Tag Archives: state tournament

State Tournament Reflection 2017

15 Mar

We’ve finished our annual four-day whirlwind through St. Paul, an exhausting marathon that goes by in the blink of an eye. From a neutral’s view, this 2017 Tourney rises above any in recent memory: this was hockey at its most thrilling, and rarely did it allow me to turn my eyes away from the ice. When I did, it was mostly to marvel: at the size of the crowd, the ushers in futile pursuit of beach balls, Section 207 coming together again. Even the warmups have become required viewing, the hair sometimes making me wonder if I’d stumbled into a fashion show with some hockey games on the side. But that was all still only a part of the Tourney experience: it was a weekend of countless connections, as I put faces to a lot of message board acquaintances and darted about the arena to film little spots and frequent a few favorite establishments around the X. Sleep is a scarce commodity this weekend, but why would I want to waste any of it?

The defining AA moment, as it so often does, came on Friday night. It was North against Metro, power against power, and the Halloween Machine went blow for blow with Mr. Hockey. Zach Stejskal stoned Eden Prairie time and again, a surprise hero emerged in Connor Stefan, and the lone goal off the stick of Casey Mittelstadt went into his own net. Mighty Casey, thrice denied the state championship that would have given him the highest station in Eagle lore, stumbled to the boards and slumped in tears. His agony was a sight I’ve now seen many times from some of the state’s greatest, but it never grows any less raw.

Sorry, Mr. Mittelstadt: this Tournament belonged to the North. Roll your eyes if you like, Metro friends, but we Northerners are stewards of a hockey legacy that dates back to its birth in this state, and when we bust through to claim the crown again, it renews the deepest of traditions. Victories for 218 keep a great rivalry alive, even as populations shift and the game changes. Greater Minnesota had its best Tournament in recent memory, its success showing that hockey is alive and well in all corners of the state, not just the few west Metro enclaves that have frequented Saturday night in recent years. That should be cause for pleasure, no matter one’s tribal loyalties.

Moorhead’s sniping Spuds had the easiest trek through the early rounds, though they succumbed to their usual title game fate. The future, however, is free from warts, and Tatertown will yet become Titletown, someday. Lakeville South repeated its 2012 feat and pulled a first-round upset, albeit on a less grander scale; they quietly put together a very tough Tourney, and the impeccably dressed A.J. Bucchino will likely guide his Cougars back to State before long. Eden Prairie, pushed hard in every single playoff game, found a way against Wayzata and rebounded with enough grace to pull out third place. The defending champs showed us how little records matter when a team buys in to a scheme, while 5AA carried on as 5AA.

The inevitable may have happened in Class A, but not without spectacular theater.  The small-school tournament stunned with its remarkable slate of quality games, not a snoozer in the bunch. None impressed more than the MAML Moose, whose day one upset and second-to-last-second stunner over Northfield made them this season’s darlings. Somehow they managed to top it all in the finale: a 2-0 lead over an unstoppable force that rocked Class A like it never has before, a pair of overtimes, and a charmed goal reversal. It wasn’t to be, their two lines’ legs reduced those of moose plodding through mud by the end, but the echo of that bass drum through the X will linger long. This was the Tournament that turned a lukewarm fan into a true believer in Class A, and one that showed that even a MAML or a Luverne can give a giant everything it can handle with enough strategy and pluck.

The paradox of the Tournament: it’s a tradition-rich homage to youth, and in the span of twelve hours on Friday, I felt both ends of the spectrum, both young and old. The ticket lady ignored my request for an adult ticket and gave me a student one, while an adventure to the 200 level made me feel like an obsolete dinosaur lost in a cloud of hormones. Enough people picked me out at bars or in the concourse that I felt like I must have been around forever, while sitting in the stands instead of the staid press box freed me to be a silly kid brandishing a potato and joining in the Moose chant in the Class A final. It was a delight to rejoin the fans who give this event its atmosphere, and to have a front-row seat to the elation in Grand Rapids, so infectious that even an East grad mustered a few Olés. Rapids was a roller coaster team; one that, since it last took the stage at the X a year ago, learned some important lessons off the ice and came together as a unit on it. Their top line will go down in the annals as one of the best, but a much-maligned defense rose to the occasion, and when Eden Prairie kept the Orange Trinity in check, the second-liners picked up the mantel.

Trent Klatt gave his Thunderhawks faith, and they knew what they had to do: as with the solemn Northern pact around the Tourney, one must carry the burden for the group when another falters. For all the top-end talent on the ice this year, the most memorable moments came from the scrappers, the Stefans, the muckers, the Moose. All those old clichés ring true, and even when I’ve said everything I think I can say about the joy of these games, it all comes pouring out again. The summer will be long and we all need our rest, but is there any question where we’ll be again next March?

