Duluth East's Jake Randolph knocks a rebound past Grand Rapids goalie Hunter Shepard on Thursday night. Photo by Shannon Merritt
With the amount of shuffling going on in the Duluth East lineup, even the expert followers of the top-ranked Greyhounds are finding themselves scanning over the game program to figure out who is on the ice on a night-to-night basis.
On Thursday, Jan. 12, against Section 7AA rival Grand Rapids, the Hounds skated without three of their top players – forward Trevor Olson, defenseman Nate Repensky and goalie Dylan Parker. But having players missing from the roster is nothing new for this edition of Mike Randolph’s Hounds.
“We’ve had a lot of kids stepping up, and tonight was an example of it,” Randolph said. “We’re really proud of where we’re at right now based on who has been out and when they’ve been out.”
All year Duluth East has been behind the eight ball when it comes to injuries. Even so, they’ve managed to rack up a 15-0-0 record against some of the stiffest competition in Minnesota.
A big reason for the success of the Hounds is the ability of role players to jump into key situations and play like calm, cool veterans. Guys like Phil Beaulieu, Nate Kotter and Andrew Kerr have seen their ice-time increase with Repensky out, but they’ve all helped keep Duluth East’s blue line as solid as ever.
Certain forwards, such as Ryan Lundgren and Jack Forbort, have been bounced around lines all season. Still, Lundgren and Forbort keep focused and contribute to the Hounds’ attack.
Against the Thunderhawks, the role players were the difference for Duluth East. Lundgren had three assists while playing on the top-line with Jake Randolph and Dom Toninato, and Forbort and Beaulieu each had single assists. Although Kotter and Kerr didn't get any points, they frustrated Grand Rapids with great play in their defensive zone.
“It’s hard getting used to different lines every week because of the injuries or whatever,” said forward Conner Valesano, who has been centering the second line for Duluth East all year, even though his wingers aren’t always the same. “But everyone is stepping into new positions and doing their jobs right.”
“We can’t wait to get our guys back, but at the same time, we’re very proud of the guys who have stepped in and filled the roles and voids that we’ve had,” Randolph said.
Maybe the most important fill-in was goaltender Paige Skoog, who stepped between the pipes for Duluth East in front of a hostile crowd at the IRA Civic Center and stopped 24 of 27 shots to secure a win.
“Paige made some nice saves early, and then a few when it got a little hairy at the end, but he’s never played in this kind of environment,” Randolph said. “He’s just another example of a kid that’s stepped up and went in there to get the win.”
Grand Rapids had Thursday circled on its calendar for a while. After losing to Duluth East in last year’s Section 7AA finals, the Thunderhawks were chomping at the bit to get tonight’s game started.
“They were excited to play, and the blood was up. If it’s not for a game like this, I don’t think you have any business in the game of hockey,” Grand Rapids coach Bruce LaRoque said.
The Thunderhawks came out playing a physical, gritty style of hockey, scored some timely goals and had a chance to send the game to overtime late in the third period. However, Duluth East was able to escape with a 4-3 win.
Even so, Grand Rapids believes it can take a lot out of the loss.
“We learned we have a lot of heart tonight,” junior defenseman Jake Bischoff said. “We know we’ll be there for each other, and we know that we can compete with anybody now.”
Grand Rapids still has a lot of time before a potential match-up with the Greyhounds in the Section 7AA tournament, and the Thunderhawks plan on using that time to solidify certain pieces of their game.
“We need to continue to work on defensive coverage, playing away from the puck, staying on defensive sides and blocking shots,” LaRoque said. “It takes a lot of mental and physical commitment, and I think the kids did a great job out there against a great East team.”
One of the things Grand Rapids did against Duluth East to try and lock-up the defensive zone was move Bischoff to forward, where he centered a line with Avery Peterson and Cody Mann. The line was send out to play against the high-scoring trio of Dom Toninato, Jake Randolph and Ryan Lundgren, and, for the most part, Bischoff thinks they were successful in keeping the Hounds off the board.
“This was the first game I’ve played at forward, and it definitely helped in our own zone,” the future Gopher said. “Playing center is like the third defenseman down low in our zone, and we played well in our end.”
