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The Power and the Glory: Duluth East 2017-2018 in Review

13 Mar

Those of us who follow Duluth East hockey don’t really know the meaning of an unmemorable season. The storylines always seem to fall into place, and win or lose, the Greyhounds find some way to entertain us. But the 2017-2018 team, runners up in the state of Minnesota, somehow found a way to make themselves to stand out above the rest. It was a remarkable year.

While these Hounds had a few more hiccups against mid-tier teams than the other top teams in the state, they still finished with the second-best regular season since the last championship in 1998, and they rolled into the playoffs with more jump than that one team that was better than them on paper, the 2012 group that lost to Lakeville South in the quarterfinals. They flashed their formidable talent in solid wins over the likes of Wayzata, Andover, Centennial, Elk River, and top-ranked Minnetonka, and the only concerning wobbles came against local rivals like Cloquet and Duluth Marshall. After they slaughtered the Hilltoppers in the section semis and found a way to dig deep and overcome scrappy Andover in the section final, they had all the makings of a team on a championship run.

The Hounds faced a spirited test from the Knights of St. Michael-Albertville in the Tourney quarterfinals, but a sudden detonation of WMD (plus some Logan Anderson for good measure) in the second period put away the Knights. Garrett Worth pulled his best Dave Spehar with a hat trick, and at 5-0 the Hounds had their largest Tourney margin of victory since the days of said Mr. Spehar. Parker Kleive logged a shutout in net to prove East goaltending would be no weakness in this Tourney, and Mike Randolph was able to rotate in some depth players to keep his most dangerous weapons in tune for Friday night.

For the fourth time in eight years, the first game on Friday night had the Hounds matched with Edina, a titanic clash between the two best programs of the two-class era. This war has come to define Tourney semifinals, and this Edina squad, which blasted so many quality opponents into running time, looked every bit the most lethal one in the field in its romp to the semifinals. It all ended there. A Worth snipe, an Ian Mageau power move, a Randolph lockdown defense, a Carson Cochran diving save, and a bit of luck on a fluttering puck off the stick of Frederick Hunter Paine proved the formula for a Greyhound victory. Worth fired one last rocket into the open net to punctuate the night: one of the most skilled Hornet squads in history was history, vanquished yet again by their great nemesis of the North.

The Hounds got off to a slow start and an early deficit against Minnetonka in the state championship game, but with a few in-game adjustments they still found a way to generate their share of ever-so-close chances. The second line in particular was flying, with Austin Jouppi and Ricky Lyle providing the offense for the night. WMD, however, was snakebitten, and the tight defensive corps took a beating as the clock ticked down on their third straight game. None of those close chances went in, and with a little puck luck of their own, the smooth-skating Skippers denied the Hounds the crown.

I’ve been through a lot of East year-end losses now, but save for the unique pain that comes from the end of one’s own senior year, this one hurts the most of all of them. Even if it didn’t have the heartbreak factor of a Kyle Rau triple-overtime dive or the lingering what-ifs of losing to a less skilled opponent in 2009 or 2012, it hurts because this was such an easy team to like, and more than any of them seemed to have both the talent and the heart to win it. The team just felt like a loose, goofy group that knew its mission. It said something Mike Randolph’s first hug after a big win always seemed to be for Worth, a kid who had to aggravate him at times, but remained lovable in spite of it, and certainly showed his share of growth over his years as a Hound. (Garrett listed Randolph as his greatest fear in the team program.) The buy-in was complete, and the right blends of skill and balance, of experience and confidence, of coaching and freedom, were all there.

This team wrote its way into the East record books. Worth’s 47 goals were the most by a Hound not named Spehar, while Ryder Donovan’s 48 assists were the most by any Hound not named Chris Locker. The top line of Worth, Ian Mageau, and Donovan will go down as one of the team’s best, and certainly the one with the best nickname. Ricky Lyle’s gritty second line added the power and a strong dose of offense, the third line kept grinding away, and the four-man defensive corps grew into one that outplayed Edina’s bevy of D-I blue line talent. By the end, there wasn’t a weakness to be found.

