A little over a year ago, the 2020 Minnesota State Boys High School Hockey Tournament was about the last major event that happened before a global pandemic changed everything across the United States. Masks, social distancing, vaccines are all terms we’ve come to know all too well over the past year. We’ve also grown used to watching sporting events with few or no fans in attendance. As we are about to celebrate the 2021 Minnesota State Boys Hockey Tournament, there was a little celebration at the news, it was announced that at least some fans would be allowed to attend sporting events although the actual attendance numbers will be shorter in the quarterfinals and steadily increase towards the championship game. This gives the Tourney a chance at sounding at least a little bit normal instead of manufactured crowd noise that you have for most NHL games.
Normally, a sellout of St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center was all but assured going into the tournament as the State of Hockey embraces the event that has grown to be the state’s signature event. The games will still happen but adjustments will be made to keep players, coaches and fans safe. Adapting to changes is something we’ve all grown used to; as is adjusting expectations to fit rules we may not have had any part in designing. Its just part of life.
Any High School coach has no doubt emphasized to their athletes on treating every day of practice and every game as though it might their last because the pandemic can derail a season. While Covid-19 certainly caused its share of adjustments to team’s schedules, it unfortunately forced some teams to forego participating in the section playoffs altogether. For teams like Shakopee, Simley, Waconia, Apple Valley, North Branch, Detroit Lakes, Wadena-Deer Creek, Ely, Rochester Mayo, River Lakes and perennial tournament attendee Duluth East. So for these teams that had no chance to make it through any fault of their own, let’s hope the 2021 Tournament gives us plenty of great memories.
Before I go any farther I’d like to give some thank you’s out there. First, to Doug over at @FollowThePuck who does a great job both on Twitter and through his website at keeping us all informed of scores all across the state from Kittson County Central to Worthington to North Shore to LeCrescent / Hokah and everywhere else in between. Stick tap to MNHockeyHub.com too! I’d like to also give a shout to Tony Scott, Danny Ryan and Karl Schuettler over at @YouthHockeyHub for their weekly show where they cover all of the action across the state which includes interviews with coaches and players. Here is their show previewing the State Tournament. Also to Loren Nelson @LorenNelson4 and David LaVaque @David_LaVaque for their fantastic tome of the history of the Boys State Hockey Tournament with their book Tourney Time which has been such a fun read to get primed for this year’s event. Or you can listen to Kevin Falness and Pat Micheletti of Beyond the Pond talk about the State Tournament here.
I’d also like to thank the countless team Twitter accounts, HS sports beat writers, local radio stations that helped in that effort to keep the state informed. Thanks to the efforts so many teams / schools made to stream the games. Especially with the social distancing guidelines this was also greatly appreciated. Without the efforts of these fine people, I wouldn’t be able to write this preview each year.
Lastly I’m going to give a pre-emptive thanks to John King from Game On! Minnesota @GameOnMinnesota for what will be some much-needed levity with his annual Hockey Hair video which is always a treat to watch. Stick tap to all of you for rolling with the changes and making the best of a challenging situation.
So what do we have in store for you? We will break down whole tournament field for both Class A and Class AA and provide a prediction for each quarterfinal match up as well as who we think will end up being the tournament champion for each class. Every player mentioned is connected to their Eliteprospects.com page. Joining us in that effort is Youth Hockey Hub podcast regular Karl Schuettler @KarlEastHockey and his blog A Patient Cycle. Few are as well informed about Boys High School hockey than he is. I want to give Karl a huge thanks for participating to provide an expert voice to this article! Let’s begin!