With top-ranked Duluth East in town, a packed IRA Civic Center was dripping with excitement and energy on Thursday night. The host Thunderhawks used that energy to play a hard-hitting, fast-paced brand of hockey in the opening period.
Even though the Greyhounds had played tough road games in Maple Grove and Cloquet already this season, the IRA was a little different than anything they’d seen to this point. Because of the environment and atmosphere, it took Duluth East 10 minutes or so to settle into the game.
“I think we came out pretty nervous, probably as nervous as we’ve been on the road,” Randolph said. “I think once we got to our game and settled down a bit we started to control play. It’s a tough place to play, and I though the kids hung in there and got it done.”
Duluth East will have to play a couple tough road games in the coming days, traveling to Eden Prairie and Minnetonka in the next week. Randolph believes the games will give the Hounds some more much needed experience.
Said Randolph – “It’s good to see how your kids will react in environments like that.”
Three second-period goals helped top-ranked Duluth East build a two-goal lead going into the third, and the Greyounds held off a late Grand Rapids rally to beat the rival Thunderhawks 4-3 on Thursday, Jan. 12, at the IRA Civic Center in Grand Rapids.
Dom Toninato’s power-play goal from the left circle was the eventual game-winner, coming with just 14.4 seconds to play in the second.
Jake Randolph, Conner Valesano and Meirs Moore also scored goals for Duluth East, who improved to 15-0-0.
Randolph opened the scoring late in the first period on a rebound goal from the slot. After a Toninato shot was kicked away by Grand Rapids goalie Hunter Shepard, Randolph swooped in and knocked home the loose puck.
Avery Peterson scored a pretty goal 6 minutes, 15 seconds into the second period to tie the score, and then scored again with 3 minutes to go in the middle period to pull the Thunderhawks within one after Valesano and Moore goals opened a 3-1 Duluth East lead.
After Toninato’s power-play goal late in the second, Grand Rapids came out in the third and found its game, then tried to chip away at the two-goal Hounds lead.
Finally, with 90 seconds to go, the Thunderhawks’ effort paid off when Nate Mondry streaked down the nearside wall, beat a Duluth East defenseman wide and stuffed a shot through Paige Skoog’s five-hole.
Grand Rapids pulled Shepard and had a couple flurries in front of Skoog to try and even the score, but the Hounds held on to capture a huge 7AA win.
Ryan Lundgren led all players with three points, while Alex Toscano, Phil Beaulieu and Jack Forbort all recorded single assists.
Skoog stopped 24 shots in goal for Duluth East.
Future Gopher Jake Bischoff had two assists for the Thunderhawks; David Horsmann and Matt Soderberg each had an assist.
Shepard made some great saves while manning the crease for Grand Rapids, and he finished with 29 saves in the loss.
Next up for Duluth East is a trip to Eden Prairie to play the No. 7-ranked Eagles on Saturday afternoon. The game is the first meeting between the teams after last year’s Class 2A title game.
Grand Rapids (10-5-0) is off until Tuesday, when it travels to Cloquet to battle with Section 7AA rival Cloquet-Esko-Carlton.
1. Meirs Moore, Duluth East
The junior defenseman played a sound game defensively, and added a goal and an assist to the Hounds' offensive efforts. Moore’s composure with the puck is outstanding, and he consistently made smart plays in all three zones. His best performances came on the Duluth East attack – Moore hit two pipes, had tons of shots, was patient at the point to open up space for teammates and made crisp passes while quarterbacking the Hounds’ power play.
2. Ryan Lundgren, Duluth East
Lundgren helped set up three Duluth East goals with his tape-to-tape passes and great vision. His quick rush up ice allowed the Hounds open the scoring in the first. Moore’s goal was off a deflected Lundgren shot, and Toninato scored after a perfect cross-ice feed from the junior winger. Despite his size, Lundgren also battled with the big Grand Rapids defenders along the walls, allowing Duluth East to work its cycle.
3. Avery Peterson, Grand Rapids
Peterson has a terrific shot, and he showed it. Early in the second period Peterson skated to the slot and fired a low, accurate shot past Paige Skoog to get the Thunderhawks on the board. Then, with the Hounds starting to control the game, Peterson sniped again to pull Grand Rapids within a goal late in the middle period.