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Tourney Preview 2020

1 Mar

Yes, Minnesota, it’s Tourney Time. (Not to be confused with the excellent new book by Dave LaVaque and Loren Nelson of the same name.) Danny, Tony, and I put together our annual podcast yesterday, which includes an interview with LaVaque, and we’ll be ready for the party. First, though, I present my usual rundown of storylines and quarterfinal game capsules:

The Season of Parity After a chaotic regular season, the AA section tournaments had surprisingly few upsets, with a regular power having a somewhat down season, St. Thomas Academy, being the only real surprise in the field. That leaves us with six of the top eight teams in the final regular season poll at State, plus another (Maple Grove) that spent some time in that neighborhood over the course of the season. This Tourney may not promise any of the heavyweight clashes between 1-3 loss teams that have punctuated some recent affairs, but anyone in this field seems capable of beating anyone.

Familiarity Breeds Contempt To underscore the previous note, the AA quarterfinals include two matchups that took place on the season’s final day and saw the lower seeded team win. Blake is the 2-seed but faces Maple Grove, who beat the Bears in what was a vital win to wake up an offense that had been moribund late in the season. Hill-Murray, meanwhile, knocked off Moorhead in their traditional late season meeting; the rematch is a fun nightcap between two Tourney institutions and the two top goalies in the state. In a different sort of rematch, Eden Prairie and Lakeville South reprise their three-overtime affair from a season ago in the second quarterfinal. Even in Class A, where there is generally less history between teams, we have a Monticello-Hermantown clash for the third time in four years.

Class A’s Big Three It’s worth noting that Monticello has given Hermantown good games in those two previous meetings, and Hutchinson is respectable for a 3A entrant, too. But it’ll be a shock if the first three Class A quarterfinals produce winners not named St. Cloud Cathedral, Hermantown, and Warroad. The Warriors, by virtue of a win over Cathedral, have the perk of the top seed, though the winner of Delano and Mahtomedi isn’t exactly a free pass to the final. That leaves Cathedral and Hermantown, who tied each other in a regular season thriller, on a collision course in the semis. In a season in which the top Class A teams are loaded with star power and have been atop the rankings all season, we could be headed for a couple of great games.

Fine Lines There’s only one Mr. Hockey finalist forward in the AA field, and while Eden Prairie’s Ben Steeves is a fine player, he’s also not on some different level from the players around him. No AA team can win on the back of one star this year, but a lot of teams do have good top lines who could tip the balance. Gess-Triggs-Johnson for Moorhead, Steeves-Blake-Mittelstadt for Eden Prairie, Miller-Sabre-Best for Blake, and the Pierre-Strobel combo for Hill Murray: if one of these groups can take over a game, they can carry their team a long way. It’s a bit different on the Class A side, where Warroad’s Grant Slukynsky and Hermantown’s Blake Biondi are the stars of their respective shows, but St. Cloud Cathedral also brings the dominant line approach.

Someone New? Six of the eight entrants have never won a AA Tourney, though there’s some range in there between the total newbies like Blake and Andover and the St. Thomases and Moorheads of the world who know their way around St. Paul but don’t know what Saturday night success looks like. One of the old hands, Hill-Murray, hasn’t had a lot of Tourney success in their past few appearances, either. Even Eden Prairie, the preseason favorite and frequent finalist over the past decade, has some recent struggles to overcome. No one comes marching into this tournament with the swagger of a recent champion, so we’ll see who can find that edge in the next week.

Now, capsules for each quarterfinal:

MANKATO EAST VS. #2 ST. CLOUD CATHEDRAL

11:00 Wednesday

-The Tourney opens with the defending champs taking on the lowest-rated team in the field. Cathedral has won all five meetings between these two dating back to 1997.

Mankato East (14-13-1, Unranked, 4-seed in 1A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section wins: 5-3 over 1-seed Dodge County, 5-3 over 3-seed Mankato West

-The Cougars had an up-and-down season, but the most talented team in 1A put it together at the end and made its way back to State for a second time in three years. Junior Layten Liffrig (22) is their big star, and Matthew Salzle (6) is also plenty productive and carried the goal-scoring load in sections. There’s a gap after that, but Jake Kazenbach (23) is their next highest-scoring forward, and they’ve got a couple of quality junior defensemen in Brett Borchardt (8) and Jake Schreiber (11) who can contribute offensively as well. There are some pieces to work with here and they may be even better next season, but this quarterfinal will be a long shot.

