Tag Archives: state tournament

A State Tournament Look Back: 2008

18 Mar

As I round out my hockey coverage this winter, I offer one last piece that I promised my Twitter followers: a recap of the 2008 State Tournament. While I’d been to it as a Greyhound fan before and watched most of the games the previous few years, this was the first time I locked in to all the games, and I dragged my dad down for the AA final. (I haven’t missed a AA Tourney game since.) It’s the first year for which I have a Tourney program, and one of my favorite features of that program, as an 18-year-old Greyhound, was the 10-year look back on the 1998 state champs from my high school. But even before the MSHSL lobotomized the programs two years ago and removed that feature, a blog post along these lines was brewing in my mind, and now that we are ten years out it seems ideal to look. (MSHSL, if you’re out there reading, I’d gladly pay much more than $5 to get the old version back!) All but the most exceptional players who participated in that Tourney have now seen their playing days to come to an end, and I’ve done some mining of HockeyDB to track where all the players listed in the program went on to play.

Class AA

2008 was a memorable Tourney in large part for its big four: the top four seeds were four of the top five teams in the state heading in, and they all advanced to the semifinals to set up a Friday night session that set an attendance record that stood for several years. Top-seeded Roseau, the defending State Champs, were the darlings of the Tourney, as they came in with an undefeated record, presumptive Mr. Hockey winner Aaron Ness, and the top goaltender in the state, Mike Lee. With Jason Fabian, Tyler Landman, and head coach Scott Oliver’s son Nick leading the offense, the Rams had the balance to repeat.

The dream final was to feature the Rams and second-seeded Edina, a matchup that would have brought together the state’s two most decorated programs. The one-loss Hornets had lost in the quarterfinals to Grand Rapids as the top seed in 2007, and their Fab Four junior core of Zach Budish, Marshall Everson, Connor Gaarder, and Brendan Baker had added one Anders Lee, a transfer from St. Thomas Academy who is now in the NHL. Senior Mr. Hockey finalist Joe Gleason led the defense, and a couple of the depth players gave them a full eight future D-I players. The Hornets looked primed to atone for the previous year’s miss.

The third seed was private school Benilde-St. Margaret’s of St. Louis Park. After some success at Minnetonka, Red Knights head coach Ken Pauly was back with the program with which he’d won two Class A titles, and this time around, they had a fighting shot at the big crown. They’d vanquished the only top five team missing from the Tourney, Minnetonka, in the 6AA final, and while they didn’t have the front-end talent of the two favorites, they were deep with a group attuned to Pauly’s up-tempo style. Six Red Knights would go on to Division-I hockey, including Chris Student, Matt Berglund, Tom McCarthy, and Patrick Borer.

And then there was the fourth seed in the field, Hill-Murray. Like Edina, the Pioneers were looking to atone for recent upset losses at State; they’d lost to unseeded Rochester Century in the quarterfinals in 2007, and in 2006, a one-loss team had fallen to Grand Rapids in the semifinals. This team was led by its defense, including Bo Dolan and Dan Sova, who brought the hits all weekend, and its goaltender, Joe Phillippi. Seniors Dan Cecka and Ryan Furne were their leading scorers, and a deep junior class including Isaac Kohls, Nick Widing, and Tyler Zepeda gave them scoring depth. Like Benilde, they didn’t have the draft picks of Roseau and Edina, and came in somewhat unheralded, but in retrospect, this group looks as formidable as any in the field, with six D-I players and excellent depth.

The rest of the field wasn’t devoid of talent, either. Woodbury, appearing in its second consecutive Tourney, had a couple of front-line forwards in David Eddy and future 3rd round pick Max Gaede. Blaine, making its third consecutive Tourney appearance after an upset of Centennial in the 5AA final, had a freshman named Nick Bjugstad on its roster. The surprise entrant was Cloquet-Esko-Carlton out of 7AA; a year after bowing out in sections with a much stronger team on paper, the Lumberjacks advanced to the Tourney on the backs of two D-I players, the giant Justin Jokinen and defenseman David Brown, whose scoring binge in sections stunned favored Duluth East and also eclipsed Anoka. Rounding out the field was a .500 Lakeville South team backstopped by the wonderfully named Hakan Yumusaklar.

