Tourney Reflection 2015

Another Tourney has come and gone, though this one will linger longer than most. It was a golden year for Tournament play, one that raised the stakes ever higher every night. First and foremost we were witnesses to perfection, a seamless machine from the north side of Lakeville that brought the AA title south of the river for the first time in 20 years. The precision of the Poehlings and the seamless breakouts from the four defensemen flipped aside three straight strong opponents, and when they wavered, Ryan Edquist was there in goal to say ‘no’ yet again. These Panthers were among the all-time greats, ones to compare with the powers of old in debates at the bars along Seventh Street for years to come.

The Class A winners this time around were familiar ones, as East Grand Forks doubled its pleasure. The heroes of Tyler Palmiscno’s squad were the relentless stars up front, three man-children on a top line that powered its way to two straight upsets, and a defense bearing the unmistakable mark of that smashmouth scourge of the northwest corner of the state, Al Oliver. This is Northern Hockey epitomized, with the Green Wave battering Mahtomedi into submission in a delectable semifinal war before locking down against Hermantown, only to rebound with the poise of champions when the defenses did suddenly come down.

Poor Bruce Plante’s sorrows mounted on Saturday afternoon, the teaser of a comeback a cruel joke for the longtime Hermantown general, now left with a sixth straight runner-up medal. The Class A tourney also saw monster Mahtomedi crowds and a continued rise to relevance in the South, plus a steadfast St. Cloud Apollo defense that made games interesting by virtue of being boring. Twenty years into its life, the Class A tournament finally feels like it has come into its own, and is doing what it ought to do: spread hockey wealth to all corners of the state, and give each of them a fighting shot at a slice of the prestige.

The story of this Tourney for me, though, won’t surprise anyone: a run of miraculous escapes from the scrappy squad from Duluth East. The Greyhounds are no strangers to March delight, but this team, fresh off a pair of section playoff upsets, seemed out of luck early against the confident firepower of St. Thomas Academy. But then the Heart-Attack Hounds began their push, rallying to an overtime stunner, and before long I was wandering down through Rice Park beneath a sunset of brilliant purple tinge, lost between fantasy and reality, basking in my alma mater’s latest spurt of mastery.

There was to be no rest for the vicariously stressed, and Friday night’s renewal of the classic Hounds-Hornets battle eclipsed the wonder of the day before. Mighty Edina finally fell, toppled by the least likely Tourney entrant, the dream match-up in the championship game ruined by the perfect game plan. Its crowning moment: Ash Altmann’s knife to the heart of a dynasty, a goal that lifted the largest crowd in Xcel Center history to its feet in unison. I stumbled about the press box in delirium, wiped my eyes, and broke into a grin that wouldn’t leave my face till I fell into bed six hours later. Where else is anything like this possible?

The Hounds basked in glory for the rest of the Tourney, none more so than the architect of it all, the man whose legacy now approaches legendary: Mike Randolph, vindicated, any past tumult fading into history. He is a champion for high school hockey; a man with strong opinions, but so clearly born of genuine belief in the greater project that he stands for. He is in love with this sport and in love with his players, pushing them to greatness at this age when kids become aware of who they are, where it is they come from, and where they are going to go.

Randolph, humbly, made every effort to deflect the attention from himself, and on to his tireless boys in those vintage black sweaters. Duluth East’s run was a reminder of all that is pure in high school hockey, of how a team with no true stars can achieve the improbable if only it believes. The Hounds came down to St. Paul and stunned the stars of Minnesota’s two most classic villains, every kid on the roster pushing himself to the brink, every last ounce expended in pursuit of an impossible dream.  This old Hound was compelled to hang around the X after the loss to Lakeville for the players to emerge to meet their parents and fans, waiting to give them one last round of applause.

There had been whispers of the Tourney’s decline in recent years, suggestions that early departures and domination by a handful of West Metro or private school powers had sapped away the old ideal. This year put all of that to rest. The stars were out in full force, from Bowen to Aamodt to Mittelstadt to the Lakeville legion of D-I talent, and the action was relentless. The raucous fans responded in turn, smashing attendance records left and right, packing the house and soon rewarded for their support with a phenomenal slate of games. For me, a reunion with both old East friends and press box regulars from all corners, trading our nonstop give-and-take while Dave LaVaque prowls down the back of press row in his finest Randolph impression, exhorting us to stay strong through two last games.