St. Cloud Cathedral (23-3-1, #4, 1-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 10 (2 in a row)

Championships: 1 (2019)

Key section win: 8-1 over #8 Alexandria

-The Crusaders are back to defend their title and loaded with the star talent to achieve it. Blake Perbix (27), Jack Smith (20), and Nate Warner (8) form a lethal top line. Mack Motzko (18), back from his one-year adventure in Minnetonka, works with Cullen Hiltner (6) to provide a supporting cast. The defense, led by Reid Bogenholm (2), Jon Bell (4), and C.J. Zins (15), can also move the puck well and contribute to the cause. That said, this team has coughed up a few goals in recent games against top competition, so the pressure is on for them to lock down and keep the heat off goaltender Grant Martin (35). If they can withstand the Hermantown attack, they’ve shown they have the experience in big moments to pull out the repeat.

MONTICELLO VS. #3 HERMANTOWN

1:00 Wednesday

-The Moose and Hawks meet for the third time in four seasons at State, with the Hawks eking out a 2OT win in the state championship game in 2017 and winning 4-2 in 2018.

Monticello (19-7-2, #12, 1-seed in 5A)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2018)

Key section win: 6-4 over 3-seed Pine City

-The Moose return for a third Tourney in four years, this time after being the clear favorite in 5A for much of the season and were competitive in losses to a few top ten Class A teams. Jeffrey Henrikson (5) is their top offensive player, but they’ve had fairly good offensive balance, with Brian Cornelius (11), Wilson Dahlheimer (22), and Gunnar Sibley (21) all putting up quality seasons. Chase Bocken (34) is a scoring threat from the blue line, alongside Jacob Sorensen (10). Nash Wilson (33) will need to be on top of his game for the Moose to give Hermantown another good run. They lost in running time in their game to Cathedral and will need to show a bit more than they did in that game to go anywhere this week.

Hermantown (21-3-4, #3, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 16 (last in 2018)

State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)

Key section win: 6-0 over #9 Duluth Denfeld

-The behemoths of Class A return after a one-year absence. They’ve done it with star power, with Blake Biondi (27) among the Mr. Hockey frontrunners up front and junior Joey Pierce (18) one of the most complete blueliners in the state. They have good depth up front, with Zach Kilen (10) and Ethan Lund (24) serving as Biondi’s sidekicks on the top line and an all-junior line of Aaron Pionk (11), Aydyn Dowd (6), and Cole Antcliff (14) providing the secondary punch. Jacob Backstrom (32) is the goalie. The Hawks did blow a 3-goal third period lead in a regular season tie with Cathedral and lost their last two games against AA competition, so there’s some question about their ability to respond when caught up in the moment of a big game. But there’s no doubt this group has the talent to bring back its third title in five years.

HUTCHINSON VS. #1 WARROAD

6:00 Wednesday

-Warroad makes its return to the X and faces a team with whom they have a surprising amount of Tourney history. The Warriors won a 2009 quarterfinal 7-1 and a 1997 quarterfinal 7-3.

Hutchinson (19-8-1, #17, 1-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 5 (last in 2009)

Key section win: 8-1 over 2-seed Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato

-The Tigers head to State with one of the stronger resumes of a 3A champion in recent memory. Like many southern teams, they rely on the star power of a few players. Austin Jozwick (9) is far and away their leading scorer, and Hayden Jensen (11) is a clear number two; after that, they have a jumble of players with point totals in the teens. Austin Hagen (33) has had a strong season in goal. This team gave Delano and Orono reasonably competitive games in their Wright County clashes and rolled through 3A, so it’s not out of the question that they keep it close with the rather unknown Warriors, but it will be a tall order.

Warroad (26-2, #1, 1-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 21 (8 one-class, 13 in Class A; last in 2010)

State championships: 4 (1994, 1996, 2003, 2005)

Key section win: 4-0 over #2 East Grand Forks

-One of the Minnesota’s most iconic programs returns to State after a 10-year absence, and they’ve done it in style, losing only to rival Roseau during the regular season and controlling a very good East Grand Forks team in the 8A final. Grant Slukynsky (27) had an electric senior season, while freshman wunderkind Jayson Shaugabay (17) combines with him to create one of the top lines in Class A. Anthony Foster (19) and Owen Meeker (23) also put up plenty of points, though this team lacks the top-to-bottom offensive depth of Hermantown and Cathedral. Their defense, led by Blake Norris (5) and Carson Reed (37), has been rock-solid, while Zach Foster (35) has been reliable in goal. If their lower lines can hold up against some of the deeper teams in this field, they have the front-end flair to claim their first title in 15 years.