Quarterfinal Thursday went according to form. Edina rolled past Cloquet 5-0 in the early game, and while gameplay wasn’t overly lopsided, the Lumberjacks had no answer for the Hornets’ front end talent. Benilde beat Woodbury 4-1 in the second game, and while they outshot the Royals 41-26, Woodbury did stick around the whole time, and cut the deficit to 2-1 in the middle of the 3rd before an empty-netter and a last second goal padded the scoreline for the Red Knights. Roseau put on a show with an 8-2 blitz of Blaine in primetime, with Tyler Landman locking up a hat trick less than a minute into the 2nd and Aaron Ness scoring two of his own. Hill wrapped up a strong day for the top seeds by slipping three past Yumusaklar in a workmanlike 3-0 win.

Semifinal Friday delivered on its promised drama. Edina and Benilde, which had its share of Edina youth players, put together one of the most entertaining games of the decade in the opener. Edina built 3-1 and 4-2 leads, but goals early in the 3rd from Student and Berglund tied the game, and a frantic third period produced no more goals. Everson, Edina’s great sniper, won it in overtime for the Hornets. The nightcap would be hard-pressed to match that drama, but it quickly turned into a shocker. Hill’s heavy hitting set the tone early, and the Pioneers then erupted for three goals late in the first and early in the second. Roseau clawed one back early in the third, but came no closer, and both the perfect season and the dream final ended in a couple of Pioneer empty-netters.

The title game thus matched the favored Hornets and the surging Pioneers in a battle of state powers. (“Cake tastes better on the East Side,” read one sign from the Hill-Murray faithful.) The Pioneers opened the scoring just 2:30 in on a goal from Ryan Furne, but the key came with one second left in the first period, when a seemingly harmless shot from the blue line by Furne bled through Edina goalie Derek Caschetta for a 2-0 Hill lead. From there, Phillippi in goal and the relentless Pioneer defense went to work. Budish rang one along the top of the crossbar on Edina’s best chance, and after Delaney Metcalf put away the third Pioneer goal, the Hill band cranked up “Another One Bites the Dust.” The Pioneers would shut out Edina 3-0 to claim their third state title, and first since 1991.

Elsewhere, Woodbury fought past Cloquet and Benilde for 5th place in a competitive consolation bracket, and Benilde bumped off beleaguered Roseau 5-1 in the third place game on the strength of four third period goals. Aaron Ness took home his Mr. Hockey award, while Budish, the most heralded of the Edina stars at that time, would not play another high school game due to a football injury in the fall of his senior year. Joe Phillippi parlayed his Tourney performance into a cup of coffee at St. Cloud State, and while Hill would return to State in 2009, four members of their vaunted junior class would not be a part of it, as they were removed from the team midseason for disciplinary reasons.

In 2008, though, the Pioneers’ performance at State was one of the most memorable of all time, given the teams they beat and the dominant fashion in which they did it. They allowed just two goals in the Tourney. Their showing ended Roseau’s dream run for back-to-back titles, and while their 2014 team had a fighting shot, as of this writing, this was the 7-time champs’ last great chance. It left a bunch of Edina juniors thinking they had unfinished business, and promising they would come back for another shot a year later. It was a launching point for Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner, who up to that point had not enjoyed a ton of playoff success relative to expectations; that script would flip in the following years. His defensive assistant, Pat Schafhauser, got some much-deserved credit for the force with which the Pioneers bullied the two top-ranked teams in the state out of their way. Hill-Murray was back on top.