Class A Tournament: Quarterfinals start Tuesday, March 30th
11AM – Northern Lakes Lightning (18-3-0) vs. #2 Gentry Academy Stars (16-0) ~ Northern Lakes represents the communities of Crosby-Ironton, Aitken, Pequot Lakes and Pine River / Backus in case you were curious and they are making their first trip to the tourney after defeating Monticello in the class 5A section final. The Lightning are led offensively by Caiden Kjelstrom (17 goals, 44 points) and Hunter Nybakken (14 goals, 27 points). Adler Hoagland will likely be between the pipes for the Lightning and (2.20GAA, .928%SP) but he will get his greatest test of the season when he faces off the high octane attack of Gentry Academy. Coached by former Colorado College star Joe Cullen, the Stars are led by Damon Furuseth (9 goals, 29 points), Nick Sajevic (13 goals, 28 points) and Barrett Hall (13 goals, 24 points) are a team that can attack you in waves. Alex Timmons is the go-to option between the pipes (1.27GAA, .910%) and may be one of the best goaltenders in this tournament.
Prediction: Gentry Academy has overwhelmed most of the competition it has faced and it beat defending Class A champion Mahtomedi to make it to state. I think Northern Lakes are going to have a hard time matching the very balanced yet explosive attack of the Stars. I think Gentry Academy wins by 6 or more.
1PM – Litchfield / Dassel-Cokato Dragons (10-8-2) vs. #3 East Grand Forks Green Wave (13-8-0) ~ The Dragons return to the tournament after defeating their arch-rival Hutchinson in the section final. Forwards Logan Benson (11 goals, 25 points), Jack Hillmann (8 goals, 18 points) and Mason Schroeder (6 goals, 18 points) lead the way offensively for LDC. Darby Halonen works the crease for the Dragons (2.91GAA, .900%) where he will be tested mightily by a talented Green Wave squad. East Grand Forks has some impressive star power in two North Dakota-commits junior defenseman Trey Ausmus (9 goals, 32 points) and sophomore Jaksen Panzer (10 goals, 31 points). They needed that talent to get by Warroad in a double overtime thriller in the 8A final. Cole Quirk is the workhorse between the pipes (2.88GAA, .847%SP) for East Grand Forks may not look impressive but the Green Wave plays a challenging schedule including some of the best big schools in North Dakota.
Prediction: The Dragons have been to the tournament before, but they will face their biggest test of the season with the Green Wave. I think Trey Ausmus will be the difference maker as East Grand Forks rolls to 5-2 or 6-2 victory.
6PM – Dodge County Wildcats (17-3-1) vs. #1 Hermantown Hawks (19-1-0) ~ If any team has the flash and dash that has to be entering the tournament with some brimming confidence its the Dodge County Wildcats. The Wildcats enter their first state tournament appearance as a Boys program by beating Mankato West 4-3 in the 1A section final. Its all about the offense for the Wildcats as University of Minnesota commit Brody Lamb has been putting on quite a show in southern Minnesota with a state-leading 42 goals, 76 points and Matt Donovan (25 goals, 50 points). Defenseman Charlie Blaisdell plays big minutes and helps clean things up defensively and then helps get the counter attack going for Dodge County. Isaac Dale has carried most of the mail between the pipes for Dodge County (2.83GAA, .875%) but he’ll have to bail his club out with some clutch saves. The Wildcats are facing perennial Class A powerhouse the Hermantown Hawks who bring another loaded team to the tourney after blitzing Duluth Denfeld in the 7A final. Led by Minnesota Duluth commit, defenseman Joey Pierce (9 goals, 21 points) and forwards Zam Plante (28 goals, 58 points), Ethan Lund (17 goals, 48 points) and Aaron Pionk (10 goals, 28 points) the Hawks have plenty of firepower. Garron Opsahl is the Hawks’ netminder, and his .884% save percentage might give someone a little caution, but when you light the lamp as often as Hermantown does it usually doesn’t matter. Update: It has been revealed that Hermantown has to go through quarantine due to possible Covid-exposure. That means the Hawks will be playing most of its JV team against the Wildcats. One would think that will be a huge boost for Dodge County. Read more details on that situation from this article from TheRinkLive.com.
Prediction: As fun as the Wildcats have been much of the season with its dynamic 1-2 punch with Lamb and Donovan they haven’t faced a team of Hermantown’s calibre ever before. I think Dodge County could tease a bit early in the game if they are not too star struck by playing on the big stage, but at the end of the day Hermantown wins by 4 or more. Update: If its Hermantown’s JV, for as good as they are its hard to believe their JV is good enough to be better than Dodge County’s varsity squad. Zam Plante is supposed to be available, as well a few other varsity players but the rest will be from the Hawks JV squad. Is Plante enough to carry this team to the semifinals? For as good as he its hard to believe he can do it mostly on his own. One would think Lamb and Donovan will take full advantage of this situation, so if its the Hawks JV against the Wildcats I think Dodge County wins.