After bidding my Hounds farewell, it was back out into the St. Paul night one last time, with a pause on a street corner to gaze about: the full moon to my left, the Cathedral to my right, and the X before me, settling into quiet before the next Wild home game. Here I am now, mid-20s and firmly a man but still gushing over a boys’ game, watching as my own generation starts to take the reins from the old guard to carry the tradition forward. It’s our duty. But the players make it easy for us, and these stories write themselves: our four-day party at the dawn of spring always provides something, some little spark that re-ignites our belief in the power of youth, if only for a little while. The wait for next season will take far too long. But the sun is out, the ice on the lake hasn’t gone totally to slush quite yet, and we have another heap of memories to carry us through to November.

Karl Schuettler

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Final AA Rankings 2015

Here’s one last perfunctory set of rankings. Thanks again for following along this season.

1. LAKEVILLE NORTH

-It doesn’t get much better than perfection. They were #1 from the time they beat Edina in December, and there was just no weakness, with two superb lines and four of the best defensemen you’ll ever see, all in front of a D-I goalie. They are the highly deserving champions.

2. Duluth East

-Who ever could have imagined this? A team that was barely staying afloat in the top 25 at times this season came together at the right time, and put together one of the all-time great runs through the Tourney. The upset of Edina was one for the ages, and this team will join North in Tourney lore for its performance in the clutch.

3. Edina

-The Hornets had arguably their best regular season in recent memory, but it all came apart on Friday night at the X. They did well to bounce back and claim third-place honors, and who would ever want to bet against them? This senior class leaves with a heap of accomplishments to its name that no upset can ever diminish.

4. Eden Prairie

-It was an adventure at times, but the Eagles fought (literally) their way through a 6AA minefield, put together a very impressive win over Blaine in the opening round, then gave Lakeville a very good fight in the semis before coming up short. If players stick around here, the future is very bright.

5. St. Thomas Academy

-The Cadets were stunned in the opening round of the Tourney, but they bounced back to take home consolation honors. AA is a different ballgame, but making it to the X was an important step for the program.

6. Blaine

-Broke through to get back to the X, though the showing against Eden Prairie was a bit disappointing. They did manage to break 5AA’s long State losing steak.

7. Bemidji

-The Lumberjacks proved they belonged at this year’s Tourney, rebounding from an ugly first few minutes to give Edina a real fight and playing St. Thomas tight as well. It won’t take another 29 years for a return trip.

8. Hill-Murray

-Never quite got going at State, but they did well to get there with a thin offense, and were plenty dangerous all season long.

9. Elk River

-It was heartbreak once again for the Elks, who came even closer to finally finishing off Duluth East before it all went wrong. Someday, they will manage to break through again.

10. Minnetonka

-In a mild surprise after a down season the year before, the Skippers fought their way to the 6AA title game and pushed Eden Prairie to the limit once they were there. After a brief detour, they’re back on the state scene.

11. Benilde-St. Margaret’s

-Also gave Eden Prairie a good game, though they came up short, and things never seemed to quite come together for this talented crew.

12. Holy Family

-Had their best season to date, though a tough seed left them unable to win a playoff game.

13. Grand Rapids

-This one looks better in retrospect, as the Thunderhawks took Duluth East to the brink but couldn’t quite pull it off. There’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about the future here.

14. Moorhead

-Came on pretty strong toward the end and played Bemidji tough, but missed the X for a second straight year.

15. White Bear Lake

-A strong regular season once again came crashing down in a semifinal loss to Stillwater.

Honorable Mention:

Wayzata. Loads of talent, but things seemed to slowly come apart all the way down the stretch.

Farmington. Had some good flashes in the best year in school history and made a second straight section final before falling to the North juggernaut.

