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Playing with the big boys

By Michael Murakami, MN Hockey Hub staff, 01/12/12, 10:00PM CST

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Youthful No. 5 Edina outmatched against battle-hardened No. 3 Maple Grove


Maple Grove's Tony Paulson (No. 14) chips the puck past Edina goaltender Willy Benjamin (No. 1) with 24 seconds remaining in the second period during the Thursday, Jan. 12, game. Photo by Adam Crane

Before the 2011-2012 season, Maple Grove coach Gary Stefano knew there would be good times ahead for the Crimson.

After all, Stefano has watched this group of seniors grow up through the Maple Grove youth program and has had some of these players for three years on varsity.

With all that shared experience, Stefano seems to have embraced the old phrase, "if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it" when it comes to the Crimson lines.


Maple Grove celebrates one of its five goals during the Thursday, Jan. 12, game against Edina. Photo by Adam Crane

“We've kept our lines together all year, and they kind of feel off each other, they know where everyone is,” Stefano said after the Crimson beat host Edina 5-3 on Thursday, Jan. 12, at Braemar Arena.

“Our line was buzzing all game,” Maple Grove forward Alex Mason said. “We were in the offensive zone most of the time.”

While possession certainly played a factor in the win, Mason was crucial to Crimson’s success registering three assists.

“I’ve got some good players on my line, I was fortunate -- give them the puck and they can bury it,” Mason said. “So three assists, but I'm just glad we got the win most of all.”

Maple Grove senior forward Tony Paulson said the familiarity with each other helps.

“Dylan (Steman) and (Alex) Mason, they're good linemates, we know each other so well,” Paulson said. “(We've played) three years together growing up, we kind of just know where each other's at and we've been doing it forever.”

Clearly, the history with each other is a big reason why the Crimson own a 14-1-1 record with the tie coming in Maple Grove’s first game of the season against Wayzata and the lone loss coming at the hands of No. 1-ranked Duluth East.

“We've been going out and really playing some good games,” Stefano said. “We were really consistent last year -- we only had three losses, we played some good hockey -- and really it's the same as right now with the way our kids have been playing. We haven't taken many nights off and yet we're playing better competition this year too, so that's only going to get us better prepared for the end of the season.”

Not only has the tough schedule helped, add in Maple Grove's experience and the Crimson are set up for success.

“We had to get through that tough week last week with three games -- someone said we had five games in nine days -- but couldn't tell with these kids,” Stefano said. “We've been fortunate enough to be healthy but now we finally get back into conference play on every Thursday and Saturday.

“There's no doubt our mind is on the conference, we've been doing pretty good the last couple years and we want to make sure that streak continues. And of course it all matters at the end come playoff time, so we're just trying to put ourselves in position for a good seed because I think it's important to have the number one seed this year with the way the teams are stacking up. We'd rather someone else playing Centennial or Blaine in the semifinal game than us.”


Maple Grove's Alex Mason. Photo by Adam Crane

The Crimson's players just want to keep a good thing going.

“We've had a really strong season -- we've played a lot of good teams all year,” Mason said. “We've beat everybody but Duluth (East). They're a good team but it was a good test for us, we know where we're at, we know what we need to and we're hoping we just take care of business the rest of the way like we think we should. We know we’re right up there.”

Paulson reaffirmed that the Crimson aren’t just looking for a rematch, they’re counting on one.

“We want to be one of the top teams and get to that state tournament,” Paulson said. “That's our ultimate goal. Then, once we get there, we want to be a force to be reckoned with. We believe we're a good team and we want another crack at Duluth (East).”

Breakaway chances all too familiar for Maple Grove's Tony Paulson

Some players never seem to get those cherished golden opportunities known as breakaways.

Then there's Maple Grove forward Tony Paulson, a senior who has had more of those chances this season alone than some players may get during their entire high school careers.


Maple Grove's Tony Paulson (No. 14) scores on a first-period breakaway chance against Edina goaltender Willy Benjamin (No. 1) on Thursday, Jan. 12. Photo by Adam Crane

Paulson scored on a breakway in the first period during the Crimson’s 5-3 victory on Thursday, Jan. 12, but the senior admitted he has no idea how many breakaway goals he has on the year.

“I don't know,” Paulson said. “I feel like I've gotten at least a lot of breakaways -- I don't know how many goals.”

Alex Mason, Paulson's linemate, finished the game with three assists -- two of those assists were on goals by Paulson, including one on the breakaway.

“(The) kid's always up there,” Mason said regarding Paulson. “He's always ahead of the (defense). We have a play off our defensive set; he's flying up and for some reason whenever we do it to him it works every time.

“And he's been burying it so I guess it's a good thing he's been getting those chances.”

Although the Crimson seem to set Paulson quite often up for those one-on-none chances, Maple Grove coach Gary Stefano made it clear that Paulson is no cherry-picker.

“We have a couple plays but Tony (Paulson), what he does, he reads so well,” Stefano said. “Some guys can't see that and he knows when to take off. He kind of reads that defenseman -- if we break that goal line and we're skating out, he reads that seam, he knows where to go.

“He's got that knack for finding open ice and he's had a number of different goals scored like that on breakaways.”

Paulson’s first period breakaway goal was just what Maple Grove needed in the Crimson’s first trip to Braemar Arena.

“This is the first time our kids have played here, and it's a tough place to play, especially when you fall behind,” Stefano said. “So that was a key for us, to jump out right away and not fall behind.”

Despite its impressive reputation -- even being announced as the ‘historic Braemar Arena’ before the game -- Paulson wasn’t intimidated by the game's location. If anything, he was motivated.