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State Tourney Preview 2017

6 Mar

It’s that time of year again: I’m set for a week of fun and games, with a road trip south to delight in 16 hockey games, the wonders of the 200 level, reunions with old friends, press box popcorn, and visits to Cossetta’s and McGovern’s and St. Paul Grill between sessions or for the after-party. (Friends of the Forum and the podcast: see you at McGovern’s after the Class A championship on Saturday.)

As usual, I’ll be tweeting here. (Mostly random insights and observations; there are 50 other people to tell you the score.) Enjoy a Tourney preview podcast here, and capsules on the quarterfinal matchups beneath this article. We’ll have some additional content on Youth Hockey Hub as the Tourney goes along, including podcasts after Thursday and when it’s all over on Sunday, and I’ll be along with my usual reflection essay, too.

Here are a few of the storylines carrying us into this Tournament:

Casey and the Eagle Legacy In 2009, Nick Leddy won a state championship and Mr. Hockey for Eden Prairie. In 2011, Kyle Rau repeated that feat. Now, Casey Mittelstadt, perhaps the greatest of the three, looks to take his place alongside those NHLers in high school hockey lore. The Eagles hit some bumps in the road early in the season, but Mittelstadt announced they’d be running the table after a winless Schwan Cup, and they haven’t lost since. Eden Prairie is on a roll, and are a more complete team than the star-dependent one that lost to Wayzata in last year’s final. Can they handle that pressure and deliver? Their first road block: that very Wayzata team that beat them a year ago, whom they’ve drawn in a first round game that should make for some great atmosphere.

New Kids on the Block There are three first-time Tourney entrants in Class A, which is pretty rare. Two of them, Monticello and Northfield, will face uphill battles in the first round, but the other, Delano, has some serious talent, and is probably the only thing standing between Hermantown and a second straight championship. Ben Meyers alone is worth the price of admission, and the Tigers have started to spread their scoring around, which they’ll need to keep pace with the Hawks. We’ll see if they can deliver on the biggest stage, and if their defense can hold up against a relentless Hawk assault. All three newbies play in the morning session on Wednesday, along with Mahtomedi; as all four are fairly large Class A schools somewhere on the edge of the Metro, the place should be packed and filled with new energy.

Suburban Fringe Speaking of those schools on the edge of the Metro, this year’s edition certainly throws light on the changing geography of the Tourney. (See this post from a few years back for more.) There are no first ring suburbs in the Tourney this year, and even the second ring—depending on how one defines it—has little to no representation, even after years of domination. There’s no Bloomington, Burnsville, or Anoka now; hockey success has moved outward, to Plymouth, Maple Grove, the south side of Lakeville, Delano, Northfield, et cetera. This doesn’t mean the more built-out burbs are doomed; old faces like Edina, Minnetonka, and White Bear Lake have good shots of returning in the coming years. But it does show the steady march of outward growth. The exceptions closer to the city are the private schools, where, curiously enough, we have more AA privates than Class A privates for the first time ever.

The North Remembers It’s been ten years now since the North last won a AA title, but northern fans have reason for excitement, as the North has produced two seeded teams on different sides of the bracket for the first time since seeding began. Grand Rapids has the feeling of a team of destiny after its dramatic run through 7AA, and their top line is one of the most impressive collections of talent this state has put out in a while. If they can get past Maple Grove and land a Friday night date with Eden Prairie, the X will rock even more than it did for their semifinal collision last season. Out west, Moorhead returns after a three-year absence, and has some thrilling front-end talent of its own, including a flashy all-junior top line and sophomore star in the making Ethan Frisch. They have a tough quarterfinal battle with Hill-Murray ahead of them, but are well-built to make an impression this March.

Protect this Net One thing that jumped out at me immediately regarding the AA field: everyone has a strong goalie. Jake Begley of Hill-Murray is the best-established star and the likely winner of the Frank Brimsek award for the state’s top senior goalie, but he has plenty of company. Thursday’s nightcap will feature two with great higher-level potential in Grand Rapids’ Zach Stejskal (assuming he gets the nod over the equally capable Gabe Holum) and Maple Grove freshman phenom Ethan Haider. Reid Waszczenko of Wayzata was the star of the Trojans’ run through sections, Isaiah DiLaura of Lakeville South holds down the Cougars’ stout back end, and Atticus Kelly of St. Thomas Academy has been the Cadets’ security blanket. Eden Prairie’s Nick Wiencek and Moorhead’s Lance Leonard are probably the least hyped of the group, but put up very solid numbers. The two serious Class A contenders are also in great shape; Cade McEwen doesn’t get tested much for Hermantown but delivers when he does, and Jackson Hjelle has come up big for a Delano team that has allowed a lot of shots on goal at times.

