Game of the week
All first-round matchups (Schwan Cup Gold, Monday, Dec. 29)
It wasn’t so much that I couldn’t decide, as that I didn’t want to decide on a top game from this “state tournament.” Each and every one of the Schwan Cup Gold match-ups holds interest – and as a bonus to hockey fans statewide, each will be broadcast live on FSN North (And don’t forget to check out the MyFoxHockey webcasts from the Silver Division games over at Aldrich Arena, either). January 17th may officially be Hockey Day in Minnesota, but Dec. 29 sure falls in a close second, with great games across the state in holiday tournaments.
Centennial vs. White Bear Lake, 12:30 p.m.: The Cougars (5-0-1) are one of the remaining unbeaten teams in the state, led by the high-potency line of seniors Tyler Pitlick (9-8-17) and Willie Hess (9-5-14)and junior Jordan Lovick (4-13-17). Pitlick, a Minnesota State-Mankato recruit, has great hands and creativity that was on display against Duluth East’s great defense, as he netted both goals in a 2-all tie.
But don’t fall asleep on the Centennial defense, which is also considered a top unit in the state with seniors Joe Schmitz (1-10-11) and Kyle Stutz and juniors Brett Stern and Charlie Aus. Sophomore Brett Larson (5-0-1, 1.42 GAA, .925 save %) has also done a fine job in nets, stepping up from the Bantam A team to take control of the position.
Meanwhile, White Bear Lake (6-4-0) has been up-and-down this season, which should have been expected from a team that had to replace 11 graduated seniors. The Bears had won three straight since a loss to Woodbury in mid-December, but ran into the Hill-Murray buzzsaw their last outing (a 5-2 loss Dec. 23). Sophomore Max Birkinbine (8-4-12) leads the way in scoring for the Bears, although 14 players have tallied goals and 18 have at least one point. Chad Lowell (4-6-10), Mike Slator (3-5-8) and Sam Swanson (5-2-7) also provide offense, while Brent Putney (1-6-7) is one of the better defensemen in the metro area. Coach Tim Sager said he had “great hands and top-end speed.”
Senior goaltender Owen Collette (4-3-0, 2.30 GAA, .905 save %) is the backbone of the team and will need to come up big for the underdog Bears to make a run in the Gold Division.
Holy Angels vs. St. Thomas Academy, 3 p.m.: Call it the private school battle of the Gold Division (with apologies to Hill-Murray over in the later bracket), with Class AA power Holy Angels (4-1-0) butting heads with defending Class A state champion St. Thomas Academy (6-1-0).
Holy Angels has flown under the radar a bit this season, as they’ve not had a true grudge match against any top Twin Cities team so far this winter. Besides three easy victories against Minnesota schools by a combined 26-4 score, the Stars traveled down to Indiana to face prep power Culver Academy, splitting the back-to-back games. Now the Stars get a chance to show their stuff against the in-state powers.
Mr. Hockey candidate Danny Mattson, a North Dakota recruit, is a terrific one-on-one offensive player who leads the squad in scoring (5-13-18), followed closely by linemate Connor Reilly (5-11-16) and John Haeg (5-7-12). There are Reillys all around on the Stars, as the fourth and fifth leading scorers are forward Ryan Reilly (4-2-6) and sophomore defenseman Mike Reilly (1-4-5). Goaltender Tommy Burke (4-1-0, 2.31 GAA, .894 save %) has filled in well in his first varsity action after both of last year’s top netminders departed.
Just like Holy Angels, St. Thomas Academy never rebuilds, it just reloads. After winning the state title last year, the Cadets look strong again this winter – but very young. The Cadets stumbled in their opener, a title rematch with Duluth Marshall, 2-1, but have won six straight since.
Junior Christian Isackson, who earned a spot on the USA Hockey U-17 Select team, leads the team in scoring despite netting just one goal in five games (1-10-11). Sophomore A.J. Reid (5-3-8) tops the team in goals, ahead of junior Justin Crandall (3-5-8) and junior defenseman Joe Graveline (3-3-6).
Junior Kurt Altrichter (4-1-0, 1.77 GAA, .918 save %) brings plenty of experience in nets, having started throughout last year’s state tournament run.
Hill-Murray vs. Minnetonka, 6 p.m.: Another top game, another defending state champion as the Class AA’s top-ranked team, Hill-Murray (7-0-0) faces Minnetonka (5-3-0) in the first quarterfinal of the evening session.
The Pioneers have remained unbeaten despite a few tests along the way, including a 3-1 victory over Edina way back on Dec. 6. Since then, Hill-Murray has continued to win, but did barely sneak by Class A threats South St. Paul and Mahtomedi by similar 3-2 scores in the last two weeks.