8PM – #5 Delano Tigers (14-6-1) vs. #4 Little Falls Flyers (13-4-1) ~ Delano has been a somewhat regular tournament attendee in the last decade as the Tigers’ under the leadership of Head Coach Gerrit van Bergen have steadily become an elite hockey program as they advanced to state after a 5-1 win over Breck. Up front Adam Brown (10 goals, 32 points), Brad Pinoniemi (16 goals, 29 points) and Jesse Peterson (12 goals, 28 points) give Delano a fair amount of firepower in its top two lines. In the crease, Thomas Huotari (1.69GAA, .904%SP) has carried most of the goaltending load for the Tigers this season. Facing the Tigers are the Flyers who made it through the crucible that was Section 6A surviving a double overtime challenge from Fergus Falls. Little Falls’ attack is led by Nicholas Stevens (14 goals, 32 points), Matt Filippi (19 goals, 26 points) and Hayden Johnson (7 goals, 30 points). The x-factor for Little Falls could be their goaltender Dane Couture (2.03GAA, .922%) who has been one of the best puckstoppers in class A this season.
Prediction: This game certainly should have the greatest potential for being the most even and entertaining one of the quarterfinals which is no big surprise with a #4 vs. #5 match up. Both teams have skill and scoring and have played a fairly competitive regular season schedule, but I think Dane Couture will be the difference. I think the Flyers win 4-2.
Derek’s Class A Tournament Prediction: I think Class A is very much a two-horse race between #1 Hermantown and #2 Gentry Academy. While East Grand Forks will be a tough out in the semi-finals, I think Gentry Academy makes it to the finals. Hermantown and Gentry Academy were slated to play one another late in the regular season but the game was canceled. I think goaltending will again be the x-factor and Gentry Academy Alex Timmons’, a Frank Brimsek Award candidate will be the difference-maker as they win their 1st state title in a 5-2 win over Hermantown.
Karl’s Class A Tournament Prediction: There are plenty of good storylines in Class A this year. Dodge County and Northern Lakes make their Tournament debuts. The quarterfinal between surging Delano and feel-good story Little Falls in coach Tony Couture’s final season should be a great one. East Grand Forks has three D-I recruits and could be thorny to a less battle-tested Gentry Academy in the semifinals. But on paper, this is all a warm-up act for a final between Gentry and Hermantown, the top two teams in Class A all season long. This is one of Hermantown’s better teams in their long run at or near the top of Class A, with star power through defenseman Joey Pierce and (a hopefully healthy) sophomore superstar Zam Plante and a large collection of strong senior forwards. But even that may not be enough to slow down Gentry’s relentless forechecking machine. Behind star forwards Damon Furuseth and Nick Sajevic and an edge in goal with Frank Brimsek finalist Alex Timmons, the Stars look primed to win a thrilling Class A championship.