I hope you’ll follow along and join in the fun when you can. Quarterfinal capsules below:

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Class A

MONTICELLO VS. #2 DELANO

11:00 Wednesday

Two State Tournament debutants meet to get things going, as Monticello will look to withstand the Delano offense. Despite being only 20 miles apart, there is no recent history here.

Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake (21-6-1, #14, 1-seed in 5A)

First State appearance

Key section win: 3-1 over 3-seed Chisago Lakes

-The Moose face a tall order in their first Tourney trip. It’s a two-pronged attack up front, with Ben Ward (5) and Nick Zwack (17) leading the offense. Troy Dahlheimer (18) is next on the points list and Casey Chiodo (9) is a strong goal-scorer, while Honza Stibingr (11) leads defensive corps. Tyler Klatt (33) will get the nod in goal. They gave St. Cloud Cathedral a pretty good game late in the regular season, so it’s not impossible to seem them hanging in there against Delano, but they have yet to face this caliber of offense this season.

Delano (24-3-1, #3, 1-seed in 2A)

First State appearance

Key section win: 2-0 over #2 Breck

-The Tigers arrive on the State scene with a fun team to watch. Maine-bound Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Meyers (27) paces the state’s most prolific offense this season—they average 6.5 goals a game—and Michigan Tech recruit Brian Halonen (26) and John Keranen (7) are his longtime sidekicks. They’ve started to spread the scoring around some lately, with John Ylitalo (12) scoring plenty and Garrett Pinoniemi (37), a St. Cloud State-committed freshman, starting to show his potential. Andrew Kruse (9) leads the way on the blue line; though depth and ability to break out from the back will the thing to watch here. Junior Jackson Hjelle (29) is in net. They gave Hermantown a one-goal game in December, albeit with a lopsided shot margin; if anyone has a chance here, it’s the Tigers.

NORTHFIELD VS. #3 MAHTOMEDI

1:00 Wednesday

As in the first game, this one features two larger Class A public schools somewhere toward the outskirts of the Metro; this one features a newbie against a young but talented regular that is a mild surprise. There is no recent history here.

Northfield (19-5-3, #13, 1-seed in 1A)

First State appearance

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

-The Raiders are unusually balanced for an unseeded Class A team, with 6 forwards over 20 points in the regular season. Jacob Halvorson (22) is the big goal-scorer, with Grant Sawyer (5), Jackson Cloud (11), and Nicholas Kvernmo (9) all having productive years. Griffin Loecher (8) and Jack Fox (3) are their top two defensemen, and Ryan Bielenberg (1) has been very solid in goal. They didn’t play many games outside of southern Minnesota, especially in the second half of the season, but a two-goal loss to St. Cloud Cathedral and a tie against Sartell suggest they’re capable of hanging in there against Mahtomedi.

Mahtomedi (15-11-1, #5, 2-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 8 (first since 2015)

Key section win: 3-1 over #4 St. Paul Academy

-The Zephyrs are back at State following a mild upset of St. Paul Academy in 4A. Luke Posner (2) is the clear star here, with more than double the points of any of his teammates, but they have fairly good depth beyond that. Their next four scorers include one player in each class, from senior to freshman: Matt Vannelli (15), Charlie Bartholomew (27), Dylan Lallier (28), and Colin Hagstrom (4). Sophomore Bailey Huber (32) won the goaltending job over the course of the season and has been hot down the stretch, including some of their big wins. This group doesn’t have the top-end skill of a Delano, but it is battle-tested, with a very tough schedule for a Class A team, and has some chance of making the semifinal interesting.

LUVERNE VS. #1 HERMANTOWN

6:00 Wednesday

Luverne draws the short stick and gets saddled with Hermantown in the first round. These two met at State in Luverne’s 2014 visit, and while Hermantown won 6-3, it was closer than expected.

Luverne (22-5-1, #20, 1-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 2 (first in 2014)

Key section win: 5-1 over 2-seed Marshall

-The Cardinals are back in the Tourney after failing to make it with some top end talent the past two seasons. Junior Kasyn Kruse (14) is their star, and they have a bunch of respectable offensive options beyond him, including Nick Harder (9), Ben Serie (15), Jesse Reed (24), and Declan Beers (4). Kaden Erickson (1) has stabilized a goaltending position that was an issue for them in recent years. If St. Cloud Cathedral loses its semifinal, they could get themselves an interesting consolation round game against their former coach, Derrick Brown.

