Life is full of unforgettable moments. The first day of school, the first date, graduation days, your wedding day — the list can be virtually endless.
Sports is no exception. The moments may not be quite as planned out, but the spontaneous nature of sports is what provides that extra thrill. Anything that may look like just another game on the schedule can suddenly become a night that remains etched in your memory forever.
For Minnesota prep hockey players, there is perhaps no greater memory than the experience that comes with a state tournament berth. Having attended Duluth East High School during a four-year stretch where the state tournament (boys) was part of every season (’94, ’95, ’96, ’97), I have many friends that are both Greyhounds fans and former players. It seems every last one of them can still give a detailed description of that experience, even though over 15 years have passed.
Wow, that means we’re getting old — but the memories have not faded.
That brings me to this week’s prep hockey (boys) rankings. The journey to that unforgettable experience of playing in a state tournament is nearing a critical juncture. With each ranking, are some thoughts we shouldn’t forget for each team.
1. Duluth East Greyhounds (16-4-0)
What they can’t forget: “Rollin’, Rollin’, Rollin’…keep them doggies rollin’.” I’m not sure that any Duluth East players are familiar with the lyrics from “Rawhide” — but these ‘Hounds are on fire. The Greyhounds simply can’t forget how talented they are and how easy they make the game look when the play well. They can’t forget to play with confidence. That has been the biggest difference during a current eight-game winning streak, and a stretch that has seen East win 12 of the last 13. The forwards have found some scoring punch, and Meirs Moore and Phil Beaulieu continue to provide tremendous two-way play on the blue line. Moore was the best player on the ice in a 4-2 win over Minnetonka on Tuesday night, and he was coming off a one-game suspension (spearing penalty) that forced him to sit out a 3-0 win over Maple Grove last Saturday. The goaltending has improved as well. Casen Sjerven’s success a week ago seems to have served as a huge wake-up call for Dylan Parker. Parker, who has been East’s top goalie most of the season, has responded by stopping 44 of 46 shots in the last two victories. He’ll need to play a big role as the road to a section title continues. Speaking of road, that’s where East will spend the remainder of the regular season. Five straight contests as the visitors will close out the schedule for the Greyhounds. The schedule always has them tournament-tested, and now they’ll be tournament-traveled as well.
What opponents can’t forget: Although it hasn’t happened in eight games, East is a more beatable team than in recent seasons. The Greyhounds can get frustrated and lose focus. This usually happens when East chooses quantity over quality in shots on goal. The defense suddenly presses to try to support the offense and when that doesn’t work, it becomes a golden scoring chance in the other direction. In the four games that the Greyhounds have lost, shots on goal are a combined 156-71 in their favor, while the score is 13-6 in favor of opponents. That puts the shooting percentages at a jaw-dropping 18% to 4% in favor of the opposition. When things are going really well for the Greyhounds, they are one of Minnesota’s best. Yet, how will they respond to adversity? It’s up to their opponents, — whether it be now or in the playoffs — to find ways to put East in uncomfortable situations.
2. Grand Rapids Thunderhawks (13-4-3)
What they can’t forget: Simply put, the Thunderhawks have only lost once in 2013. They survived a very difficult four-game stretch that featured Cloquet-Esko-Carlton twice, Duluth East, and Hermantown. Grand Rapids managed to go 1-1-2 in those games, despite having three of them come on the road. The Thunderhawks are blessed with elite talent at every vital position. Avery Peterson has surpassed the 20-goal mark for the season and is easily the top forward for Grand Rapids, future-Gopher Jake Bischoff keeps things very stable on the blue line, and goaltender Hunter Shepard has really found his game, allowing just seven goals in the last four games and while shutting out opponents in nine of the last 12 periods of play. Aside from facing Moorhead and Denfeld, the Thunderhawks have a soft remaining schedule. While that may not impress hockey fans outside of Grand Rapids, it may indeed impress confidence upon a Rapids team that looks to win Section 7AA for the first time since 2007.
