BEMIDJI VS. #2 EDINA
-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
-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
-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
-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.