It is a time of year that always gets me excited. Its the “March Madness” that I care about the most, that being the Minnesota State Boys Hockey Tournament which is the biggest event of its kind in the world. This picture from the state tournament says it all. A sold out St. Paul arena whether it be the Xcel Energy Center or the clear boards of the St. Paul Civic Center before it is a time that is all about tradition and competition. I remember when my alma mater, Elk River won the title in 2001, the first year the tournament was in the Xcel Energy Center. It was incredible and an experience I will never forget. However its not just about when your school is there, the tournament itself is a must for any Minnesota-hockey fan. I still remember as plain as day when I stayed up for the epic 1996 Class 2A Semi-final between Apple Valley and Duluth East that ended up going 5 overtimes and well into early Saturday morning. It should’ve ended in the 2nd overtime when a shot from Duluth East’s Gene Locker rifled a shot top shelf that went in and out too fast for the officials to see it, but that is part of what made the game so epic as both teams slugged it out with all kinds of great scoring chances as Kyle Kolquist and Karl Goehring stopped shot after shot as the exhausted teams kept going. I don’t think we’ll ever see a game quite like that again.
The ‘Tourney’ also serves as a great preview of future NHL’ers as each one seems to feature a few players that you eventually see playing at the game’s ultimate level. Current NHL’ers like Atlanta’s Blake Wheeler, the Avalanche’s Erik Johnson, the Blues’ T.J. Oshie, the Penguins Paul Martin and the Wild’s Matt Cullen all had moments where they shined in the State Tournament. It isn’t always those that go onto play big roles in the NHL that make the biggest impact in the state tournament. Tournament legends like Dave Spehar, Johnny Pohl, and John Mayasich all dazzled crowds with their unbelievable skill and scoring ability. The 16 teams that arrive at this years tournament all have a chance to join the legends that came before them. No doubt this year’s edition will add another layer to the most tradition-rich high school hockey tournament in the World. I know I’ll be watching. Below is tournament preview for all of class 1A and class 2A quarterfinals which start Wednesday with the small schools and Thursday for the big schools. Along with this preview is our picks for the outcome of the quarterfinal games as well as who I believe will end up winning it all. What are your picks? Make sure you share them in the comments below. Enjoy!
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Class 1A Tournament Preview:
#1 St. Thomas Academy Cadets (22-6-0) Vs. #8 New Ulm Eagles (21-4-2) ~ From the outside the records of these two teams may make one believe this could be a tough game. That would ignore the fact New Ulm plays in one of the weakest sections in the state, and they face virtually no teams that could be considered contenders. The Cadets, come from one of the toughest sections in the state and are coming off a victory over a very solid Totino-Grace squad. Coached by former Golden Gophers star Greg Vanelli, the Cadets have always been rich with skill and their trio of senior forwards Zach Schroeder (23 goals, 52 points), A.J. Reid (19 goals, 48 points) and Matt Kroska (23 goals, 43 points) will be a lot for the Eagles to handle. New Ulm has some offensive horses of their own with their duo of senior 6’4″ Kaleb Juntenen (17 goals, 40 points) and junior Brody Peterson (17 goals, 41 points) but they have not had to go against the kind of defense the Cadets have. If New Ulm is to have any chance at all, it will need a Jim Craig ‘Miracle on Ice’-type effort from senior goalie Blake Burgau (18-4-2 record, 2.06GAA, .916%SP). OUR PICK: As much as I love an upset I just don’t think its going to happen in this game. Expect the Cadets to win this one going away.
#4 Breck Mustangs (20-8-0) Vs. #5 Thief River Falls Prowlers (19-8-1) ~ Ever since Ralph Engelstadt built an arena in Theif River Falls the hockey program have steadily been building momentum. This time they took a big step forward after defeating perennial powerhouse Warroad 4-1 in the section final. Breck on the other hand has been jockeying to be one of the best team in the metro area. Even though they lost 3-2 to budding Eastern Hockey powerhouse Delbarton (NJ), the Mustangs are still very impressive led by two junior forwards Conor Andrle (19 goals, 58 points) and Grant Opperman (24 goals, 53 points). This firepower could be a major problem for the much more modest attack of the Prowlers led by senior Micah Ranum (20 goals, 40 points) who has a power forward 6’3″, 210lbs frame. Theif River Falls has battled lots of quality class 2A competition so they will not be intimidated by Breck and its metro area private school pedigree. OUR PICK: I think this game has the potential to be surprisingly close but I think Breck’s advantage in firepower will simply overwhelm Thief River Falls.
