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No. 1 seed Skippers are watching their backs

02/20/2012, 12:06am CST
By David La Vaque, Star Tribune

A hockey player or coach thinking about golf in February usually means bad things for a team.

But Minnetonka boys' hockey coach Brian Urick had serenity, not surrender, on his mind as he hit the driving range on an unseasonably warm Sunday afternoon.

Relaxing moments will disappear as the playoffs begin this week. Play-in games and quarterfinals start Tuesday in some sections. Those games kick off two weeks of passionately played games that will decide the eight state tournament teams in both classes.

Urick's Skippers earned the top seed in Class 2A, Section 6, the state's toughest bracket. But there are no easy sections. And a No. 1 seed, Urick said, is akin to holding a $2 lottery ticket.

"We get the last change, that's about it," Urick said. "The reality is we're going to have to win at least two really good games to win the section."

The section's top four seeds, No. 1 Minnetonka, No. 2 and defending state champion Eden Prairie, No. 3 Benilde-St. Margaret's and No. 4 Wayzata are top-10 teams in the Minnesota Hockey Hub state rankings.

Minnetonka and Eden Prairie have combined to reach the state tournament title game in each of the past three seasons, with the Eagles winning twice. While the strength of Section 6 is nothing new, the parity among the top four seeds is unusual.

"Minnetonka was the clear No. 1," Benilde-St. Margaret's coach Ken Pauly said. "But I think the other three teams all had a right to think they were either the two, three or four seed."

Like many hockey fans, Pauly has a keen interest in Section 7. Top seed Duluth East ruled as the state's best team much of this season. The Greyhounds could be headed for a section final rematch with No. 3 seed Grand Rapids. But the section's two prominent metro-area teams, No. 2 seed Andover and No. 4 seed Elk River, boast two of the state's stingiest goaltenders in Chase Perry and Anders Franke, respectively.

Maple Grove coach Gary Stefano knows the value of a hot goaltender. His Crimson outshot Blaine and Nick Malvin 44-27 in last season's Section 5 final but lost in overtime. No. 1 seed Maple Grove lost its second consecutive section final game against the Bengals, who advanced to their sixth consecutive state tournament.

Stefano addressed the situation in the locker room after Saturday's regular-season finale. He came right to the point, urging his guys to validate their status as the No. 1 seed.

"I just told them, 'This year, we are no doubt on paper the best team,' " Stefano said. "But we have to play 51 minutes. We've heard about it all summer, and we're sick of it. I think we're ready."

Class 1A

An intriguing matchup waits in Section 4, where No. 1 seed and defending small-school champion St. Thomas Academy is on a course to meet No. 2 seed Totino-Grace for the title.

The Eagles lost one-goal games to both the Cadets and No. 3 seed Mahtomedi, but they are surging of late. Totino-Grace beat two top-10 teams in Class 1A, Breck and Rochester Lourdes, within the past four games.

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