join me for part of the way, either virtually or in person at the Xcel Center. There will also be a Forum meet-up at McGoverns on Saturday afternoon after the conclusion of the Class A title game and any Bruce Plante press conferences. Enjoy the games.

State Tourney Reflection 2014

12 Mar

This post originally appeared on mnhockeyprospects.com and on the USHSHO forum.

The seventieth State Tournament has come and gone, its whirlwind collision of nostalgia and renewal consuming us for four days before melting away into a Minnesota spring. The best team in each class was obvious, but it was still more competitive than last year’s, particularly on the Class A side. We had one instant classic, a double overtime thriller with drama and intrigue at every turn, as stars dropped like flies with injury and exhaustion late in the game. Gary Thorne graced the Tourney with an added dose of gravitas, and the referees made their presence felt a bit more than usual. Edina’s repeat at the top of the heap lets us use the word ‘dynasty’ for the first time in many years, and with an all-public AA field, the Hornets had little trouble claiming the villain tag.

Some of the best stories in this Tourney came far from that small town on the west side with a dream, though. Feisty Luverne proved its doubters wrong and proved it can compete on the highest stage, while New Prague recorded the South’s first top-3 finish in over ten years. Roseau added to its proud Tourney history with a very competitive 5th place showing in AA, its stars once again coming south to dazzle the St. Paul crowds. The biggest of the small-town winners, though, was East Grand Forks, and with its seamless breakouts and a relentless Green Wave of powerful hits, the Class A champion’s mysterious mascot only seemed apt. There is room for all types at the Tourney, but the growth and sustenance of hockey in small towns keeps the Tourney in touch with its roots. There were good storylines among the big city schools, too: Stillwater made its debut, Lakeville North’s thrilling overtime victories put AA’s southernmost section in the title game for the first time in 25 years, and while their faces are a bit more familiar, section wins by Eagan, Centennial, and Duluth East were a reminder of what good coaching and smart defense can do in the playoffs.

As always, the players make the Tourney. There was the delight of Eddie Eades, posing theories on cookies and ice cream, and then there was the agony of Luc Snuggerud, the wounded warrior bowed in defeat. Tyler Nanne channeled his grandfather’s ease with words, while Nick Wolff probably still hasn’t finished his latest shift for Eagan. Zach Yon of Roseau made a last-second pitch for Mr. Hockey, while Luverne eighth-grader Jaxon Nelson gave us a glimpse of the future. Erik Gadbois proved an unlikely hero for scrappy St. Cloud Cathedral, and Eden Prairie’s Michael Parrish mustered a heroism that transcended hockey, putting together a hat trick in the shadow of his father’s death.

The coaches, too, add their own distinct flavor. The old guard was on hand, still plugging along; Bruce Plante was understandably chastened after a fifth straight second place finish, but still managed to show why he is beloved in Hermantown, and a vintage Mike Randolph pulled all the levers he could in a losing cause before making “embellishment” the word of the Tourney. The bubbly and quotable Trent Eigner took his program to the next level, while Luverne’s rising star, Derrick Brown, did a victory lap for all of small-town hockey. But the clear-eyed focus of Tyler Palmiscno (with an assist from the peerless Scott Oliver) and the supreme confidence of Curt Giles carried the day.

Giles is normally one to run a tight ship; he’s not one to furnish reporters with juicy quotes, nor does he hold strong public opinions on the endless debates over private schools and junior hockey. Such is the luxury of Edina, of course: he presides over a program of unmatched depth, and he knows he’s blessed not to have many of the worries facing others. Back at the pinnacle yet again, though, Giles let the façade come down and channeled that old Herb Brooks line, saying the emotion of a Tourney win rivals that of the Stanley Cup. Repeats may tire some fans, especially when they taste of cake, but sports need dominant powers to serve as the measuring stick. Edina sets the standard for all of hockey in Minnesota, and it’s up to the rest of the state to find a response to this latest Hornet run. They came in with the flair and swagger of champions, a fast and edgy team unafraid to show off its talents and let the world know who is number one. Oh, to be young and a Hornet.

The whole weekend overflows with youth, even for those whose follicles have forsaken them, rendered them ineligible for the Hockey Hair Team. This year there was no one quote that fixed itself in my mind, no one poignant moment that pierced through the din. Instead, it was a steady, sustained buzz, fueled by stops at bars between sessions and those incessant Hornets. There are the kids doing what we once did: plotting an off-color chant, smuggling in a beach ball, fighting the crowds at the Expo, bumming around the upper deck, perhaps going on a run through the St. Paul night in the ecstasy of victory, or off to a party in some hotel room, all pretense of dignity and decorum forgotten for a weekend at the start of Lent. For those of us with some remove from the glory days, we have the impromptu reunions, the ease of chatting up anyone knowing we have common ground, the gathering of generations, the march of time and a ceaseless cycle bearing us back to the past. Those of us in the stands can lose track of the constant turnover, forget the rawness of emotions that come out no matter who is on the winning or losing end. That part never changes, and even as we head into summer or perhaps out into the world beyond high school, it long lingers, waiting to be brought forth again for four more days next March. No matter where the world takes us, the memory endures.