#3 Rochester Lourdes Eagles (24-3-1) Vs. #6 Hibbing / Chisholm Bluejackets (17-9-2) ~ Section 1 is often maligned for its lack of quality, but this time they’ve produced a true contender in Rochester Lourdes. The Eagles used to be a perennial participant in class 1A but has been a shadow of what it used to be. The Eagles are led by a pair of sophomores in Jason Samuelson (21 goals, 35 points) and Alex Funk (12 goals, 31 points) who led the team in playoff scoring with 12 points in 3 games and are hoping to re-establish that past dominance. Meanwhile Hibbing plays in a very tough Iron Range Conference with lots and lots of hockey tradition. The Bluejackets have two of the more prolific scorers in the state in senior Nick DeCenzo (21 goals, 69 points) and sophomore phenom Adam Johnson (34 goals, 70 points) and will that be enough to topple Lourdes? OUR PICK: I think this one is set up perfectly for an upset. I think the Bluejackets have more than enough firepower to take down the Eagles in a mild quarterfinals shocker.
#2 Hermantown Hawks (23-3-2) Vs. #7 Alexandria Cardinals (12-15-1) ~ Hermantown has been waiting for this moment since last year, a chance to take another team to the finals. They are a program that doesn’t rebuild it simply reloads. Despite losing a great heart-and-soul leader Adam Krause to graduation the Hawks are back with another very talented team led by senior Garrett Skrbich (37 goals, 61 points) and junior Jared Thomas (24 goals, 53 points) who led the team in the playoff scoring thus far. This is probably little consolation to its opponent, the tournament’s best Cinderella story in the Alexandria Cardinals. The Cardinals were the #5 seeded team in Section 7 only to defeat conference rival Wilmar who was the #4 seed for the section championship. Alexandria has very little in the way of firepower, especially in comparison to the Hawks where leading scorer is junior Jordan Domine (13 goals, 25 points) so that means they will need a heroic performance from goaltender Ben Allen in order to have a chance. Allen was outstanding in the playoffs where he sported a stingy 1.20 goals against average and a .949 save percentage but he’ll probably have to be that good or even better if the Cardinals are to have any chance at all. OUR PICK: Hermantown will not overlook the Cardinals and I predict this game will not be close as the Hawks will dispatch Alexandria by at least 3 or 4 goals.
Class 1A Championship Prediction: I think Hermantown will win it all. They have experience, desire and the talent to get it done. Goaltender Connor Lucas has had a great season and I think Skrbich and Thomas will have an excellent tournament to allow the Hawks to defeat St. Thomas Academy in the Finals.
Class 2A Tournament Preview:
#1 Eden Prairie Eagles (21-5-2) Vs. #8 Lakeville North Panthers (13-14-1) ~ This is a sort of a reunion for two rivals from the ‘old’ Lake Conference as the Cinderella Lakeville North Panthers take on the talented Eden Prairie Eagles. Panthers Head Coach Randy Schmitz has made a habit of battling his way through section 1, but success beyond the quarterfinals has been more difficult to come by. Lakeville North defeated cross-town rival Lakeville South for the first time (after being beaten by them twice) 2-1 in a game that went to triple overtime. Meanwhile, the Eden Prairie Eagles outlasted Wayzata to earn another bearth in the State tournament. The Eagles are loaded up front with 3 talented senior forwards in Kyle Rau (36 goals, 74 points), Luc Gerdes (27 goals, 53 points) and David Rath (20 goals, 46 points). These 3 by themselves outscore many teams around the state. The Panthers will have to hope their offensive workhorse, junior Blake Winiecki (25 goals, 50 points) can chip in a goal or two while fellow junior goaltender Charlie Lindgren (11-9-1, 2.85GAA .914%SP) plays at least as well as he did against Lakeville South in order for the Panthers to have a chance in this game. OUR PICK: I did not pick Lakeville North to make it out of its section, but I do not see this team having enough firepower to get by Eden Prairie. If Lakeville North can keep it to a 1 or 2 goal game they have a chance but they cannot afford to just try to trade goals with the Eagles. That is why I think Eden Prairie wins in convincing fashion.