Hill-Murray has our top-ranked line in the state in speedy Tyler Zepeda (4-11-15), shifty Isaac Kohls (6-7-13) and strong Nick Widing (7-5-12), all of whom are seniors and logged plenty of ice time with last year’s state champion, although this is their first season together on the top line. The Pioneers also pick up plenty of scoring from their other units, including Paul Prescott (4-5-9), Jeff Westerhaus (5-1-6), Ryan Holler (3-2-5), Jack Walsh (2-3-5) and Ben Bahe (1-4-5). Sophomore defenseman J.D. Cotroneo (2-4-6) has been a great addition to a strong defensive corps.
Sophomore Tim Shaughnessy had the biggest skates to fill, taking over for longtime starter Joe Phillippi in nets. But he’s been even better than advertised (5-0-0, 1.39 GAA, .907 save %).
Minnetonka comes into the game having lost two straight before the holidays: a 4-3 overtime thriller to St. Thomas Academy and a 4-2 loss to Eden Prairie last Tuesday on MyFoxHockey. The Skippers have certainly been challenged by their schedule, which also includes a 2-0 loss to Duluth East. And playing the defending state champs in the Schwan Cup opener certainly qualifies.
The Skippers have a good mix of top seniors and underclassmen, despite losing some top players like NHL draftee Jake Gardiner to graduation. "Little" brother Max Gardiner (6-9-15) leads the team in scoring, while Sam Coatta (4-7-11), Thomas Schutt (4-4-8) and Tommy Lundquist (3-3-6) also provide punch.
Defense is the Skippers strength, however, behind Andrew Prochno (1-5-6), Troy Hesketh (2-3-5) and Justin Holl. Prochno and Holl are both great skaters and puck handlers, while Hesketh is a hard-nosed positional defenseman in front of goalie Jim Kruger (3-3-0, 2.27 GAA, .892 save %).
Moorhead vs. Edina, 8:30 p.m.: One of the Metro’s biggest powers faces arguably the strongest team in the Northwest in the nightcap, a showdown between two very deep teams with speedy rosters.
Moorhead (5-1-1) finally lost its first game of the season last week when Duluth East came out west and shut down the Spuds, 4-0. Even in the loss, Moorhead managed to net 37 shots against the tough Duluth East defense, but could not solve netminder Matt Cooper. But they had been plenty impressive in their first six games, including a 5-0 blitzing at Roseau Dec. 16.
The Spuds have two lines that are nearly interchangeable with speedy Trent Johnson (6-2-8) centering Quinn Buckellew (5-2-7) and Kyle Kraemer (3-3-6) and top scorer Alex Altenbernd (5-6-11) with Jordan Doschadis (4-5-9) and Braden Rahman (2-5-7). Defensively, the Spuds are adept and experienced with seniors Ian Cochran (1-8-9), Jason Strand (0-6-6) and Blake Kostich leading the blue liners. Junior Logan Marsk (3-1-1, 2.13 GAA, .912 save %) gets the majority of minutes, although freshman Chase Bitzer (2-0-0, 0.50 GAA, .969 save %) is receiving quality minutes, as well, for coach Dave Morinville’s Spuds.
Edina (8-1-0) is coming off an impressive sweep of three games in its annual Holiday Tournament before Christmas, beating Grand Rapids (4-1), Elk River (3-1) and Eden Prairie (3-2). The Hornets trailed the Eagles late in the second period before two powerplay goals from defenseman Brendan Baker gave them the victory.
The Hornets also have two lines that are nearly interchangeable, with Anders Lee (7-13-20), Marshall Everson (10-9-19), Connor Gaarder (8-9-17), sophomore Michael Sit (3-7-10), Charlie Taft (5-2-7) and John Eppel (3-4-7) mixing and matching – and scoring plenty. In eight games, Edina is averaging nearly five goals a game. Lee, Everson and Gaarder are now on the top line together, however, and ripped in seven of the team's eight goals in an impressive victory over Blaine Friday night.
Defensively, the Hornets aren’t flashy offensive forces, but they get the job done in front of new varsity goalie Johnny Ankeny (7-1-0, 1.88 GAA, .894 save %). Baker, David Jarrett, Patrick Regan and sophomores Max Everson and Matt VanVoorhis log the majority of minutes on the blue line.
There will be plenty more good match-ups throughout the Schwan Cup and other holiday tournaments, but without a very clear crystal ball, I’m not going to guess at who might connect for top games in the later rounds. The rest of the “Terrific 10” will include first-round games from other tournaments (with the exception of the South St. Paul Premier Tournament championship, which is must-see no matter who advances).
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