The chart below lays out how many players from each grade on each team went on to D-I and post-high school hockey, respectively. While this isn’t a perfect metric of how good they were in 2008—some good players hang up the skates after high school, others peak early or bloom late—it does give some idea of the talent level in this field. A single game is enough to get a mention, and we’re using HockeyDB standards for post-high school careers, so low-level junior leagues like the NA3HL are not included. Anyone who was on the State Tournament roster is counted.

2008 aa

Looking back, it’s pretty clear why the Pioneers won. They had the deepest senior class and were supported by a strong junior class, and while they didn’t have the front-end skill of Edina or Roseau, they were deeper. Edina had a ton of talent, but was perhaps a year away from what should have been their peak; Benilde was senior-heavy but not quite on the same level as Hill, and Roseau’s relative lack of depth comes out here. An observer looking at this table who didn’t know the results might guess all the games correctly based on what’s here.

Class A

In Class A, top-seeded St. Thomas Academy was both very young and very skilled, with six future D-I players: sophomores Christian Isackson, Justin Crandall, and Ryan Walters, plus freshmen Zach Schroeder, A.J. Reid, and Matt McNeely, were all on the roster. Factor in some experienced upperclassmen, and the Cadets were clearly the class of the field. Their greatest threat for the crown, such as they were, was Duluth Marshall, a team that lacked much in the way of star power, but had good depth and the hero of the previous season’s win over St. Thomas, defenseman Dano Jacques. The Cadets had beaten the Hilltoppers in the 2006 title game, while the Toppers clipped St. Thomas in overtime in the semis in 2007, and the top two seeds seemed destined for a title game rubber match. The three next-best teams in Class A all featured an underclassman future NHLer: Warroad with Brock Nelson, St. Cloud Cathedral with Nate Schmidt, and Little Falls with Ben Hanowski. Warroad, the deepest of the bunch, claimed the 3-seed, while Cathedral took the four and Little Falls drew the short straw and was saddled with a first round date with St. Thomas.

In the quarterfinals, Duluth Marshall got something of a fight from Corey Leivermann-led Mankato West, while Warroad brushed aside Litchfield, and Cathedral handled Blake. The highlight of the day was St. Thomas’s win over Little Falls, in which the Flyers twice came from behind to tie the game on Hanowski goals, one of which inspired Hanowski’s salute to the Cadet faithful. Hanowski missed a penalty shot in the second period, and late goals from Ryan Walters and James Saintey earned the Cadets the win. After that, things held to form: Marshall fought past Warroad to earn a third straight trip to the title game, but St. Thomas simply rolled, with a 9-2 win over Cathedral and a 5-1 blitz of Marshall for a second title in three years.

The Class A Tourney made one thing clear: the Cadets now set the bar in Class A, and while they would miss the next two tournaments, they were now reeling top-end talent like no other small school program. Marshall fell off somewhat afterwards, and never could quite claim a title, and Warroad, Cathedral, and Little Falls would all be back as the top three seeds the next season.

2008 a

Looking at this, St. Thomas’s dominance makes all the sense in the world. Marshall, perhaps, overachieved this season, given that they’d run out of Connollys to lead the offense, though this might look different if Jacques had continued playing. The big surprise here is the Blake team that I don’t remember at all, but actually had a pretty good collection of Class A talent (Josh Birkholz is a name I’d completely forgotten.) The Bears went 0-2 and mustered little against Cathedral and Little Falls. Otherwise, this one largely went according to form as well.

Hope you enjoyed this, and I plan to make it a yearly feature.