What opponents can’t forget: The Thunderhawks aren’t going to dominate anybody in the section. They are 1-3-2 in Section 7AA and were outscored 16-13 in those games. In games against Minnesota AA opponents, Grand Rapids is 5-4-3 with a goal differential of plus-four. Most games will be close. The Thunderhawks were beaten by St. Francis and Forest Lake earlier this season, and at times in nearly every game they look bored or disinterested. They fall behind, but if you don’t bury them, they’ll battle back. Jump on the Thunderhawks early and keep your foot on the gas. How will they handle playoff pressure? This team blew a late lead in a section final two years ago, and was knocked out in the first playoff game last season.
3. Hermantown Hawks (14-4-1)
What they can’t forget: The Hawks just can’t forget who they are. These are the Hermantown Hawks, A team that has reached the state tournament in each of the past three seasons, and six times since 2001. This is a school that didn’t lose a game until last year’s state title game, and has participated in five championship contests. This is a team that has a tremendous offense, and utilized it during a 10-1-1 start to this season. This team has set the standard for dominance in Section 5A, and appears to be returning to that form. The Hawks have won their last three games by a combined score of 28-1. They have a tremendous stretch over the next four games that will serve as perfect playoff preparation. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, Totino-Grace, Duluth Denfeld and Superior all await the Hawks.
What opponents can’t forget: Yes these are the Hermantown Hawks, and while the name on the front certainly means more than any name on the back, these are not the same Hawks personnel-wise compared to the past few seasons. This team has not breezed thru the competition, as was shown in a stretch where the Hawks lost three out of four. Hermantown is not necessarily even viewed as the powerhouse in Section 5A this season. The Hawks were beaten by St. Cloud Cathedral already, and there’s a 14-win Princeton team that has gone unbeaten in seven Section 5A contests. The section is wide open, which is a way it has not been described in quite some time.
4. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Lumberjacks (12-5-2)
What they can’t forget: This is the most talent the Lumberjacks have had in quite a few years. This offense is very dangerous when firing on all cylinders. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton has scored more goals than any other team in Section 7AA, and boasts arguably the best line in all of Minnesota (Michaud-Michaud-Kuhlman). This team stumbled out of the gates, and at one time was sitting at 4-4. The Lumberjacks have gone 8-1-2 since then. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton is especially tough on home ice. After tomorrow’s visit to Hermantown Arena, the ‘Jacks wrap up the season with five games at home. They should finish with a very good record, and it will be interesting to see what seed the Lumberjacks earn in Section 7AA. Next Monday (February 4) against Duluth East is undoubtedly circled, and it will play a big factor in the seeding process.
What opponents can’t forget: Contrary to what was initially reported (as part of the Eden Prairie vs. Duluth East radio broadcast on January 12), the Lumberjacks did make up their game with Eden Prairie (this past Monday). The result was a 3-2 loss for Cloquet-Esko-Carlton. It contributed to the growing fact that the ‘Jacks struggle against quality AA teams in Minnesota. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton is 4-5-2 against Class AA this season. A 7-0 record against Class A is nice, and the hard-earned victory at Superior provided a boost, but eventually the Lumberjacks need a “signature” win. Hermantown and Duluth East are next. It’s an “eye test” for Cloquet-Esko-Carlton. If they go 2-0, eyes will pop. 1-1, eyebrows will at least raise. 0-2, and eyes will roll. Come playoff time, it’s mostly quality teams remaining. The ‘Jacks need to beat one in order to be one.
5. Duluth Denfeld Hunters (14-6-0)
What they can’t forget: The Hunters have been outstanding this season. Levi Talarico, Patrick Potswald, Alex Thompson and Zach Thompson have had this team making headlines for the first time in decades. They have taken down annual powers like Duluth East and Hermantown. They avoided the proverbial pitfall after losing two in a row to Cloquet-Esko-Carlton and Thief River Falls. At that point, it looked like Duluth Denfeld would be on the way to a heavy dose of reality. The response? A huge 3-2 victory at Warroad. Last night the Hunters avoided the obvious trap game, with an 11-1 blowout of Eveleth-Gilbert. Clearly, Denfeld wasn’t looking ahead — even if the rest of us were. The biggest game in Section 7A is tomorrow night when the Hunters visit Duluth Marshall. Denfeld has been the bigger story this year, Marshall has been the bigger story just about every season before this one. The Hilltoppers have six section titles since 2001. Denfeld will look to put heavy doubt in the chances for a seventh, with a win on Thursday.