And so we say farewell to one of the more special classes of seniors to wear the red and grey. This group lived up to its considerable hype, and its longest tenured members both began and ended their East careers with second place finishes and upsets over Edina. One last roll call: Parker Kleive, who came from somewhere completely off my radar to win the goaltending job this season, and was rock-solid when the pressure was on. Porter Haney and Hunter Hren, who provided valuable depth, and Tommy Higgins, with his state record save percentage. Will Fisher, a captain and a rock in the four-man defensive corps, and Nick Lanigan, the scrappy third liner who was always rocketing around the ice and getting his nose right in the thick of things. Austin Jouppi, who blossomed into a superb power forward and put it all on the line on the state championship game. Ian Mageau, a top line force who set up the dagger to finish Edina in 2015, scored the go-ahead goal this time around, and quietly slid his way up the East all-time scorer ranks. Luke LaMaster, named the top senior defenseman in Minnesota for his two-way play. And the sniper, Garrett Worth, whose goal barrage earned a place in the annals of East history. As always, we wish them well, both in hockey and in life, and hope they learned a bit about the latter while living it up as the former as a Greyhound.

I usually keep some distance from East players. I don’t want to come off as some weird old fanboy, and sometimes I’m probably better off not knowing what’s going on behind the scenes. This is about them, not me. But this year, I couldn’t help but throw out some hugs to players as they emerged from the locker room after it was all over. They’d invested everything they had in a game, and I’d invested a healthy amount of the past few months watching their exploits. The boys of winter didn’t disappoint: there is no better, more convenient entertainment than this, and when it’s part of a community that one can call one’s own, all one can do is offer up some appreciation. I’ll miss this group, and after a healthy rest, we can start the countdown to next November.

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A Team on the Brink

7 Feb

Duluth winters crawl along, unless one measures them by hockey: somehow, just a week and a half remains in a high school hockey regular season that feels like it began just yesterday. Those of us in the stands get to know a team over the course of a season, and suddenly it seems like we may be done with them all too soon. Back in November I figured this would be one of the more entertaining Duluth East seasons in a while, one way or another, and it has certainly delivered on that promise. The team hasn’t left the top four all season, and while it’s had its bumps in the road, the promise of something special remains, too.

East demolished Elk River 7-0 on Saturday, a performance that showed just how thoroughly this team can dominate. Elk River stuck around for a bit and kept it 0-0 through one period, but the Hounds’ relentless three-line push quickly wore them down, and the goals began to pour in from there. The game left Elk River resorting to some less-than-savory tactics in an effort to slow down the Hounds, including an incident that resulted in four penalties on a single Elk player and produced a seven-minute power play. You see something new every day. But the statement win capped off a run of nine straight wins in which East was basically never not in control of a game.

Fast forward two days to a standing room only Heritage Center for the second regular season battle with Cloquet. After a 6-6 tie in the meeting at the Lumberdome in December, this would be a good barometer of how much each team had improved, and would tell us if that first meeting, with a gaudy East shot margin and four Cloquet power play goals, was a bit of a fluke. In the early stages, that seemed more or less right: East cycled with authority for long stretches, plugged away to collect a pair of goals, and had some chances to build an even bigger lead.

But it wasn’t to be. The Lumberjacks, after lying in wait, sprung for two goals to tie the game. East seemed to restore some order with an immediate answer from Austin Jouppi, but two ensuing bad penalties gave the Jacks the chances they needed to tie and take the lead. (East’s penalty kill, which clips along at a 93.9% rate against all other opponents, is an atrocious 3 of 9 against the rivals in purple this season. The Jacks have scored six power play goals in two games to East’s other 21 opponents’ four.) After that, momentum was firmly on the side of the Lumberjacks, and an empty-netter sealed East’s second loss of the season.

Cloquet’s win helps push the Jacks out of a convoluted middle tier in section 7AA and into pole position for the 3-seed, which creates the tantalizing possibility of an East-Cloquet section final. Somehow, it’s been 13 years since we last had one of those, and despite the regular season meetings, this East fan is hungry for another one. If any of the uninitiated think the atmosphere for East-Grand Rapids these past two years was fun, well, you ain’t seen nuthin yet.