Burnsville. Did well to beat Prior Lake, though they’d be best served by forgetting all about that 2AA final.

Eastview. Took down Cretin in a mild upset in the 3AA semis, and did a good job of hanging around with St. Thomas Academy in the final, too.

Centennial. Got a strong win over improving Anoka to make a section final, but got flattened by Blaine once they were there.

There are plenty of other teams that could merit a mention, but we’ll stop there. Thanks again to all the teams, coaches, and everyone else who puts in the work to make high school hockey great. Thanks to all the people who get broadcasts up on TV, radio, or online, or who collect and share scores and game stories. And thanks, of course, to all of you for reading, commenting, and making hockey in this state what it is. It’s been a pleasure, as always, and we’ll start the countdown to next season soon enough!

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2015 AA Tournament Capsules

BEMIDJI VS. #2 EDINA

11:00 Thursday

-It’s hard to imagine a bigger David vs. Goliath opener to the AA field, as Bemidji comes down from the North for the first time in 3 decades, and is promptly greeted by the dynastic Hornets. It’s a classic match-up, and we’ll learn just how real this Bemidji team is. Their Tourney history consists of two 1970s meetings between Bemidji and Edina East, both won by Edina, including the 1974 championship game.

Bemidji (23-3-2, #10, 1-seed in 8AA)

State appearances: 7 (first since 1986)

Key section win: 2-0 over #15 Moorhead

-The Lumberjacks are sure to be the darlings of this year’s Tournament after ending a 29-year drought in convincing fashion, shutting out all three of their AA opponents. They’re also a complete unknown to the Metro teams, as they didn’t play a single one all season. Grant Tharaldson (30), the goaltender, will have to be the man of the hour to have a fighting chance against Edina. In front of him, Jake Leitner (5) is the offensive star, and Brady Tatro (19) has also been a reliable point source. Nick Leitner (21) and Michael Forseth (23) lead a defense that was solid all season long. The Lumberjacks are reasonably deep for a smaller northern school, but that depth faces the ultimate test in Edina. If they’re ready for the speed and intensity they’ll face against the Hornets, they’ll at least have a prayer. The first five minutes will be essential. 

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

State appearances: 37 (6 as Edina East/West in 70s and 80s; 9 in a row)

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

Key section win: 10-1 over #17 Burnsville

-The hunt for a third straight title is on for the Hornets, and though they don’t have the top seed, they’ve sure looked like one over the past month, steamrolling nearly everyone in their way. Senior Dylan Malmquist (20) is one of two favorites for Mr. Hockey, while junior linemate Garrett Wait (17) might just be better, and the third member of the top line, Parker Mismash (16), is the state’s best agitator, and plenty talented to boot. They have great forward depth beyond that, including St. Lawrence recruit Henry Bowlby (21), and the defense, while less heralded, is as solid as they come, with three veteran seniors and freshman phenom Clayton Phillips (18) garnering most of the ice time. If there’s a worry anywhere, it might be in their lack of close games all season; what happens if someone finally does give them a good run? Even so, there’s good reason to consider them the favorite, even with undefeated Lakeville North in the field.

 

DULUTH EAST VS. #3 ST. THOMAS ACADEMY

1:00 Thursday

-This one offers a second good North-vs.-Metro battle, with the Hounds playing the unusual underdog role in St. Thomas’s AA debut. St. Thomas won a December meeting between these two 4-1; that was their first win in their three meetings with Duluth East.

Duluth East (14-10-4, #19, 3-seed in 7AA)

State appearances: 22 (7 in a row)

Championships: 3 (1960, 1995, 1998)

Key section wins: 3-2 over #16 Grand Rapids, 5-4 (2OT) over #6 Elk River

-The Hounds are the most frequent State entrant in the 2-class era, but never have the odds been so long as this season, and never have they been such a great underdog heading into the Tourney. Mike Randolph’s group doesn’t have the stars of many recent years, though senior Nick Altmann (19) has come on strong toward the end of the season, and younger brother Ash Altmann (26) and Luke Dow (21) anchor a quality second line. East is fairly deep, and boasts a strong freshman class that grew considerably over the season, including sniper Garrett Worth (5), the hero of the section final. Goaltender Gunnar Howg (31) is capable of stealing a game, and will have to be at his best, given the sometimes shaky defense; East must also stay out of the box. 