“This place is awesome to play in,” Paulson said. “It wasn't packed but it's still a good environment, the crowds were loud, we had a good showing and it's just fun when both crowds get into it.”

Q & A with Edina coach Curt Giles

After a tough loss to Maple Grove, Edina coach Curt Giles took some time to speak with the MN Hockey Hub and the Overtime Sports Network about the game, the top teams in the state and where the Hornets go from here.

Question:  That was a one heck of a hockey game to watch. From your perspective, what did you see?
Answer:  We were outmanned. It was a little bit of 'men with boys' in spots. What you look for in games like this, against a good team like this that's got those strong kids and those seniors and juniors, you want to see our kids compete. And they competed well in spots and did some things, but I think they were a little bit intimidated at first. I mean that first period was like 'major league against minor league' for a while. But then they finally caught up and they got into a little bit of rhythm and they worked hard and they made a game out of it. So they did fine.

Q:  What was different tonight from your first meeting this season back in November?
A:  I think the kids competed a little bit more. They weren't as intimidated as the second game of the season against these big, strong kids from Maple Grove. I thought they competed hard and I think they got to a point where they felt they could play with them. And that's important in anybody's psyche -- you want to be able to feel that you can compete and you can play and I think they found some of that tonight.

Q:  What has this loss as well as the past month told you about your team?
A:  Well I think they've competed extremely hard all year and they continued to tonight. They've won some close games which is important -- you've got find a way to win some of those close games -- and tonight I think set a tone with them for the rest of the year. I mean, our schedule doesn't get any easier. We've got Minnetonka coming up next, then we got Eden Prairie a couple of times, then we got Minnetonka again and Wayzata a couple times and you kinda go down the list. It's good for us going down the stretch to have these tough games and I think it will really show our kids what it's like to have to play real big games.

Q:  There seems to be three, four teams which are just incredible like that, outmanning everybody and then the rest. Is that kind of what you’re seeing so far this year.
A:  Yeah -- I think you take a look at Duluth East, you take a look at Minnetonka, you take a look at Maple Grove and at times you can throw other teams in there -- Benilde (St. Margaret's), you can throw Eden Prairie in there, there's Grand Rapids at different times, Moorhead, Wayzata -- I mean there's so many different teams you can list in there. What's really interesting is that it's really going to be an interesting race down the stretch. It's almost like there's 10 teams right now that could win the state championship if things went their way and they played good hockey. There's a couple teams right now that are playing extremely well, you take a look at Duluth East especially -- I know they've done this from the start of the year. They've gotten through some injuries now and they're really starting to play well and get all their guys back so they're really strong. Minnetonka plays extremely well and so do these guys. So there's some good teams out there, I mean, it's good hockey. I'd pay six bucks to watch this stuff and it's exciting hockey, it's good hockey, it's hard hockey, it's clean hockey and I thought the kids did a real good job tonight. 

Statistics, Summary

Game Recap

Tony Paulson had two goals and an assist and Kyle Koop made 32 saves as No. 3 Maple Grove defeated No. 5 Edina 5-3 on Thursday, Jan. 12, at Braemar Arena in Edina.

Getting out to a quick start, Paulson scored his first goal on a breakaway 4 minutes, 43 seconds into the opening period.

Though Edina's Connor Hurley tied the game late in the first period, Maple Grove would be quick to answer as Dylan Steman punched home a loose puck just 33 seconds later.

In the second period, the Hornets once again tied the game on another timely goal from Hurley, but the Crimson would come right back as Sam Valerius scored to re-take the lead. Paulson scored with what proved to be the winning goal with 24 seconds remaining in the second period.

Despite outshooting Maple Grove 17-7 in the third period, Edina could only muster one goal from Louie Nanne.

Shane Wolden scored in the third period for the Crimson and Alex Mason finished with three assists.

Edina goaltender Willie Benjamin finished with 22 saves.

Maple Grove (14-1-1) will resume Northwest Suburban conference play on Thursday, Jan. 19, when the Crimson host Anoka for a 7 p.m. game at Maple Grove Community Center

Edina (13-3-0) will look to bounce back on Thursday, Jan. 19, but that task won't be completed easily as the Hornets travel to Pagel Activity Center for a battle against No. 2-ranked Lake Conference rival Minnetonka.


Edina's Connor Hurley (No. 16) brings the puck in on Maple Grove goaltender Kyle Koop (No. 35) during the Thursday, Jan. 12, game. Photo by Adam Crane

1.  Tony Paulson, Maple Grove
The senior forward has established himself to be a breakaway machine this season, and he scored his first goal against the Hornets in what, for him, has become routine fashion on another clear break. Paulson also assisted on Dylan Steman's first-period goal, but it was Paulson's eventual game-winning goal that took the cake as he showed excellent puckhandling and control before chipping the puck into the net with 24 seconds remaining in the second period. He was a constant threat in the offensive zone for the Crimson.

2.  Alex Mason, Maple Grove
Perhaps the unsung hero of the night, Mason registered three assists -- two in the first period and one on Paulson's second-period goal. Basically playing like a basketball point guard, Mason set his teammates up perfectly and put them in quality positions to score.

3.  Connor Hurley, Edina
When Edina needed a spark, Hurley was there to provide it. The sophomore scored twice -- including once on the power play. Hurley kept the Hornets in a position to win during the first two periods.

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Micah Miller leaps to the fans after scoring the game winner.

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Moorhead's Jack Stetz (21) throws his arms up as he and his teammates celebrated the win. ] ANTHONY SOUFFLE • anthony.souffle@startribune.com