Hermantown (26-1-1, #1, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 14 (8 in a row)

State championships: 2 (2007, 2016)

Key section win: 5-1 over #9 Greenway

-The Hawks have been as dominant as any team in the state this season, and enter the Tourney on a 26-game winning streak, and a 31-game streak against Class A competition dating to the 2015 championship game. This team has more front-end talent than any in Hermantown history, as Mankato recruit and Mr. Hockey finalist Ryan Sandelin (11) teams up with Jesse Jacques (8) on the top line, and Tyler Watkins (18) and Matt Valure (4) lead the second. Dylan Samberg (12), a UMD recruit and Mr. Hockey finalist, anchors the blue line, and has some quality company in Parker Simmons (13), Elliott Peterson (22), and Darian Gotz (14). Cade McEwen (35) is a Brimsek finalist in goal. If there’s a shortcoming, it’s that this team isn’t nearly as deep as last year’s state champs, though they are still deeper than anyone else in this field. Anything short of a championship will be stunning.

#5 ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL VS. #4 EAST GRAND FORKS

8:00 Wednesday

Two Class A Tourney regulars collide for the right to face Hermantown in the semis. These teams tied 4-4 in a December meeting. East Grand Forks won their lone State matchup, a 2-1 game in a 2014 semifinal.

St. Cloud Cathedral (20-6-2, #6, 1-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 7 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over #8 Alexandria

-Two big-time forwards, Jake Van Halbeck (4) and Michael Spethmann (19), lead the Crusaders into battle. A couple of potent freshmen, Nate Warner (8) and Mack Motzko (18), provide some scoring depth, along with veteran Connor Beltz (11). Jeron Hirschfeld (10) is the standout in a fairly balanced group of defensemen. Jake Levinski (1) will start in net. They’ve played everyone but Luverne in the field and have the Cardinals’ former coach, so there won’t be any secrets here, though if they win this first round game, their Hermantown meeting wound up an ugly 7-1.

East Grand Forks (17-8-2, #7, 1-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 8 (first since 2015)

State championships: 2 (2014, 2015)

Key section win: 5-1 over 3-seed Warroad

-The 8A champion hasn’t lost a first round Tourney game since 2006, but will face their largest test in a while this season. This East Grand group doesn’t have the firepower of their back-to-back state champions, though there are some kids on this team who have done it. Two lines handle most of their scoring, with productivity from Nick Lund (14), Hunter Olson (8), Coby Strauss (21), and Bauer Brown (9). Defenseman Casey Kallock (18) might be their top player, and they’ll bring the usual Green Wave grinding style. Tucker Brown (30) is the goaltender. If they get through Cathedral they do have a strong track record against Hermantown, albeit with far more talented teams.

Class AA

LAKEVILLE SOUTH VS. #2 ST. THOMAS ACADEMY

11:00 Thursday

Two teams from the south metro meet to start off the AA Tournament.

Lakeville South (18-8-1, #18, 2-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 3 (first since 2012)

Key section win: 3-1 over #8 Lakeville North

-It all builds from the back for the Cougars, who are back in the Tourney for the first time since their 2012 first-round stunner over Duluth East. Sam Malinski (21) and Wisconsin recruit Josh Ess (10), both defensemen, are two of their top three scorers, while Bradley Golant (3) and Cory Checco (19) lead the forward corps. They have a strong goaltender in Isaiah DiLaura (35). This isn’t a high-scoring team, but with respectable depth and their strength in back, they can control the pace of games. They’re probably getting the least hype of anyone in this tournament, but as long as they can sneak a few in, they could be a quiet upset threat.

St. Thomas Academy (23-4-1, #6, 1-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 2 in AA (first since 2015); 8 in Class A

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

Key section wins: 7-0 over 6-seed Bloomington Jefferson

-The well-balanced Cadets make their second AA State appearance. Senior Willie Reim (23) leads the team in scoring, but much of their forward talent is younger, including the Christy brothers Ray (15) and Rob (11), plus Payton Matsui (14). Two-way defenseman Robbie Stucker (2) will make an impression in the offensive zone, and they have good depth around him, too. They have strong goaltending in Atticus Kelly (30). The pieces are all there; the question with the Cadets, as is often the case, is whether they can hang in there against a physical opponent that doesn’t make any glaring mistakes.

HILL-MURRAY VS. #3 MOORHEAD

1:00 Thursday

Two State Tournament regulars meet in a quarterfinal with great potential. Moorhead won a February meeting between these two 4-3 in OT. Hill leads the State series 2-1, the most recent meeting being their 2-1 OT win in the 2012 semis.