#5 DELANO VS. #4 MAHTOMEDI

8:00 Wednesday

-Two fairly regular recent faces in the Tourney meet in what should be a quality quarterfinal following three games with heavy favorites. Delano won an 8-1 consolation round game between these two in 2017.

Delano (22-6, #5, 2-seed in 2A)

State appearances: 3 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over #19 Armstrong/Cooper, 4-2 over #18 Breck

-The Tigers once again went on a second half run and are making something of a habit of these Tourney appearances; this is the second straight season they’ve been the 5-seed. They can roll out three decent lines; Adam Brown (13) was their leading goal-scorer over the course of the season, and Gunnar Paulson (12) and Jesse Peterson (11), Michael Weber (17), and Trevor Oja (18) round out the list of scoring leaders. No one on the defense is a huge offensive force, but Jack Keranen (3) has been a reliable presence. Cade Lommel (35) was solid in goal in sections. Can they break through and win their first quarterfinal?

Mahtomedi (20-8, #7, 1-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 12 (4 in a row)

Key section win: 5-1 over 6-seed South St. Paul, 2-0 over 4-seed Tartan

-The Zephyrs head to a fourth straight Tourney after cruising through Section 4A. Nikolai Dulak (9) is probably the most dangerous goal-scorer they’ve had through this run, while Adam Johnson (10) led the team in points. Ethan Peterson (6) and Ryan Berglund (7) are also steady contributors offensively, while J.D. Metz (11) is their defensive leader. They also enjoy the services of arguably the strongest goalie in the A field, sophomore Ben Dardis (32). A healthy Colin Hagstrom (4) could be a difference-maker here. Expectations this season aren’t what they were the past few seasons; can that help them break their seemingly eternal fate to be a semifinalist and nothing more?

MAPLE GROVE VS. #2 BLAKE

11:00 Thursday

-Blake makes its AA Tourney debut against a deep west metro team that pulled a mild upset to make this game. Maple Grove won a late regular season meeting 5-4 and leads the all-time series 2-0.

Maple Grove (20-8, #17, 2-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 3 (last in 2017)

Key section win: 3-0 over #14 Blaine

-Call it a study in perseverance: with an entire unit of elite players in juniors or at the NTDP and their biggest current star out hurt for the year, the Crimson found a way to avenge two regular season losses to Blaine and secure a Tourney berth. They’re one of the strongest skating teams in the state, but even strength offense has been a deficiency at times. Their leading scorer is defenseman Henry Nelson (12), a Notre Dame commit, and Cal Thomas (22) also put up good points as a D. The forward production comes by committee, with Sam Jacobs (21), Tyler Oakland (15), and Chris Kernan (27) leading that group. They’ve rotated goalies between senior Parker Slotsve (32) and junior Jack Wienecke (1), who had a 45-save shutout in the section final. This team did find a vital scoring touch in the season’s final week when they knocked off Blake; we’ll see if they can repeat that performance.

Blake (22-6, #5, 1-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: First in AA (5 in Class A)

Key section wins: 4-3 over #6 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 5-1 over #13 Edina

-The Bears make their AA Tourney debut on the heels of a dramatic overtime penalty shot from Gavin Best (8). Best’s linemates, Joe Miller (20) and Jack Sabre (9), form one of the more dynamic combinations in the state, and they get some scoring depth from the likes of Will Matzke (27) and Brett Witzke (6). Their mobile defense has plenty of talent as well, most notably via Ben Dexheimer (4) and Will Svenddal (19). Aksel Reid (30) mans the net. They can skate with anyone, so if they can get some scoring depth and find some consistency, the path is certainly there to make a final. They’ve already beaten Eden Prairie once this season.

LAKEVILLE SOUTH VS. #3 EDEN PRAIRIE

1:00 Thursday

-The Cougars and Eagles collide in a rematch of this very same quarterfinal a season ago, a triple-overtime thriller won by Eden Prairie. This will be their third Tourney meeting in the past four years, as the Eagles also won the 2017 third place game in overtime. They lead the all-time series 16-1, with much of that damage coming in the early days of South when they shared a conference.

Lakeville South (21-7, #8, 1-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 5 (2 in a row)

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

-The Cougars had to scrape their way out of 1AA, but have shown flashes of front-line quality over the course of the season. Zack Oelrich (7) leads the team in points, while Cade Ahrenholz (16) is the leading goal-scorer. Cam Boche (4) also had a productive season, while Jack Novak (14) is an assist machine. Griffin Ludtke (3) and Jack Malinski (21) are their top defensemen, but this group has reasonably good balance across the board. Cody Ticen (30) came on strong in goal this season. This junior-heavy group has some Tourney experience and isn’t some run-of-the-mill mediocre Lakeville entrant, but we’ll see if they have the horses to stick with the most talented team in the state.