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State Tourney Preview 2018

4 Mar

The annual carnival is about to begin, so here are my annual storylines and quarterfinal previews. Tony Scott, Danny Ryan, and I have preview podcast for your enjoyment, and my Danny and I will also put out our itinerary for the week on Youth Hockey Hub so that our loyal followers may stalk us. As usual, I’ll be tweeting regularly here, though don’t come to me for score updates—there are 583 other people doing that, so I see it more as my role to add scattered insight, along with some inane humor to go along with the Tourney. So, here are some things to watch this Tourney:

Fab Four Final Four? The AA field is one of the strongest ever at the top: the same four teams have stayed ranked somewhere in the top four since December, and those four have all made the State Tournament. (Listen to the podcast to get an idea of just how rare that is.) Edina, Minnetonka, St. Thomas Academy, and Duluth East are all loaded. All three are very complete teams, with several lines that can score and deep groups on defense; Edina has the most firepower, followed by East, while St. Thomas has the best goaltender, and Minnetonka is probably the most balanced across the board. None exactly have a free pass to the semis—just ask the 2012 field, which was nearly as loaded and saw all the top seeds lose in the first round—but if it is those four, or even three of those four, battling it on out Friday night, it could be one of the most memorable sets of semis in recent memory.

The Class A Mystery Ride Half the (all public school!) Class A entrants have at least 10 losses, and none have fewer than six. After last year’s stunning upsets by usual doormats from 1A and 5A, and a spirited run at an upset by the 3A representative as well, no one should be overly shocked by a big result out of one of those sections this season against someone other than Hermantown. And while the Hawks are the clear favorite for a fourth straight season, even they are more beatable than usual, with an offense reliant on one top line. While the favorites remain clear, the gap between the historically weaker sections and the powers is smaller, especially in a year when Class A lacks teams that are on par with AA’s best.

North vs. Metro, 2018 Edition Normally there are bitter grumblings from everywhere north of St. Cloud when the 7AA and 8AA winners meet in the quarterfinals, but since St. Michael-Albertville isn’t exactly a northern team, there won’t be much of that this season. A year removed from an all-north final, Duluth East is alone in carrying the weight of area code 218. In Class A, barring upsets, the semis could likely feature a Mahtomedi-Orono battle for the metro area championship in the first game, and a contest between Hermantown and Alexandria or Thief River Falls for northern bragging rights thereafter. The winners of those would then collide in a North vs. Metro championship.

Depth of Field A year after Grand Rapids rode one incredible line to a AA championship, we have a Tourney in which most of the top teams are defined by balance. Minnetonka has three excellent lines, Edina has two elite scoring lines, East has three that can score within the machine-like Mike Randolph system, and St. Thomas also has a solid supporting cast behind its top group. Even in Class A, Mahtomedi and Orono exhibit more depth than most usual contenders for the small-school crown. The notable exceptions among the seeded teams: Centennial, who will look to ride Lucas McGregor as far as he can take them, and, surprisingly, Hermantown—though the Hawks’ depth is certainly still respectable by Class A standards.

Stars in Abundance As usual, there’s no shortage of front-end talent at the Tourney. Edina’s Sammy Walker, the odds-on favorite for Mr. Hockey, will try to become the first player to win that award and a state title in his senior year since Kyle Rau in 2011. His teammate Demetrios Kouzmontzis is also a Mr. Hockey finalist. Duluth East sniper Garrett Worth and assist machine Ryder Donovan will be on hand, as will the aforementioned Lucas McGregor of Centennial and Luke Loheit of Minnetonka, plus his sophomore sidekick, Bobby Brink. It wasn’t a deep year for defensemen in Class AA, but it may not be a coincidence that the three top seniors—Luke LaMaster of Duluth East, Chase Foley of St. Thomas Academy, and Garrett Daly of Lakeville North—are all in this Tournament. Edina’s corps, while all underclassmen, is as loaded as it gets, and Minnetonka’s is no slouch either. In Class A, it’s mostly about balance, save for the Hermantown top line featuring Tyler Watkins and Blake Biondi, and Alexandria’s Ben Doherty. We’ll see if any stars on the less heralded teams can make a name for themselves, as Ben Ward and Nick Zwack did for Monticello last season.

Class A Quarterfinal Capsules:

MANKATO EAST VS. #2 MAHTOMEDI

11:00 Wednesday

-For the second straight season, Mahtomedi faces the Section 1A entrant in a Wednesday morning quarterfinal. These two have no recent history.