St. Thomas Academy (24-4, #3, 1-seed in 3AA)

State appearances: First in AA; 8 in Class A (first since 2013)

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

Key section win: 3-1 over 3-seed Eastview

-After a misfire in their first season in AA, the Cadets make their Tourney debut after a march through a thin 3AA. There is no shortage of front-end talent here, with Alec Broetzman (21) and Peter Tufto (19) leading the top line, and silky Colorado College recruit Christiano Versich (20) anchoring the second along with emerging junior Will Jerry (9). Two more D-I commits, senior Seamus Donohue (17) and sophomore Brian Hurley (6), lead the defense. They’re not quite as deep as Edina or as talented as North, but as long as they aren’t too flustered by the higher level of physicality and forechecking they’ll see at this level, they’ll have a fighting shot at a title.

 

HILL-MURRAY VS. #1 LAKEVILLE NORTH

6:00 Thursday

-This is a superb primetime matchup, as undefeated North has drawn the highest-ranked opponent for a top seed in Tourney history, and will have to beat three good teams to make the final. North won a December meeting 4-3 and leads the all-time series 2-1, with all of those games coming in the last three years.

Hill-Murray (21-7, #5, 1-seed in 4AA)

State appearances: 27 (first since 2013)

State Championships: 3 (1983, 1991, 2008)

Key section win: 4-0 over defending champion Stillwater

-The Pioneers are not among the favorites in this Tournament, but that role has suited them well in the past. This year’s squad is built firmly around its defense, which includes Mr. Hockey snub Jacob Olson (18), Davis Zarembinski (7), Casey Staum (19), and freshman star Mikey Anderson (24). The offense, meanwhile, is on the thin side, though Zach Mills (14) has carried the load admirably, and sophomore Marko Reiffenberger (22) has emerged as his sidekick. If they can generate enough offense, they’re tough enough in back to take down North, and after that, anything would be possible. They’ll need a lot of good contributions from some young players, including goalie Jake Begley (1), who won the job late in the season. 

Lakeville North (28-0, #1, 1-seed in 1AA)

State appearances: 6 (3 in a row)

Key section win: 6-1 over #18 Farmington

-Like Edina, the Panthers are chasing early 90s Bloomington Jefferson, looking to become the first team to go undefeated since the 1993 Jaguars. If this team has an edge on Edina, it’s likely in its superb puck-moving defense including Jack McNeely (20), Jack Sadek (16), Angelo Altavilla (17), and Luke Seper (22). The St. Cloud-bound top line of Jack (3), Nick (7), and Ryan (4) has unmatched chemistry, and Henry Enebak (21) and Max Johnson (6) lead a lethal second unit. Gopher recruit Ryan Edquist (31), their sixth D-I commit, holds down the fort in goal. The Panthers’ biggest concern is their depth beyond the top two lines; if the big guns tire, they could be vulnerable. They also still have something to prove after last season’s forgettable performance in the championship game.

 

#5 EDEN PRAIRIE VS. #4 BLAINE

8:00 Thursday

-Two big suburban schools wrap up the Tourney quarterfinals. Blaine won a December meeting 8-3, which was their only meeting this decade. They’re 1-1 against each other at State, with Eden Prairie winning a 2009 semifinal and Blaine winning a 1999 consolation game.

Eden Prairie (18-9, #4, 1-seed in 6AA)

State appearances: 8 (2 in a row)

Championships: 2 (2009, 2011)

Key section wins: 1-0 over #12 Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 2-1 (OT) over #14 Minnetonka

-The Eagles are the bad boys of this year’s Tourney, escaping the 6AA minefield despite three suspensions following their semifinal win over Benilde. They are led by two superb forwards, junior Michael Graham (16) and Casey Mittelstadt (11), one of the state’s finest talents and only a sophomore. They aren’t especially deep offensively, but the D corps does have a lot of good options, and is led by seniors Andy Aguilar (6) and Brady Schoo (2). Like so many recent good Eden Prairie teams, they’ll look to ride their top guns to victory.