Eden Prairie (21-5-1, #2, 2-seed in 2AA)

State appearances: 12 (3 in a row)

Championships: 2 (2009, 2011)

Key section wins: 6-1 over #21 Minnetonka, 3-2 over #23 Chaska

-In a season when some of the state’s top recent teams dropped off, the defending runners-up are back for a sixth Tourney in seven years and a chance to atone for recent near-misses, from the blown lead against Edina a season ago to the failure to finish out a championship in the Casey Mittelstadt days. No team can match their six D-I commits, who include Mr. Hockey finalist Ben Steeves (6) and John Mittelstadt (9) on the top line. Junior duo Drew Holt (8) and Carter Batchelder (11) lead the second line. On defense, Luke Mittelstadt (27) and Mason Langenbrunner (22) will need to lead the way in front of Axel Rosenlund (30) in goal. The difference-maker down the stretch, however, was sophomore Jackson Blake (10), who gave their offense another dimension; if the chemistry is intact and they can score the way they should, they are the slight favorite to win it all. Their depth, while fine, is not quite on the level of an Andover or perhaps even a Maple Grove.

ST. THOMAS ACADEMY VS. #1 ANDOVER

6:00 Thursday

-The Thursday primetime bill features a first-time favorite against a Tourney regular who wasn’t supposed to be here. These two have never met.

St. Thomas Academy (18-8-2, #18, 5-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: 5 in AA (4 in a row); 8 in Class A

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

Key section wins: 2-0 over #16 Burnsville, 3-1 over #11 Rosemount

-The Cadets had their weakest regular season in years but went on a run at the right time, winning 13 of their last 14 to win 3AA as a 5-seed. First year coach Trent Eigner’s adoption of the Mike Randolph 2-3 has given more talented teams fits. Jackson Hallum (15) is their one legitimate front-line star. Jarod Wright (16) and Riley O’Brien (19) are next in line in productivity. Andrew Boemer (17) is their top scorer on defense, and McClain Beaudette (5) is a steady defensive presence. Senior Tommy Aitken (30) came on strong down the stretch and will be vital to their chances at an upset in their tough quarterfinal draw. Is a unique system and one player’s star power enough to break down the Huskies’ relentless attack?

Andover (24-3-1, #1, 1-seed in 7AA)

First State appearance

Key section wins: 8-1 over 6-seed Elk River

-The Huskies waltzed through the 7AA tournament with three straight shutouts and have barely been tested over the past month and a half. In some respects, that’s a testament to their quality: this is a team with excellent depth and skating ability top to bottom, and they were the most consistent team in AA this season. Wyatt Kaiser (5) is the top senior defenseman in the state, and Mitchell Wolfe (4) gives them a duo that is as reliable as they come in back. Up front they have no true superstars but the most depth in the state, with two interchangeable top lines and a quality third group. Luke Kron (7) may be the most complete of the bunch, Hunter Jones (11) is their leading scorer, Gunnar Thoreson (12) had a productive year, and Garrett Schifsky (17) is the leading goal-scorer and the rare junior star on this senior-laden squad. Will Larson (35) has done the job in goal when tested. Now, how will they hold up in their first trip to St. Paul, and against quality competition for the first time in a while?

# 5 HILL-MURRAY VS. #4 MOORHEAD

8:00 Thursday

-Two Tourney bluebloods meet in the nightcap in a battle that includes solid defenses and the state’s two best goaltenders. Hill won a late regular season meeting 4-3. They’ve split their four previous Tourney meetings, with the Spuds taking a 2017 quarterfinal 4-2. Hill leads the all-time series 17-11.

Hill-Murray (19-6-3, #7, 1-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 30 (last in 2018)

Championships: 3 (1993, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 3-2 over #23 White Bear Lake

-The Pioneers weren’t always the most consistent team this season, but they come in with plenty of talent and boast a strong record against Tourney entrants. Sophomore Nick Pierre (7) is their star up front, and Charlie Strobel (27) also helps carry the load; Matthew Fleishhacker (14), Henry Eischen (6), and Dylan Godbout (17) give them some scoring depth across two lines. Their biggest strengths are in back, where Joe Palodichuk (2) had a very productive season and is supported by a deep, steady defensive corps. Brimsek finalist Remington Keopple (1) has the best numbers of any goalie in the Tourney. Their key will be generating enough offense to break a 7-game Tourney losing streak that dates back to the 2013 title game.