Mankato East (16-10-2, unranked, 2-seed in 1A)

State appearances: 2 (first in 2006)

Key section wins: 3-1 over 3-seed Minnesota River, 6-1 over 5-seed Rochester Lourdes

-Unlike many unranked Class A entrants, the Cougars are not a team to ride just one great player. No one had more than 23 points in the regular season, but they are balanced, Sam Shulz (16) was the top point-getter, while Matthew Salzle (6) and Layten Liffrig (22) led the way in the goals column. Defenseman Jake Anderson (14) is their second-leading scorer, and a strong defensive game will likely be the key to this first round match-up. Jack Cusey (29) had a strong season in goal. The Cougars are probably the biggest mystery in this field; they did tie Mound-Westonka in their lone game against a top ten Class A team and seemed to get stronger as the season went along, though they have some questionable losses, too.

Mahtomedi (21-6-1, #2, 1-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 10 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 6-3 over #16 Simley

-The Zephyrs return to State as a balanced squad with scoring up and down the lineup. Charlie Bartholomew (27), Kory Pilarski (10), and Nikolai Dulak (9) are their most productive forwards, but their top nine forwards were all in double digit points in the regular season against a fairly tough Class A schedule. Noah Skillings (8) and Tommy Broten (14) are the top defensemen. They also have the top goaltender in the field in Bailey Huber (32), who boasts a .939 save percentage. They can match Hermantown’s depth, but must find a way to contain the Hawks’ top line if those two meet, as they can’t match that star front-line talent. And, of course, they have to get there first: for all their Class A success, they’ve never made a final.

LITCHFIELD/DASSEL-COKATO VS. #3 ORONO

1:00 Wednesday

-Two Wright County Conference schools (despite the fact that neither is located in Wright County) collide in the quarterfinals. Orono won both regular season meetings in convincing fashion, with 10-0 and 7-1, and has won 36 straight games in this conference series dating to a Litchfield win in December 2001, including four playoff games when both were in 3A.

Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato (16-11-1, unranked, 2-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 4 (first since 2016)

Key section win: 4-1 over #19 Luverne

-The Dragons return to State after offing Luverne in a mild upset to win 3A. Brandt Pederson (4) is their unquestioned star offensively, while defenseman Orrin Grangroth (18) is their second leading scorer, both in goals and points. Paul Raisanen (27) and Dylan Schutz (10) round out the top line, and also had productive seasons. They’ll need a big performance out of Darby Halonen (30) in goal to have a chance, and he comes in hot off a strong performance over Luverne. Special teams were not a strength, so staying out of the box will be key to their hopes of flipping the script.

Orono (20-7-1, #5, 1-seed in 2A)

State appearances: 9 (first since 2014)

Key section wins: 6-3 over #11 Minneapolis, 2-1 over 6-seed Breck

-The Spartans put together their strongest season in recent memory and came out of one of Class A’s deepest sections. Senior Jack Suchy (16) is their star, and Thomas Walker (23) is next in line on their list of point-getters, but like Mahtomedi, this is a relatively deep Class A group, as they have eight forwards over 15 points. The forwards take care of most of their offensive production, with Daniel Eckerline (37) and Jack Kubitz (22) leading the charge on defense. Evan Babekuhl (33) is one of the stronger netminders in the field. Given the regular season results they should cruise to a date with Mahtomedi for a metro area championship of sorts, but they did lose to a 3A team in Hutchinson this season.

MONTICELLO/MAPLE LAKE VS. #1 HERMANTOWN

6:00 Wednesday

-The evening session opens with a rematch of last season’s double overtime championship game thriller. That Hawk win was their only recent meeting.