Pick: Gentry Academy
Class AA Tournament: Quarterfinals start Wednesday, March 31st
11AM – Wayzata Trojans (13-5-2) vs. #2 Hill-Murray Pioneers (18-2-0) ~ Trojans Head Coach Pat O’Leary makes another trip to state after holding on against a late surge by a talented Benilde-St. Margaret’s squad in the section final. Wayzata’s offense doesn’t jump out at you as Jake Schneider (16 goals, 28 points), Jake Keller (13 goals, 26 points) and set up man Gavin O’Connell (9 goals, 25 points) but their style of play wears opponents down and they’re very comfortable in close games. Between the pipes, Will Ingemann has to play well if the Trojans are to have a chance (2.38GAA, .908%). The Trojans are facing the defending state champion in Bill Lechner‘s squad, the Pioneers. The Pioneers rolled to a section 4AA win over a pesky White Bear Lake squad and are led by Wisconsin commits in forward Dylan Godbout (9 goals, 26 points) and defenseman Joe Palodichuk (9 goals, 23 points) as well as Matthew Fleischacker (7 goals, 28 points). The Pioneers have skill, scoring and speed all throughout the lineup making them tough to match up against. Nick Erickson is the Pioneers’ top netminder and may be one of the best in the tourney (1.18GAA, .937%). Update: It was reported yesterday that Hill-Murray did not practice due to a possible Covid-exposure that occurred during their most recent game. There has been no word whether that would mean any of their players or coaches would not be able to play but if that changes I will update it here. It should be noted that in the wake of this news, it has been reported by David LaVaque that other coaches in the Class AA tournament have signed a petition of support for Hill-Muray and asked the Minnesota State High School League that they remain in the tournament. As an additional update, as reported by Let’s Play Hockey, nine players from Hill-Murray have filed a lawsuit with the MSHSL in regards to their participation in the state tournament.
Prediction: Wayzata is never an easy out and if they can keep this game close they can surprise just about anyone in the tournament. Unfortunately for them I think the Pioneers’ tremendous balance will never really give the Trojans too much of a chance to keep this one close. The Pioneers power play operated at a little over 47% this season, you make a small mistake and they will make you pay. I think Hill-Murray strikes early and then shuts it down and wins this one 4-1 or 5-1.
1PM – Moorhead Spuds (13-7-1) vs. Lakeville South Cougars (18-0-2) ~ Jon Ammerman‘s team won a decisive victory against Roseau in the Section 8AA final. The Spuds are led up front by Max Dronen (10 goals, 24 points), Harper Bentz (13 goals, 23 points) and defenseman Gavin Lindberg (4 goals, 16 points). Between the pipes, Moorhead looks to Will Kunka to shut things down (1.87GAA, .933%) and he has done that throughout most of the season for the Spuds. On the flipside, Lakeville South led by head coach Janne Kivihalme outlasted cross-town arch rival Lakeville North to punch their ticket to St. Paul in section 1AA. The Cougars are led up front by Colorado College commit in senior Cade Ahrenholz (19 goals, 35 points), leading scorer Cam Boche (24 goals, 52 points) and talented sophomore and Nebraska-Omaha commit Tanner Ludtke (14 goals, 45 points) giving Lakeville South plenty of firepower. The Cougars nearly split starts between Cody Ticen (1.26GAA, .928%) and Ethan Dahlmeir (1.38GAA .921%) this season which gives them the unique ability to mess with an opponents preparation with two great options in the crease.
Prediction: The Moorhead Spuds are a very well-coached team, but even Jon Ammerman said before the start of the season this club’s best days are in the future. Lakeville South is also very well coached and their time is now; they have tremendous scoring depth and top level skill that I think they will overwhelm Moorhead and the Cougars will roll to a 6-2 or 7-2 victory.
6PM – St. Thomas Academy Cadets (13-4-3) vs. #1 Eden Prairie Eagles (18-1-2) ~ Trent Eigner‘s squad rolled to a Section 3AA final over Rosemount but the road is about to get a whole lot tougher. The Cadets are led by the University of Michigan-commit and Vegas Golden Knights’ 3rd round pick (91st Overall in 2020) Jackson Hallum (17 goals, 41 points) and Colgate-commit Jared Wright (15 goals, 36 points) and Max Nagel (17 goals, 30 points) give St. Thomas Academy respectable scoring punch. In the crease, Carsten Lardy (2.42GAA, .899%) will have to be at his very best for St. Thomas Academy to advance. Simply put, the Eden Prairie Eagles are the most loaded team in Class AA with 4 Division 1 commits on Head Coach Lee Smith‘s club who got a bit of a scare in their 4-3 OT win over Minnetonka in the section final. Up front the Eagles look to Colorado College-commit Carter Batchelder (28 goals, 52 points), North Dakota commit Jackson Blake (17 goals, 47 points) and Drew Holt (18 goals, 48 points). Eden Prairie is also deep on the back end with Minnesota-commit Luke Mittelstadt (9 goals, 30 points) and Boston Bruins 5th round pick (151st Overall in 2020) and Harvard-commit Mason Langenbrunner (4 goals, 29 points) patrolling the Eagles’ blueline. Zach Hayes is the Eagles’ last line of defense as he controls the crease and has put up solid numbers with a very complete team in front of him (1.60GAA, .933%).