#4 Eagan Wildcats (17-6-2) Vs. #5 Moorhead Spuds (18-7-2) ~ Eagan is a team that has been in the state’s top 10 in the rankings all season long. The scary thing is, they are a team that is still dominated by underclassman and its best hockey may be yet to come. The Wildcats are led by a trio of juniors that are a great mix of speed, power, and playmaking in the speedy sniper Will Merchant (31 goals, 53 points), the classic power forward Michael Zajac (24 goals, 56 points) and set up man Nick Kuchera (12 goals, 42 points) to go along with a team that skates very well from top to bottom. The Spuds are a much more modest team, with good size but not a lot of speed. Junior Bryant Christian leads the team in scoring (13 goals, 33 points) which has a very modest offensive attack meaning Moorhead is hoping the athletic junior goalie Michael Bitzer (18-7-2 1.94GAA .932%SP) can be the difference. Moorhead Head Coach Dave Morinville‘s team will hope to just keep things close and hope to get a lucky bounce to beat teams that possess a lot more scoring in their lineup. OUR PICK: I think Eagan Head Coach Mike Taylor‘s squad has too much team speed and scoring for the Spuds to handle. The Wildcats feel they are making up for lost time after being upset by Apple Valley last year in the section finals, so they are going to want to make a statement and I think they do just that against the Spuds.
#3 Duluth East Greyhounds (22-5-0) Vs. #6 White Bear Lake Bears (21-5-2) ~ This could be one of the more interesting games of the quarterfinals as it pits two traditional hockey powers. White Bear Lake pulled off a shocker in defeating arch-rival and #1 rated Hill-Murray in the section final. Meanwhile Duluth East managed to rally past a very challenging Grand Rapids squad. Both teams feature some elite-level scorers in the Bears’ two-some of senior forwards Brandon Wahlin (29 goals, 58 points) and Mac Jensen (35 goals, 50 points) and the Greyhounds are led by a potent trio of juniors in Trevor Olson (25 goals, 65 points), Jake Randolph (27 goals, 62 points) and Dom Toninato (27 goals, 57 points). This game has all the makings of a firewagon back and forth type of contest. Overall, I believe this game will come down to the play of White Bear Lake junior goaltender Jared Schletty. The stocky (247lbs) puck stopper is one of the metro area’s best (16-3-2, 1.91GAA .909%SP) but he’ll be tested early and often by the balanced Greyhound attack. OUR PICK: White Bear Lake is a team that loves to tease you, but they often end up falling in the quarterfinals and this year is no different. I expect Duluth East to be firing on all cylinders and roll by the Bears by 2-3 goals.
#2 Edina Hornets (18-7-2) Vs. #7 Blaine Bengals (20-4-4) ~ #2 versus #7 may seem like an easy game to pick but I wouldn’t count on it this time. The Blaine Bengals surprised many by beating conference rival Maple Grove in the section championship in an overtime thriller. Last year the Bengals arrived in St. Paul with one of the most highly touted high school player in years, in Nick Bjugstad only to be stunned in the first round by the force that was the Apple Valley duo of Hudson Fasching and A.J. Michaelson. I think Blaine will have a ton of focus and that will make them very dangerous. The Bengals co-head coaching duo of Peter and Dave Aus will look to another set of brothers to carry the offensive load as senior Jonny Brodzinski (28 goals, 57 points) and (sophomore) Michael (13 goals, 30 points) will be asked to take Blaine another step forward. Edina is no slouch, coming from one of the toughest conferences in the state they battled back to beat a very good Burnsville squad in the section finals. Edina does not look scary on paper, with leading scorer in senior Steven Fogarty (25 goals, 47 points) and his powerful 6’3″ frame to carry the Hornets offensively but that would ignore how well rounded they are. The Hornets must get great goaltending from Connor Girard (12-6-2 2.60GAA .894%SP) if it wants to make any real sort of threat in this tournament. OUR PICK: As much as it kills me, I think the Hornets are going to find a way to win this game by a goal. If there is anything Edina usually does, and its win big games and Head Coach Curt Giles will find a way to make it happen.
Class 2A Championship Prediction: In the big schools bracket I really think Eden Prairie will win it all. Senior Kyle Rau came back to play just for this reason and I think he’ll be primed to have a huge tournament and one hot scorer / goaltender is often all that is needed to take home a state title after Edina is upset by Duluth East.