Monticello/Maple Lake (19-7-2, #15, 1-seed in 5A)

State appearances: 2 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 4-1 over #18 North Branch

-The feel-good story of last year’s Tournament returns for an encore, and this time around they didn’t sneak up on anyone. They’re without their two big scorers from a season ago, but they do have the highly productive Troy Dahlheimer (18) leading the way. Nick Foldesi (29) is their second leading scorer, Jeffrey Henrikson (5) is second on the team in goals, and Jack Saunders (15) is a productive defenseman for the Moose. Goalie Tyler Klatt (33) is a veteran of last season’s great run. With Hermantown up first they face a tall task, and their handful of games against top Class A teams have not gone well. But they have won on this ice before, and gave the Hawks all they could handle, so a repeat performance isn’t out of the question.

Hermantown (20-6-2, #1, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 15 (9 in a row)

State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)

Key section win: 5-4 (2OT) vs. #3 Greenway

-The goliaths of Class A return as the favorite yet again after escaping against Greenway in 7A. This time they’re led by senior Tyler Watkins (18), who seems to rise to the occasion in big gaems, and sophomore star-in-the-making Blake Biondi (27), who is the lone D-I committed player in the Class A field. Jacob Herter (7) rounds out the top line, and while the scoring depth isn’t what it has been in recent seasons, the Hawks’ lineup can still hold its own with any other Class A team, and Elliott Peterson (22) adds a physical presence to lead the second line. The Hawks are strong in back, where Darian Gotz (14) is the leader, and Sam High (21) is a Tournament veteran as well. Cole Manahan (33) had a strong season in goal. This Hawks team is more beatable than the past two, but they also have a knack for pulling out the tight ones.

#5 THIEF RIVER FALLS VS. #4 ALEXANDRIA

8:00 Wednesday

-North meets west in the Class A nightcap. Their only two recent meetings came in the past three years, with Alexandria winning a 2015 meeting and Thief River returning the favor in 2016.

Thief River Falls (16-10-2, #20, 4-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 14 (9 in one-class tournament, 4 in Class A; first since 2016)

Championships: 2 (one-class tournament, 1954 and 1956)

Key section wins: 6-4 over #13 Warroad, 4-0 over #10 East Grand Forks

-The Prowlers, after a steady but unremarkable regular season, found their way to St. Paul with upsets over Warroad and East Grand Forks in sections. Aaron Myers (16) is a goal machine, while Tucker Skime (2) provides the assists on the top line, and Jace Jorde (17) rounds out the top group. While the forward corps is not deep, they do have one of the most productive blue lines in the state, with Brady Anderson (12), Keaden Kempert (19), and an emerging star in sophomore Evan Bushy (6). If that group can hold its own in front of star goalie Nick Corneliusen (35), the Prowlers could make their way to a Friday afternoon game.

Alexandria (17-10-1, #12, 3-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 4 (1 in AA; first since 2011)

Key section wins: 4-0 over #7 Sartell, 3-2 (2 OT) over #4 St. Cloud Cathedral

-Their run through sections might look like a surprise on paper, but the Cardinals were an early season favorite, and have now delivered on that promise. Ben Doherty (7), who missed some time this season due to injury, is their star, and Jack Westlund (10) and Caleb Strong (3) round out an all-junior top unit. Jack Powell (21) and Andrew Revering (2) make for a productive defense as well. Their depth isn’t exceptional, but freshman Jakob Stender (27) also did put up double-digit goals. Jackson Boline (30) emerged as the starting goaltender and was strong in sections. This is a young group and their success in a deep section shows their potential, so now it’s time to learn if they can deliver on it on a big stage.

AA capsules:

LAKEVILLE NORTH VS. #2 EDINA

11:00 Thursday

-Two powers collide in a rematch of the 2014 championship game, and the 2015 championship game that wasn’t. This will be their first meeting since North’s 2015 regular season win.