Both teams have a ways to go to get there, though, and for East, that road will likely start with their old friends the Thunderhawks. While the Hounds will likely put 60 shots on net in that prospective quarterfinal, Gabe Holum makes Grand Rapids more interesting than your average 8-seed, to say nothing of the history between those two teams. The regular season meeting was a 3-1 East win that was about as thrilling as a colonoscopy. If the Hounds get by that exercise in carpet bombing a bunker, they’d likely face the winner of a Duluth Marshall-Elk River quarterfinal. Both of those teams are reliant on a single top line for most of their offense, but are capable of playing top teams tough if enough goes right; I have more faith in one of those teams’ ability to prepare for East than the other, but that one too will involve some rivalry intrigue. Upstart Andover, despite its 9-3 December loss to East, has been on a tear and will collect the 2-seed; the Huskies pounded 7-2 Cloquet in January. For that matter, 6-seed Forest Lake is no safe quarterfinal for Jacks, having beaten them 1-0 just last week.

Prior to crumbling against Cloquet, East had been on one of its more impressive runs in my time watching Hounds hockey. Their ownership of most opponents was complete. The productivity of the second and third lines over the past month has been exceptional, and in recent games, the second line has been outscoring the vaunted WMD line. Not that WMD isn’t racking up the accolades, as Garrett Worth has the most goals by any Hound since Dave Spehar in 1996, and Ryder Donovan could end up in select company on the single-season assists list as well once all is said and done. But there are still times when WMD gets bogged down in its own zone, which can limit its chances to do what it does best. The top four defensemen have crystallized into a very solid puck-moving core that can stack up with just about any in the state. Perhaps the most pleasant surprise has been the performance of Parker Kleive in goal; Cloquet game aside, he’s been on a tear down the stretch, and has won the job convincingly after a lengthy battle with Lukan Hanson.

East closes with a home game against Lakeville South and a visit to Maple Grove, two respectable teams that play the defensive style East will need to solve to get by the likes of Grand Rapids, Cloquet, or Andover, or even Marshall in sections. These teams pack it in defensively and look to capitalize on frustration and over-commitment by sneaking out in well-timed counter-attacks. It’s not much fun to watch, but a few of East’s opponents this season have done it effectively, and knowing how to handle those teams could make or break this playoff run.

Heading into the Lakeville South game, East coach Mike Randolph is sitting on 615 wins, one short of Edina legend Willard Ikola for third on the all-time list. In some respects this has been one of Randolph’s easier years, as he has a bunch of kids who execute his preferred systems to near-perfection, and most everyone seems to be on board for a fun ride. But Randolph hasn’t separated himself from other coaches by plugging players into a system alone; he’s also done it by knowing how to press the right buttons when games hang in the balance. The next few weeks will tell us if this group has that last little spark to get it over the finish line.

Duluth East 2017-2018 Season Preview

30 Nov

The start of a new season can never come fast enough in the aftermath of a double-overtime section final loss, but at long last, an agonizing wait is over. The Duluth East Greyhounds start their 2017-2018 season on the road in White Bear Lake tomorrow, where they hope to avoid a repeat of last season’s upset loss in the opener. They’re right back at it the next day with a home game against Wayzata, another potent opponent that gives this East team an immediate chance to set the tone. As well they should want to: on paper, this is the best East team since the 2011-2012 dream team that got upset in the first round of the State Tournament.

The similarities between these Greyhounds and that group six years ago are almost uncanny: a high-flying top line with a long history together, two excellent supporting lines, a deep and offensive-minded defense, and a new goalie who is the obvious heir apparent. Sure, there are some differences: the top line has yet to reach the point totals of Jake Randolph, Trevor Olson, and newly minted NHLer Dom Toninato. Both teams lost to the state champion in several overtimes the season before, though this incoming group went down in the section final, whereas the 2011 Hounds made the title game. Missing the Tournament two seasons in a row brings a different sort of pressure than coming in as a three-time defending section champion, though there are still four kids on this squad who have seen the bright lights of March and played in the 2015 title game.