Hill-Murray (19-5-4, #12, 2-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 27 (first since 2015)

State championships: 3 (1983, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 6-3 over #4 Stillwater

-This certainly isn’t the most talented Hill squad ever, but they play coach Bill Lechner’s signature tight defensive style. They do have a few flashy forwards, including Wisconsin recruit Ben Helgeson (14), the diminutive Brock Bremer (20), and Kyler Yeo (9), the son of the former Wild coach. Emmet Nath (27) has also had a productive year. The defense lacks a real standout, though Joey Petronack (12) was the most productive of the bunch, and they all know what to do within the system. Backing it all up is Jake Begley (1), arguably the top AA goaltender this season. This all makes the Pioneers a nasty draw, and if they can score enough, they’re a threat to go a long way.

Moorhead (22-3-3, #9, 1-seed in 8AA)

State appearances: 15 (first since 2013)

Key section win: 6-0 over #25 Roseau

-The Spuds are back at State after a three-year absence, and upsets have cleared their way to a top-3 seed. The offensive production is not especially deep, but Carter Randklev (6), Cole O’Connell (11), and Jack Stetz (21), make up a very dangerous top line. Sophomore North Dakota recruit Ethan Frisch (5) is one of the silkiest defensemen on display, and with Carson Kosobud (2), Parker Larson (22), and Carter Howell (13), the Spuds can lock down in back, as evidenced by three straight shutouts in the 8AA playoffs. Lance Leonard (30) had a strong season in net. They’ve been on a roll, and are undefeated in their last 18 games; if this young group can handle the bright lights, they have the pieces to play on Saturday night.

WAYZATA VS. #1 EDEN PRAIRIE

6:00 Thursday

Two longtime Lake Conference rivals collide in a juicy first round rematch of last year’s title game. Eden Prairie won the regular season meetings 8-2 and 4-2, and this series is dead even at 5-5 in its last 10 installations.

Wayzata (10-17-1, #21, 3-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: 5 (2 in a row)

State championships: 1 (2016)

Key section win: 3-1 over #2 Edina

-The Trojans are one of the wackiest stories this season, as the defending state champs floundered to a 7-win regular season before rattling off three straight playoff wins, including an upset of Edina. They don’t have the forward depth of last season, but they do know how to play within Pat O’Leary’s signature defensive system, and Griffin Ness (22) and Colin Schmidt (3) can put the puck in the net. Andrew Urban (2) and Tyler Stevens (19) also had productive years. Grant Anderson (21), a Nebraska-Omaha recruit, is their star on defense, where Jack Carlson (20) also plays a leading role. Reid Waszczenko (1), despite a 1-win regular season, is a good goaltender who was the star of their run through sections. Stringing together enough wins to repeat will be a tall order, but it’s not too crazy to imagine them winning a game or two here.

Eden Prairie (21-4-2, #1, 1-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 10 (4 in a row)

State championships: 2 (2009, 2011)

Key section wins: 2-1 over #15 Prior Lake, 4-3 over #5 Holy Family

-The Eagles enter this tournament on a mission, with 15 straight wins since Casey Mittestadt announced they’d run the table. Of course it all starts with Mittelstadt (11), the certain Mr. Hockey winner and a generational talent, but there are plenty of others worth watching in the stable. Sophomore Gopher recruit Jack Jenson (18) joins Mittelstadt on the top line, while steady Nolan Sullivan (12) and agitator Hunter Johannes (27) carry the load on the second. Notre Dame recruit Nick Leivermann (4) is prolific from the blue line, and the rest of the defense knows its role and doesn’t try to do too much. For all the top-end talent, this team’s season came together when they started rolling three deep lines and grinding other teams down; they feel much more like a team than last season’s runners-up. Speedy Spencer Olson (5) anchors the third line, and Nick Wiencek (30) will be in goal. Discipline remains the mild concern.

#5 GRAND RAPIDS VS. #4 MAPLE GROVE

8:00 Thursday

The quarterfinals will close with a North vs. Metro battle, as potent Grand Rapids squares off against unheralded Maple Grove. There is no recent history between these two teams.

Grand Rapids (20-7-1, #11, 4-seed in 7AA)

State appearances: 16 (2 in a row)

State championships: 3 (1975, 1976, 1980)

Key section wins: 5-3 over #3 Elk River, 3-2 (2 OT) over #13 Duluth East

-The Thunderhawks had their ups and downs this season, but burst to life with a flair for the dramatic in the 7AA playoffs, and have the talent to make a deep run. The top line of St. Cloud-bound Micah Miller (20), North Dakota-bound Gavin Hain (8), and Blake McLaughlin (7) is as good as it gets in high school hockey. They don’t have a ton of depth beyond that, but the lower lines have been doing just enough. John Stampohar (24) is their rock on defense, and Michael Heitkamp (2) has also come on to help shore up the back end. Zach Stejskal (35) has been strong in goal, though they have last year’s playoff starter in Gabe Holum (30) waiting in the wings, too. This team did beat Eden Prairie in December, and even though there are shortcomings, someone needs to prove they can stop this top line.