Lakeville North (16-10-2, #17, 1-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 7 (first since 2015)

Championships: 1 (2015)

Key section win: 4-3 over #21 Lakeville South

-The Panthers haven’t had a dominant season, but they stayed competitive with top teams most of the time, including a tie with Minnetonka and a one-goal loss to Duluth East in December. Blake Brandt (7) and Spencer Schneider (14) are their big guns offensively, with Shane Griffin (25) rounding out the top line. Garrett Daly (16) is one of the top senior defensemen in the state, and they also enjoy the services of a very solid goaltender in Will Johnson (31). The top line can match up with a number of the others in the state, but their depth is where they will be tested, especially against a team like Edina. The list of things that need to go right to avoid Mariucci is long, but not impossible to achieve.

Edina (26-2, #2, 1-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: 38 (6 as Edina East/West in 70s and 80s; first since 2015)

Championships: 12 (1969, 1971, 1982, 1984, 1988, 1997, 2010, 2013, and 2014 as Edina; 1974, 1978, and 1979 as Edina East)

Key section win: 8-1 over #11 Wayzata

-The Hornets may be the second seed, but they’re the force to be reckoned with in this Tournament, as they’ve made some good teams look bad this season, and have lost only to Minnetonka. They have the most explosive top two lines in the state, with presumptive Mr. Hockey Sammy Walker (10) and his linemates Jett Jungels (22) and Mason Nevers (18) are front-line talents in their own right. Their second Mr. Hockey contender, Demetrios Koumontzis (23), leads the second line, and is joined by Lewis Crosby (11). Ben Brinkman (17) has some of the best high-end potential on defense in the state, and combines with Jake Boltmann (2), Mike Vorlicky (20), and Mason Reiners (21) to form an elite blue line club. There are some questions in goal, where Garrett Mackay (30) is their man, and the young defense can get thrown off some at times. But if they play up to their potential, they are the prohibitive favorite.

ST. MICHAEL-ALBERTVILLE VS. #3 DULUTH EAST

1:00 Thursday

-A Tourney regular faces this year’s lone AA upstart. East leads the series 5-1, including a 15-0 playoff win just five years ago; the Knights did beat East in their most recent meeting, in 2015.

St. Michael-Albertville (23-5, #19, 2-seed in 8AA)

First State appearance

Key section wins: 4-2 over #13 Brainerd, 6-5 over #9 Moorhead

-The Knights pulled the biggest upset of the AA playoffs when they took down Moorhead in the 8AA final, and ride season surge into their first ever Tournament. Sophomores Luc Laylin (9) and Adam Flammang (11) are their top offensive threats, along with senior Blake Spetz (2). They also had a productive second line, and will need a good performance from those depth players to advance in this tournament. Garrett Sandberg (12) and Cole Lehmann (4) are their top defensemen, along with Val Popowski (8). Justin Damon (1) will man the net. If they can hold up under the East assault, this team can move the puck well enough to produce some goals and have a shot at the upset.

Duluth East (23-2-3, #4, 1-seed in 7AA)

State appearances: 23 (first since 2015)

Championships: 3 (1960, 1995, 1998)

Key section wins: 9-1 over #14 Duluth Marshall, 3-2 (OT) over #8 Andover

-Like Edina, the Hounds return to State after a two-year absence. East’s top line of Ian Mageau (23), Ryder Donovan (22), and sniper Garrett Worth (5) leads their assault, but this team’s top three lines are all learned in the ways of the Mike Randolph puck control system. Ricky Lyle (15) leads the way on the second line, which was as productive as the first late in the season. Luke LaMaster (25) is the two-way star of a mobile defense and the only defenseman Mr. Hockey finalist, and is joined by his partner, Hunter Paine (20), on a strong top pair. Parker Kleive (41) came on to win the goaltending job down the stretch. When at their peak the Hounds’ game is probably second only to Edina’s, but they need to avoid the periodic lapses of mediocrity that plagued them more than the other top four this season.

HILL-MURRAY VS. #1 MINNETONKA

6:00 Thursday

-Another battle of two heavy hitters in Minnesota hockey, and a rematch of a 2010 4-overtime classic won by the Skippers; Hill also beat Tonka in the 2006 quarters. Minnetonka won a regular season game 4-2 in December, while Hill leads the all-time series 11-7-1.