The comparison will be especially apt if the Hounds can unleash their Weapons of Mass Destruction. Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan—aka the WMD Line—are in the conversation for the best line in the state. Worth is the sniper, Mageau provides a powerful big body that will go into corners, and future North-Dakota-Whatever-They-Are-Now Donovan is a smooth-skating giant who had a big offseason and could be set for a genuine breakout. This line has the potential to put up numbers on par with the greatest East lines of all time, and if they do so, this team will have every chance to play for a state title.

The factor that could separate East from the field this season, however, is its depth: they may have the three best lines in the state, as their top nine forwards all return. Ricky Lyle took strides over the offseason and now looks very dangerous, Nick Lanigan (once he’s healthy) will bring an excellent work rate, and a full sophomore campaign from Logan Anderson will be welcome after injuries disrupted his second half last year. Austin Jouppi, Brendan Baker, and Jack FitzGerald were all solidly productive a season ago as well, and with all three lines firing and taking a step forward, this team will be able to bury in opponents in ways that few others can. Only a handful of west metro teams and St. Thomas Academy are even close to them here.

The Defense is led by newly committed Wisconsin Badger Luke LaMaster, and in what is admittedly a thin year for front-end senior defensemen, he’s a contender for the Reed Larson Award for the top blueliner in the state. Hunter Paine had a huge second half last season, and with he and LaMaster ranging forward, Will Fisher needs to be the defensive rock to protect Lukan Hanson in goal. Carson Cochran rounds out the top four in terms of talent, and E.J. Hietala is also in the mix; the third defensive pair is about the only spot on this roster where there’s some room for new kids to climb in.

In goal, it’s Lukan Hanson’s time to shine. He looked capable in sporadic action a season ago and in the Elite League this fall, so now it’s just a matter of translating that play into the regular season and holding up under the spotlight. There’s no question the job is his, so he’ll have to deliver.

While the Hounds are the undisputed frontrunner in 7AA, a crowded group will be nipping at their heels. Elk River is probably the best of the bunch top to bottom, and maybe they’re in better shape with less hype and pressure this season, though I’ve said that before. Cloquet has the skill coming up to make things interesting, and if they can jell under a new coach, the rivalry factor will also help close the gap. Marshall isn’t the deepest team to ever grace the ice, but their top unit is as good as anyone’s, and like Cloquet, the Hounds are very much their target. Young Andover will look to crash the party, too. And then there’s Grand Rapids, which is way down from the past few seasons. But they are the two-time defending champs, and the only team in the section that has beaten East with any regularity in recent seasons; if Gabe Holum gets hot, it’s not impossible.

The Hounds’ schedule is unique in that they don’t play any of the other three teams in the top preseason top four (Edina, Moorhead, St. Thomas). But, they do play nearly everyone else who’s ranked: 19 of 25 opponents are in my preseason AA top 25, and a couple of the non-ranked teams aren’t exactly pushovers. As usual, the toughest stretches come right away and again in early January; things ease up with a lot of somewhat lighter home games toward the end, though they do have big section games with Cloquet and Elk River in that later stretch. Lots of teams will be gunning for East, as they’ll be the favorites in most games they play. There are few opportunities for off nights against this schedule.

Given all of that, East’s evolution over the course of the season will be key. The 2012 team, and also the 2008-2009 squad that was East’s other no-doubt preseason top five team in the past decade, both came out of the gates looking dominant, but seemed to stall as January and February wore on. The warning signs for their first round State Tournament upset losses were all there. Of course, no East fan would complain if they ran the table, but if they don’t, a little adversity wouldn’t be the worst thing to hit this team, so long as they respond well. One just has to trust that Mike Randolph’s systems will continue to grow, and not settle into tedium.

Randolph was the subject of an excellent profile by the Louie St. George in the News Tribune earlier this week, one that hits on many of the same notes about his career trajectory that I’ve mentioned over the past few years. In this golden stage of his career, Randolph sits at 597 career wins, and should track down number 600 in the first couple weeks of the season. The next milestone, in my mind, is even more significant: with a 20-win season, which seems like a realistic goal, he will surpass Willard Ikola for third place on the all-time coaching wins list. 600 is just a number, but joining a man like Ikola goes to show the depth of the influence he’s had over twenty-nine seasons as a coach.

The sky is the limit for this team, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves: March is still a long way off. Whatever comes next, this ride will be a memorable one.