Blaine (22-5-1, #7, 1-seed in 5AA)

State appearances: 11 (first since 2011)

Championships: 1 (2000)

Key section win: 8-1 over 2-time defending champion Centennial

-The Bengals return to State after a few years of playoff frustration, and seek to end 5AA’s run of 5 straight two-and-outs. They have a decent shot: they’re undefeated in their last 17, and bring serious size and physicality to the table. First-year coach Chris Carroll relies on his three big forwards, Riley Tufte (27), Luke Notermann (17), and Easton Brodzinski (22), but they’ve done a good job of spreading the love across two quality lines. Jesse Slawson (24) has had a productive year, while Jon Kallestad (32) won the goalie job down the stretch. When teams do get past their relentless forecheck, they can be soft in back, and this will be the key for Eden Prairie.

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2015 Class A Tournament Capsules

NEW ULM VS. #2 MAHTOMEDI

11:oo Wednesday

-Two semi-regular visitors to the Class A tournament collide in the opener. They have no recent history with one another.

New Ulm (18-8-2, unranked, 3-seed in 3A)

State appearances: 5 (first since 2012)

Key section win: 7-5 over #20 Luverne

-New Ulm wasn’t the most hyped team in 3A, but by the end of the year they were the hottest, twice taking down favored Luverne. They score in bunches and seem to be deeper than the average 3A team, with two lines putting up significant points. Colin Huffman (10), Brandon Helget (5), Ethan Kraus (11), and Wyatt Peterson (9) lead the way offensively, and will need to continue the push for the Eagles to have any chance of stacking up. Goalie Matt Berkner (33) will likely have to withstand a barrage if they have any chance to make this one interesting. 

Mahtomedi (24-4-2, #2, 1-seed in 4A)

State appearances: 8 (first since 2010)

Key section win: 5-2 over #10 St. Paul Academy

-The top Metro public school in the field had a very strong season that included wins over AA Tourney entrants St. Thomas Academy and Hill-Murray, and are among the threats to win it all. The star to watch here is junior Jack Becker (27), but they have a fairly deep and balanced attack that includes Jack Heinsch (22), Kellen Campbell (5), and Joe Forciea (7). Coach Jeff Poeschl’s defense doesn’t put up big points, but has done an effecting job of holding quality opposition in check down the stretch. While not quite as flashy as Hermantown, the pieces are there to make a serious title run.

 

NEW PRAGUE VS. #3 EAST GRAND FORKS

1:oo Wednesday

-Two of the top three finishers in last season’s Tournament meet in the second quarterfinal, with both looking to assert their relevance in this year’s field despite graduation losses.

New Prague (20-8, #17, 1-seed in 1A)

State appearances: 2 (2 in a row)

Key section win: 2-1 over Northfield in the section championship

-The Trojans came out of a very open 1A and defended their title from last season, though this team is fairly different from last season’s third-place squad. One thing that hasn’t changed is goaltender Connor Wagner (1), who has been big for them in key games, and leading scorer Alex Gregor (10) was one of the top pieces on last year’s squad, too. Ben Witt (8) has also produced at a good rate this season, and the defense is led by Casey Busch (5). They aren’t a high-scoring or deep offensive team, but their grind-it-out style could be enough to give East Grand Forks a good run in their quarterfinal. 

East Grand Forks (23-4, #3, 1-seed in 8A)

State appearances: 10 (3 in old one-class tournament; 3 in a row)

Championships: 1 (2014)

Key section win: 3-2 (OT) over #11 Thief River Falls

-The Green Wave are back in St. Paul to defend their title this season, but this year’s squad’s adventurous run through sections suggests we’re unlikely to see a similar level of dominance. They do still have the top senior in the tournament in Dixon Bowen (22), and with Tanner Tweten (19), Reed Corbid (20), Grant Loven (29), and Jace Pesch (7) all joining him up front, the forward corps can match up with the likes of Hermantown. The Green Wave brings a defense-first focus, though, and while they don’t have the horses on D they did last season, they do have a couple of Tournament veterans back there, along with a quality goaltender, Josh Weber (30). A repeat isn’t out of the question, but a first round win isn’t totally assured, either.