Hill-Murray (13-11-4, #20, 2-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 29 (2 in a row)

Championships: 3 (1983, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 3-1 over #6 White Bear Lake

-Despite a losing regular season, the Pioneers came on strong toward the end, and their upset of White Bear Lake was no stunner. The late season call-up of eighth grader Nick Pierre (11) catalyzed the offense, but he’s just one of a number of very young players with bright futures here. Junior Ben Helgeson (9) and senior Michael Fleischhacker (15) are the veteran leaders, and sophomore Charlie Strobel (27) brings a familiar Hill-Murray name. Like most good Hill teams, they have a couple of veterans leading the way on the blue line in Brett Oberle (19) and Joey Petronack (12), while Matthew Fleischhacker (14) is a freshman standout. If this group continues to play the disciplined hockey we’ve come to expect out of Bill Lechner-coached teams in the playoffs, they’ll be a tough out. They come in with a five-game losing streak in Tourney play.

Minnetonka (24-2-2, #1, 1-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 6 (first since 2010)

Key section wins: 4-1 over #23 Chaska, 5-4 (2OT) vs #6 Holy Family

-The Skippers claim the top seed with two wins in three games against Edina, and put forth a team with no real weaknesses as they pursue their first state title. They roll three quality lines, and distribute their top forwards to create balance. Sophomore Bobby Brink (9) and junior Jack Bayless (29) pace the offense, while Mr. Hockey finalist Luke Loheit (8) brings a heavy game and will be matched against other teams’ top lines. Joe Molenaar (10) and Teddy Lagerback (34) round out the leading scorers. Josh Luedtke (3) and Grant Docter (2) are both dynamic defensemen, while Charlie Glockner (1) is one of the stronger goalies in the state when he’s on his game. This group won back-to-back Bantam state titles, and will now aim to deliver on its promise under first-year head coach Sean Goldsworthy.

#5 CENTENNIAL VS. #4 ST. THOMAS ACADEMY

8:00 Thursday

-Two quality programs in search of a first round breakthrough wrap up the quarterfinals. St. Thomas has won their only two recent contests, including a 4-1 Schwan Cup meeting last season.

Centennial (19-6-3, #10, 1-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 4 (first since 2014)

Championships: 1 (2004)

Key section win: 6-4 over 2-seed Maple Grove

-The Cougars roll into the State Tournament as a team that sits somewhere below the big four top seeds, but clearly ahead of the three unseeded teams. Mr. Hockey finalist Lucas McGregor (11), who carries the offense, is as important to his team’s success as any one player in the field. Three additional forwards, Hayden Brickner (14), Carter Wagner (8), and Jack Menne (10) were also highly productive, and Will Francis (7) is their clear leader on defense. They don’t have exceptional depth beyond that, but generally play tight, trapping hockey. Travis Allen (1) is an experienced, solid goaltender. If they can lock in to their defensive style and spring their top forwards a few times, 5AA will have a shot at its first quarterfinal win since 2009.

St. Thomas Academy (25-2-1, #3, 1-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 3 in AA (2 in a row); 8 in Class A

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

Key section win: 4-1 over #12 Eastview

-A year after a quarterfinal upset loss, the Cadets are back at it in search of their first AA quarterfinal win. They didn’t lose in regulation this season, though the schedule was somewhat easier than the other top four. Payton Matsui (14) joins brothers Ray (15) and Rob (11) Christy in leading the offense, while Brendan McFadden (21) has also emerged as a serious threat. Chase Foley (17) is one of the most productive offensive defensemen in the state, and Blake Holmes (5) also anchors the blue line. The one edge they do have over the other top four seeds is goaltender Atticus Kelly (30), who is a finalist for the Frank Brimsek Award. They boast a lethal power play, but will need to avoid the looseness that has plagued them in some big games in recent seasons.

Let the fun begin!

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?

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’?