Maple Grove (22-6, #10, 2-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 2 (first in 2012)

Key section wins: 4-3 over #7 Centennial, 3-0 over #24 Blaine

-The Crimson enter the Tourney without much fanfare, but were strong from start to finish and have some interesting talent. Sam Huff (19) is their big offensive threat, and he’s supported by a cast that includes Justin Kelley (9) and Jarrett Cammarata (16). They have some emerging sophomores in Trevor Kukkonen (4) and Tyler Kostelecky (5), and Jack Kelly (6) leads the D. Freshman Ethan Haider (33) is a star in the making in goal. If he can play well and the top line can take advantage of its opportunities, they can make their first trip to the semis. They’ll have to overcome 5AA’s ugly recent record at State, as the section has just one win this decade.

State Tournament Reflection 2016

9 Mar

Here’s my annual reflection essay on the State Tournament, which first appeared on mnhockeyprospects.com.

Sixteen games across four days, gone in a blur and ending in a daze: another Tourney has come and gone, and as always, I’ll put fingers to keys to find what few words have not yet been said. By early March my mind is all too ready for a trip to some exotic locale, but the vacation I really need takes me just a few miles east. We make our yearly pilgrimage to the spectacle in St. Paul, a dip into tradition that somehow offers a compelling new drama, night after night.

For a second straight year, a first-time champion hoisted a trophy. Wayzata proved all those old clichés about depth and defense true, as they locked down in the first two rounds and rediscovered their game with their backs to the wall in the final. The winning goal came from pure grinding hockey, a steady offensive zone cycle that wore down Eden Prairie, forced a turnover, and a set up a shot from the point. Their hard-nosed effort warmed this Northern boy’s heart, and the relentless push was a vindication for coach Pat O’Leary, who has made an art of overpowering hockey and finally brought his crew along, rolling his four lines right down to the final horn.

The lockdown Trojans were never a given, as their midseason stumbles inspired a sea of skeptics. But by the end Alex Schilling pounced on every loose puck while Hank Sorensen hammered all in sight, and they just managed to find a healthy channel for that simmering fire. They stole the headlines from Casey Mittelstadt, the Eden Prairie golden boy who nearly willed a team to a title. Casey’s dazzling show throughout puts him in elite company, his performance comparable to Besse or Rau in recent years. But he saved his most genuine moments for after the game, pulling himself from tears to speak with poise about his loss; even in defeat, he quickly righted any wrongs, and began to learn the burdens of stardom that will likely follow him for years. His Eagles fell short in the title game for the first time, but gave every last ounce for their teammates and their inspiration behind the bench, Steve Ollinger.

Wayzata’s physical play was far from the only throwback in a Tourney field devoid of its usual suspects. The Halloween Machine from Grand Rapids made its way south for the first time since 2007, and the old northern giants flashed some of their nostalgic magic on their way to a third-place berth. They were no match for Middelstadt, but for a spurt in the second period on Friday night they had all of 218 Territory rising in unison, as the band cranked out one of its impeccably timed Olés and the west end of the arena, painted in orange, bounced in unison. United with the mass of Wayzata yellow on Saturday afternoon, Grand Rapids pulled off one last stirring comeback to bring home another trophy for 7AA.

The Burnsville black and gold also made its way back to St. Paul for only the second time in twenty years, and for one period gave us a hint of past glory. Thief River Falls, another claimant to dynasty in a more distant age, cruised to small-school third place behind a pair of genuine stars. Anoka’s Tornadoes shocked the world by spinning their way back to the Tourney, and the Lumberjacks from Bemidji axed their way through the consolation bracket. Their effort against Rapids gave us the Tourney’s only overtime affair, and its one true thriller before Saturday night. All four northern squads went home with at least two wins and a trophy in tow.

But even as the old guard kept up its proud legacy, newer faces showed the changing tides in hockey and beyond. As the suburbs grow, so goes the high school hockey success, and Farmington and Stillwater gave us glimpses of the future with their tight opening game. There is a learning curve for these teams, as there is for the southerners who got shellacked on the first day of Class A, but whole towns turned out anyway, and who can forget Mankato West’s display on that first skate up to the line? The flow poured forth from buckets left and right, its perfection driving me to self-consciously run a hand through my own mediocre mane at the intermission.

There were no surprises in Class A this year: everything went according to seed, up and down the bracket. But there was sheer, sweet relief, as Hermantown finally threw off a burden worthy of Buffalo and brought a title back to northeast. The Hawks left no doubts, dominating each and every game, and while they’re no longer the scrappy upstart story they were a few years ago, they are out of a long shadow and ready to claim a higher mantel. One hopes they embrace the challenges that may come their way next, and whatever Bruce Plante decides for the future, he has now earned himself a less anxious summer on his lake.