Prediction: The Cadets are a good team, but they will be hard pressed to match the depth of Eden Prairie. However the close section final result against Minnetonka does give me some caution with Eden Prairie that this group can sometimes be guilty of not always focusing on the task directly in front of them. Still, its hard to fathom how a team with as much star-power as the Eagles have could stumble out of the gate. I think Eden Prairie wins 5-2 over the Cadets.
8PM – #5 Andover Huskies (18-2-1) vs. #4 Maple Grove Crimson (20-1-0) ~ So you make your way to the state tournament just to play another Northwest Suburban Conference game, which is precisely the scenario for these two clubs who know each other very well. The Andover Huskies held on for a 3-2 win in Grand Rapids against a talented Thunderhawks team in the 7AA section final. Andover is led up front by Garrett Schifsky (28 goals, 59 points), Gavyn Thoreson (14 goals, 53 points) and Ethan Lindahl (15 goals, 43 points). Between the pipes, the Huskies look to Will Larson to carry the mail (1.83GAA, .922%). The Crimson are probably feeling as though they got a raw deal in seeding as they blew out Centennial in the section final. Leading the way for Maple Grove is Minneapolis Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year and Michigan Tech-commit Kyle Kukkonen (30 goals, 72 points), Sam Jacobs (28 goals, 50 points) and Landen Gunderson (21 goals, 47 points). Yet the Crimson are also stacked on the blueline with Notre Dame-commit Henry Nelson (10 goals, 43 points) and Vermont-commit Cal Thomas (5 goals, 24 points). In the crease, Maple Grove will have Jack Wieneke (1.39GAA, .929) to hold the fort.
Prediction: Even though Andover is a very capable team and well-coached by Mark Manney, I think the Crimson will be playing with a bit of a chip on their shoulder and be too much for the Huskies to stop. I think Maple Grove will feel like a team that wants to prove the seeding makers wrong and can make some real noise in this tournament. However, a late-season loss to Lakeville South probably was probably the reason they were placed where they were. I think Maple Grove will win this game 5-3.
Derek’s Class AA Tournament Prediction: With all due respect to Class A, trying to predict the Class AA winner was far more difficult for me. I think the Top 4 seeds of Class AA are all very strong and if their goalie raises their level any of them are truly capable of winning it all. I think we’ll see Lakeville South ambush the Pioneers and win it all in a thriller against Maple Grove who I think can match Eden Prairie’s depth of talent. In the final, I see Kivihalme’s Lakeville Cougars come out on top 4-3 in OT in a game for the ages!
Karl’s Class AA Tournament Prediction: The Class AA field this season is one of the best in recent memory, and it offers a little bit of everything. The first quarterfinal between Wayzata and Hill-Murray features arguably the two best-coached, disciplined defensive squads in the state. Prefer offense? The third semifinal between Jackson Hallum-led St. Thomas Academy and Eden Prairie’s star-studded lineup has you covered. In a role reversal game, upstart young Moorhead takes on Lakeville South, which is seeded for the first time at State, and has a top line second only to Eden Prairie’s. Familiarity breeds contempt in Andover vs. Maple Grove quarterfinal, where an upstart Husky team fresh off a win over Grand Rapids has nothing to lose against arguably the most complete team in the field, a Crimson team led by Kyle Kukkonen and Henry Nelson. Everyone here is capable of winning a game or two, and the potential semifinal between Eden Prairie and Maple Grove is as good as it gets. For my pick, though, I’ll stick with the old cliché about defense winning championships: Hill-Murray suffocated good opponents all season long, and with Joe Palodichuk and Matthew Fleischhacker running the show in front of goalie Nick Erickson, they won’t be intimidated by their rivals’ offenses.