Moorhead (21-5-1, #3, 1-seed in 8AA)

State appearances: 17 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 3-2 over 3-seed Roseau

-The steady Spuds may not have the depth of Andover or the star power of Eden Prairie, but they are a well-built team across the board. They continue their recent tradition of dominant top lines with the trio of Cullen Gess (14), Caden Triggs (27) and Carter Johnson (10), while Michael Overbo (19) gives their goal-scoring punch some depth. The Spuds do have some star power in back: Mr. Hockey finalist Luke Gramer (3) runs things from the blue line and Hudson Hodges (31) is a Frank Brimsek Award finalist. They’re liable to get outshot by some of the deeper, better-skating teams in this field, but they’re built to withstand some of that, and if they can impose their style on opponents, they have a shot at a deep run.

See you in St. Paul!

The Game No Cold Could Cancel

29 Jan

It is cold in northern Minnesota right now. Really, really cold.

I once tried to swear off making much talk about the weather, but this is a place where the weather is as ubiquitous as the traffic in LA, or the cesspool of lobbyists in DC: it’s unavoidable. We children of the North take pride in our ability to endure it, relate our more ridiculous encounters with it, and tell our children that it builds character. Then we go home and cry under the blankets for a little while. Or at least we would if our tears didn’t freeze in our eyelashes.

The windows in my turn-of-the-century office tower are coated in ice, my harbor view long since gone. My car gave a desperate whine when I started it up today (at least it started!), and it had to sit there for a good ten minutes before the brake fluid warmed up enough that I felt comfortable pulling out of the driveway. I have a novel I’m halfway through that could divert me, but its title is Snow. So much for literary escapism. Perhaps I should waste away most of tomorrow staring at pictures of Guam, as a grad school friend and I once did on a particularly godforsaken Minnesota day.

At these temperatures, my two wintertime diversions would seem to be useless. It’s far too cold to ski; my eyelashes really were freezing when I was out in a comparatively balmy three below on Sunday. Nor can I retreat to a rink for some warmth: with children’s safety at risk, school closures have canceled all the hockey games tonight.

Except for one, that is.

According to the Roseau Rams’ Twitter feed, it was -29 degrees in Roseau tonight. The “feels like” temperature is somewhere south of 50 below, as if anyone has any feeling left when the mercury dips to those levels. Nothing, however, could stop Roseau from hosting archrival Warroad at venerable Memorial Arena.

For the uninitiated, Roseau-Warroad is often lauded as the greatest rivalry in Minnesota hockey. (Here’s the New York Times on it; here, in SB Nation, is John Rosengren, who is to Minnesota hockey what Buzz Bissinger is to Texas football.) These two towns sit in the far northwest corner of the state, nearly six hours by car from the Twin Cities, and nearly five from my home base in Duluth. Their combined population is less than 5,000, yet they have combined to produce some of the finest hockey talent in Minnesota history. Roseau has seven state championships to its name, including three in my lifetime; Warroad has won the small-school crown four times, and no U.S. Olympic team has won gold without a Warrior on the roster.

It’s become a bit fashionable to question the rivalry’s preeminence. While still respectable, the two teams are not the consistent contenders for state titles they were even a decade ago. Roseau’s decision to opt up to AA hockey while Warroad remains in A strips the rivalry of any playoff implications. We Duluthians wonder if these two little towns can really match the unbridled hatred and record-setting crowds at games between Duluth East and Cloquet or Grand Rapids over the past two decades; down south, White Bear Lake and Hill-Murray go to war for State Tournament berths on a yearly basis, and the titans of the Lake Conference fight for top billing in the state. On our Youth Hockey Hub podcast this past week, Roseau star Aaron Huglen fired some shots when he claimed Roseau’s recent success over Warroad had devalued the rivalry.

With all due respect to Aaron, who scored a late goal to salvage a 2-2 tie for the favored Rams, this night’s game puts all of that to bed. On this record-setting night of cold in Minnesota, two teams that sit at its northern extreme went head-to-head when no one else would. It’s not hockey, it’s life, the Roseau-Warroad cliché goes. If anyone doubted it, this game provided the answer. Even as hell freezes over and then some, Roseau and Warroad will continue to play hockey.

So let’s fight off the frostbite and take a few stumbling steps over to the Legion in Roseau to toast once again the greatest rivalry in high school sports. Well done, boys: you’ve shown us the true meaning of culture and tradition, and years from now, you’ll be able to tell a tale of how, when the rest of Minnesota shut down, you kept on playing hockey. It’s the stuff that legend is made of, and I’ll make my pilgrimage soon to see it with my own two eyes.