With no Duluth East in the field, I thought it might be a more relaxed Tourney for me, but the infectious nerves still swept through on Saturday night as the Trojans ran the clock down. That emotion never gets old, nor does this yearly dive back in to meet friends old and new, to revisit those Tournament institutions along Seventh Street or opposite Rice Park. I can even enjoy a momentary foray into that cloud of adolescent male hormones that hangs over the upper deck of the X, though before long I’ll beat my hasty retreat back to the land of free popcorn up in the press box. It’s a reminder of who we are and where we come from, even if our immediate alma maters may not have made this trip this year. It’s all timeless, and we can all go back, if only for a little while.

It’s all over now, headed into history books and video vaults and the realm of memory. Memory and that sense of rightness, emblazoned in the mind’s eye, a home where it will stay longer than in any pictures or words that try to capture it. An early spring is already melting away any icy dreams, but there’s work to be done, and it won’t be long before we begin the cycle anew. Thanks, boys, for another memorable year.

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.

Duluth East and Apple Valley Revisited

16 Jan

The Duluth East boys’ hockey team heads to Apple Valley tonight. On paper, it isn’t a thrilling match-up; the Eagles have fallen on hard times in recent years, while the Hounds are among the better teams in the state. East won their meeting 10-1 last season. But even so, this game will always bring back memories of the game many high school hockey fans think was the greatest ever played. I re-watched that game a few months ago, and took some notes as the game went along. Here is a recap of the night of March 8 (and the morning of March 9!), 1996, at the St. Paul Civic Center.

-Duluth East comes into the AA State Tournament semifinal game as the top-ranked team in the state. Twelve players on the Hounds’ 20-man playoff roster will go on to play some D-I hockey, and another six will play hockey after high school in juniors, in Canada, or at a D-III school; both of those figures may be records. The defending state champs are led by 1996 Minnesota Mr. Hockey Dave Spehar, the leading scorer in state history and hero of the previous year’s tournament. They return two full lines and their top two defensive pairs from the previous season. They’d demolished Blaine 7-1 in the quarterfinals.

-Apple Valley, however, is no slouch, and is widely thought to be the one team that can stop East. They’re ranked third in the state (2nd-ranked Hill-Murray, the only team to beat East during the regular season, had been upset by White Bear Lake in sections), and lost only one game against a difficult schedule. They boast six future D-I players of their own, and another likely could have played had he not chosen baseball instead. They may not be quite as deep as the Hounds, but with the likes of Brad DeFauw and Erik Westrum on hand, they can match their top-end talent, and they have a small but talented goalie named Karl Goehring.

-One of those East D-I players, junior forward Matt Mathias, did not play. He’d suffered an injury in the quarterfinal, and had to watch on a TV in the Civic Center hallway. The UPN-9 crew interviews him twice during the game; once early on, and once in the 4th OT.  Senior Matt LaTour is pressed into duty in his stead.

-In the open, Wally Shaver and Lou Nanne talk about the need for AV to have a strong start to the game, as they’d been somewhat slow in their section final and quarterfinal; if they don’t, East might blow them out of the water, as they have with every other team they’ve played in the playoffs to date. The Eagles deliver, checking the smaller East forwards aggressively and outshooting the Hounds in a scoreless first period.

-The Eagles also look good killing off an East penalty, even though the Hounds, according to Wally, had an 85% PP over the second half of the season. Their defensive discipline in the early going, which forced East to expend a lot of effort simply to get out of regulation with a tie, may have been the most important piece of the puzzle.

-Duluth East coach Mike Randolph shakes some things up in the first intermission, and East comes out looking better in the second, with Dave Spehar starting to float and the Hounds looking to stretch the ice.

-Spehar came into the game sitting on four consecutive Tourney hat tricks, but the lone hat trick in this game goes to Apple Valley’s Erik Westrum. The crafty forward gives the East defense fits all night long. He scores his first goal of the night just past the five minute mark of the second, temporarily stemming the East momentum.

-13 seconds later, East’s Pat Gunderson responds with a blast from the point, and the game is tied at 1. The game opens up considerably from that point on, with both teams racing up and down the ice and trading chances.

-After Nick Gretz scores the second AV goal, a fan throws an octopus on the Civic Center ice. The Eagles take a 2-1 lead into the second intermission, despite a strong period by East on the shot counter.

-Spehar has two near-misses on breakaways, but each time, the defenseman gets just enough of him to disrupt him. Andy Wheeler has a couple of near-misses as well, one of which is the save of the game from Karl Goehring.

-Spehar takes an ill-advised penalty a minute into the third period (one of only two in the entire game, one on each team). Not to worry, says his longtime linemate, Chris Locker: he steals the puck and scores a shorthanded goal to tie the game at two.