What opponents can’t forget: Denfeld has won 10 of the last 13 games, but they haven’t solved the riddle known as Duluth Marshall in years. The Hunters have not reached a state tournament since 1989. How will they handle such meaningful games this late in the season? Confidence is everything, and a loss to Duluth Marshall may certainly have hockey fans thinking it’s the same old story for the Hunters. Will the team buy in or keep proving everyone wrong? They have many great wins, but still have to prove they can clear the biggest obstacle between them and a state tournament. Thursday will have a lasting impact, but which direction?
Best of the rest:
6. Superior Spartans (13-6-1)
You have to hand it to Superior once in a while. Yes, they struggle with the Minnesota portion of the schedule, but after falling to Duluth Marshall (5-1) and Duluth East (10-3) earlier this month, the Spartans went down to “Titletown” and won three games this past weekend. Green Bay may be “Titletown” in football, but the Spartans showed that Superior can have a say in such a claim for prep hockey. Superior gave Cloquet-Esko-Carlton all it could handle for two periods last night, before falling 4-2. Superior ran out of gas in the third period of what was basically “The Endurance Bowl.” It was the fourth game in five days for the Spartans, and the second in consecutive games for the Lumberjacks. Superior may take some lumps against remaining Minnesota opponents, but look for them to remain among Wisconsin’s elite.
7. Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers (8-10-0)
How can a team be below .500, and have lost seven of the last eight games, but still be considered the favorite to win the section? Ladies and gentlemen, the Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers. Duluth Marshall has been in an awful stretch. A month ago, the ‘Toppers had seven wins. They now have eight. They haven’t beaten a Minnesota school since beating Crookston on December 15. Yet, Marshall can put all those problems aside if they can pull off a win over Denfeld tomorrow night. Marshall has owned Denfeld in recent times, but ranked teams have owned the ‘Toppers this year. Denfeld is ranked. Marshall is at home. It’s full of possibilities.
8. Hibbing-Chisholm Bluejackets (10-10-0)
With all eyes fixated on Duluth Denfeld and Duluth Marshall, here sits the Hibbing-Chisholm Bluejackets. A talented team that nobody talks about. If Marshall and Denfeld become so concerned with one another, Hibbing-Chisholm could sneak past them in the playoffs. The Bluejackets have some winnable section games remaining, as well as key battles against Hermantown and Grand Rapids. Hibbing will always be ready for the playoffs, but do they have enough weapons?
9. International Falls Broncos (8-7-4)
Another intriguing team in Section 7A is International Falls. The Broncos face Hibbing-Chisholm in a big test tomorrow with large seeding implications on the line. A win by the Broncos would give both them and the Bluejackets three losses in the section. Everyone is already talking about the potential “all-Duluth” final, but the teams from the Iron Range could make the entire section tournament very intriguing.
10. Virginia/MIB Blue Devils (7-12-1)
The Blue Devils keep hanging around the fringe of the Section 7A playoff seedings. Their record in the section is fairly strong, while the overall record is lacking. The hope certainly is that strength of schedule will help them. The fact is, Virginia/MIB has not avoided the idea of playing good teams, but losses have been the result most of the time. At the same time, it’s not who you play, it’s when you play them. The Blue Devils began the season 1-9-1, and are 6-3-0 since. On a slight roll, and having done well against the section, how will this team do in a playoff scenario?
I know that’s a lot to remember…or should I say to not forget?
Maybe the biggest thing to remember is that there is plenty of regular season left — the playoffs will be here soon enough.
I know I can’t wait, and I won’t forget.