Karl’s State Hockey Coverage

4 Mar

Greetings from Minneapolis, where I’m settled in with some old friends on the eve of the 2014 Minnesota High School Hockey Tournament.

For preview capsules of all eight quarterfinals, check out these posts of mine on mnhockeyprospects.com: Class A | Class AA

For the third straight year I’ll have a press pass to the Tourney, which means I can add some insights that the general public might not see. When I get to the Xcel Center tomorrow, I’ll set up a thread on the forum where I’ll post updates, with quotes from press conferences and random observations (some enlightening, some less so). For the 140-character versions of these things, plus observations on the number of free cookies I’m eating, check out my Twitter feed here.

 From a big picture perspective, here are six of the more compelling storylines this year:

Cinderella Stories In each class, there was a monumental upset of a private school power by an unheralded school in sections, as Orono took down Breck, and Stillwater edged past Hill-Murray. For their trouble, those two teams have drawn the top seed in each class. Orono will need another great performance by goalie Jonathan Flakne and hope for a few breaks against East Grand Forks’s smothering defense. Stillwater, on the other hand, took it to White Bear Lake and Hill-Murray for long stretches of their upset wins, and while a game against Edina in primetime is a tall order for a school making its first Tourney appearance, they’ll have a shot if they play the same way.

Publick Skoolz Rool For only the second time in the past 15 years, there are no private schools in AA. Class A, too, is down to only two privates this year, which ties the lowest total in the past ten Tourneys. Those two schools—St. Cloud Cathedral and Totino-Grace—meet in the first round, and they aren’t exactly traditional powerhouses, either. This leaves the heckling students in the upper deck with a bit of a dilemma, but Edina is always easy to tag as the villain, and it will be interesting to see if Hermantown starts wearing out their welcome in Class A.

Northern power in Class A? Northern teams are usually among the contenders in Class A, but with the dominance of St. Thomas and Breck over the past few years, none have won a title since Hermantown in 2007. The Hawks and East Grand Forks are odds-on favorites in Class A this year, meaning the trophy could be heading back up into the hinterland.

A Repeat in AA? AA hasn’t had a repeat champion since Bloomington Jefferson won three straight from 1992-1994, but Edina is the best-positioned team to do so in a while. The Hornets have everything you could ask for, and the downside to 3 top-5 teams going down in section playoff thrillers is a Tournament field with—on paper, at least—an easier path for the favorites who do make it through. For all their success, the Hornets have been an underdog in their three title runs during the two-class era, but have yet to close the deal in the years in which they’ve been favored.

The South Rises It was a good year for southern teams. In Lakeville North, 1AA has its first seeded team ever, and if the young Panthers can handle the bright lights, they have good odds of making the AA final. In Class A, New Prague grabbed the 3-seed and a fairly easy first round draw in Chisago Lakes, meaning a southern team has a good shot at a small-school semifinal for the first time since 2003. And then there’s undefeated Luverne, which has been saddled with Hermantown in the first round. Even if they get blown out, their season has been great for the traditionally hockey-poor southwest corner of the state, and should help boost interest in that area.

Gary Thorne I may be in the press box, but part of me envies those of you watching from home this year, as you’ll enjoy one of hockey’s greatest voices calling the action in the AA Tourney. Thorne’s play-by-play is synonymous with many of the greatest moments in hockey history over the past 25 years, and now he’ll set his voice to the memorable moments of the 2014 Tourney. Of course, he’ll be paired with the timeless Lou Nanne, now in his fiftieth year of providing Tournament commentary.

I hope you’ll join me for part of my week in the press box—though, of course, I’ll be abandoning my cushy perch and heading down to the stands for the 8:00 game on Thursday, when Duluth East takes on Eagan in its quarterfinal. It’s a great match-up between two very similar teams that play very tough hockey, and renews the classic north-versus-metro rivalry that helped build the Tourney. There’s something about that late-night game that lends itself to drama and intrigue—it’s gone to overtime the past two years—and it’s also a great time slot for the Twin Cities-based members of Greyhounds Nation, who should be free to join me in the stands for an impromptu reunion. No matter what the Hounds do, it’ll be a memorable four days, and it’ll be over all too soon. At that point I’ll be writing my annual reflection essay, and then it’ll be a long, hopefully warm, summer before we start the cycle again.

The Dynasty Lives

28 Feb

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

Not so fast.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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