 

SPRING LAKE PARK VS. #1 HERMANTOWN

6:00 Wednesday

-A Tournament favorite begins its quest for that elusive title against a new Tourney entrant in Class A primetime. There is no recent history here.

Spring Lake Park (16-11-1, unranked, 1-seed in 5A)

First State appearance

Key section win: 5-0 over defending champion Chisago Lakes

-The Panthers are this year’s lone tournament debutant, and drew the short stick for a match-up with Hermantown. On the plus side, their Northwest Suburban schedule means they’re more familiar with deep and talented teams than most Class A teams, but their results there aren’t exactly encouraging. Jacob Nystrom (10) and Deven Sunell (18) lead the way offensively, along with assist machine Connor Gagnon (16); the top defenseman is Zach Benson (6). Goaltender Aaron Furlano (35) will be under fire all night long. Keeping this game close, or avoiding a 2-and-out, would make for a successful tournament. 

Hermantown (25-2-1, #1, 1-seed in 7A)

State appearances: 12 (6 in a row)

Championships: 1 (2007)

Key section wins: 6-1 over #16 Hibbing, 4-0 over #5 Duluth Marshall

-The Hawks are aiming to end five straight years of runner-up frustration, and they couldn’t be in a much better position to do so, with arguably their deepest and strongest team ever. Ryan Kero (7), Nate Pionk (6), and Cole Koepke (27) form the lethal top line, though all three can score, and Wyatt Aamodt (5) and Eric Gotz (9) lead a tough defense. It will be difficult for any team in this field to break their relentless waves of attack, though any team that can break out with any authority will have some chance to pierce their underbelly in back. Still, there are few weaknesses here, and one figures it’s title or bust for Bruce Plante’s crew this season.

 

#5 ST. CLOUD APOLLO VS. #4 BRECK

8:00 Wednesday

-As usual, the last game of the day promises the best competition in the Class A quarterfinals. The storyline is a good one, as upstart Apollo collides with one of the giants of Class A hockey. As with the other matchups here, they haven’t met recently.

St. Cloud Apollo (22-4-2, #7, 4-seed in 6A)

State appearances: 3 (first since 2012; one in old 1-class Tournament)

Key section wins: 4-2 over #8 Alexandria, 4-2 over #12 St. Cloud Cathedral

-Apollo may have been a 4-seed, but they were right there with the other top teams in a crowded 6A, and played very well down the stretch; there’s no chance of a repeat of that 12-0 debacle against St. Thomas two years ago. Tanner Breidenbach (7), who led the team in scoring as a defenseman, is their top player, and Grady Ewing (14) has also produced a lot of points from the blue line. The offense lacks a real standout, but includes a kid with a familiar last name in Gino Lucia (17), plus Jason Omann (13) and Brandon Bissett (21). Goaltender Nick Althaus (32) is a veteran, quality netminder. If this team can score enough without exposing themselves in back, this team could make some noise.

Breck (21-7, #4, 1-seed in 2A)

State appearances: 11 (first since 2013)

Championships: 4 (2000, 2004, 2009, 2010)

Key section win: 3-2 (2OT) over #6 Delano

-Class A’s premier private school power returns to State after a one-year hiatus. As a fairly young squad, this is hardly their most dominant team, but they played well down the stretch and scraped past Delano to return to the X. Junior Chase Ellingson (8) is a front-end talent, and beyond him they have a decent collection of capable forwards, including Tyler Scott (17) and Will Blake (26). Dalton Weigel (25) is a prospect to watch on defense, while Tyler Lindstrom (27) is a veteran. Goaltender Stephen Headrick’s (39) gaudy stats earned him a surprise nod as one of two finalists for the Brimsek Award. They aren’t as deep as Hermantown or Mahtomedi, but they have enough talented players that they could have a serious shot.

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