-Less than two minutes later, Westrum has a response, and puts his team up 3-2. Three minutes later, Spehar finally strikes for the Hounds, circling the AV net in search of a passing lane before firing a low shot through traffic.

-After the first period, commentators Wally Shaver and Lou Nanne are calling it an excellent game; by the middle of the third, they’re calling it a truly great one. Little do they know…

-Both teams go back and forth, trading chances left and right, and with just over six minutes to go, Westrum completes his hat trick.

-East presses forward in desperate search of the tying goal, with Randolph using his timeout and a “goalie change” to get his top line as much rest as he can muster.

-That dedication pays off. The AV defense is drawn to Spehar behind the net, and he feeds Locker out in front to tie the game with 38.8 seconds left on the clock. It’s tough to gauge crowd noise from a DVD, but I’d hazard to guess that was among the loudest moments in Tourney history.

-In the 1st OT, Randolph puts the game in his top line’s hands and sends them out to win it. The result is firewagon hockey that is still exhilarating to watch, even 15+ years later. Both teams fly up and down the ice, trading chances. Apple Valley rolls two lines.

-Over the first two overtimes, AV’s best player is Brad DeFauw; he gets three excellent chances, one of which hits the pipe early in the 2nd OT.

-In the 2nd OT, Randolph decides to try to win a war of attrition and starts rolling three lines, with very short shifts. Larry Hendrickson sticks with two for AV. Randolph continues to float Spehar, daring AV to push forward and create an odd-man situation in the offensive zone; AV never takes the bait, and keeps its defensemen back around their own blue line.

-East has a strong start to the 2nd OT, while AV looks sharper toward the middle of the period; East again starts to take control toward the end, when Dylan Mills tees up a shot.

-LaTour deflects Mills’ shot, and it goes over Goehring’s shoulder and somewhere up in the vicinity of the crossbar. In real time, Wally seems to think it went in, while Lou thinks it hits the crossbar; replays seem to suggest the former, but there’s room for doubt. Most tellingly, there is no sound of puck hitting crossbar. A photo in the next day’s Duluth paper will confirm this: the puck was in the net. But the referees have no replay to rely on, and play goes on as the East fans boo.

-There is a distinct shift in gameplay at the start of the 3rd, as both teams grow cagey. East controls more of the play and has some decent chances, but Chris Sikich of AV does have the best chance of the period.

-At the start of the 4th, it looks as if AV is starting to take control. East gets the momentum back mid-period with a great shift from its top line, with Spehar once again making his presence felt everywhere, and Wheeler just missing.

-Late in the 4th, Goehring breaks the single game saves record in the Tourney. AV answers back to East’s surge and has two good chances near the end of the period that Hounds goalie Kyle Kolquist saves.

-By the 4th OT, it seems clear that the man with the most energy on the ice is AV defenseman Aaron Dwyer; Wally and Lou make a note of this fact.

-Between the 4th and 5th OTs, everyone looks spent; Kolquist is flat on his back with his head resting up against the boards, while Sikich is lolling on his side beneath his bench, modeling his stellar flow. Randolph dumps water over the head of a slumped Spehar. The crowd, which is still tightly packed into the Civic Center as it nears 1:30 AM, does the wave. Many have been standing throughout the OTs.

-East has a good surge toward the start of the 5th OT, but their momentum grinds to a halt when DeFauw flattens Spehar with a huge check. Spehar skates gingerly to the bench, and will not get a chance to return to the ice.

-On the next shift, Dwyer blindly fires a shot on net. Kolquist is screened and reacts too late, and the Eagles are on their way to the state championship game.

-In the aftermath, players from both teams embrace, and after the East coaching staff gets Kolquist to his feet, cameras capture he and Goehring talking to one another.

-East will win the 3rd place game 9-2 a few hours later, with Spehar notching one last Tourney hat trick. Apple Valley wins the state title 3-2 over Edina.

-The game had been just the second ever meeting between the two teams, but immediately thereafter, they began to schedule each other regularly. Ever since, East holds a 13-4 edge in the regular season series.

-Some of the stars of that game are still intimately tied to their programs. Mills and Kolquist are now two of Randolph’s assistants at East, while Sikich was named AV’s head coach at the start of this current season.

-Randolph, reflecting on that game and the 2011 triple-overtime loss to Eden Prairie in the state title game, in an interview this past summer:

It takes time to get over. It’s part of the nature of the beast. But then you reflect back, time heals, and you realize how fortunate you were to be part of that. Those were two of the best games at the State Tournament ever; as I told the kids, there was no loser in that game. To be part of it is special. I get over it about mid-summer. (laughs). But you always think about, ‘what if’?