St. Thomas Academy's Tony Bretzman (6) and Hill-Murray's Mitch Slattery (28) fight for the puck. Photo by Adam Crane.
1. No. 1A St. Thomas Academy at No. 3AA Hill-Murray
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What’s the saying? Third time is the charm?
Well, if that’s the case, high school hockey fans are in for a doozy when Classic Suburban Conference rivals St. Thomas Academy and Hill-Murray get together for the third time already this winter.
The first two meetings have been instant classics – and gone a long way towards showing that both deserve to be right near the top of the rankings in each of their respective classes.
Back on Dec. 15 in their home rink, the top-ranked Cadets scored twice in the third period – goals from Jack Geiser and Gunnar Regan – to erase a one-goal deficit for a 2-1 victory over the No. 3AA Pioneers.
The rematch came less than two weeks later, when the two programs swept their sides of the bracket in the prestigious Schwan Cup Gold division. They played on late into the evening of Dec. 28, as Regan scored in the third period to knot the score.
After a scoreless overtime, the game officially went in the books as a 3-3 tie – but one that Hill-Murray “won” by shootout to claim the tournament title – and temporarily vaulted them into the No. 1 ranking in Class 2A.
Now another month later they’re getting together yet again, this time up at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood – home of the Pioneers. My money might be on Regan scoring a goal late in the third period. But as to who wins? Well, that one looks like a toss up.
Aside from the games against each other, each has lost to just one other team – St. Thomas Academy with a 3-1 loss to Minnetonka way back on Dec. 6 and Hill-Murray with a more recent 3-1 defeat to Wayzata on Jan. 12.
The Cadets' Tom Novak (15) leads the team in both goals (13) and points (29) in a big sophomore season. Photo by Loren Nelson.
St. Thomas Academy (14-1-1) has been the most consistent team in the state – and arguably the best regardless of class. The Cadets are the tightest defensive squad, allowing just 1.25 goals per game. Since the loss to Minnetonka, they’ve given up more than two goals just once (the 3-3 tie with the Pioneers) and have allowed one or no goals in 10 of those 13 games. That includes twin 2-1 victories over Breck, a 2-1 victory over Edina and a 3-2 beating of prep school powerhouse Shattuck-St. Mary’s on its home rink.
A large part of that stinginess is due to senior goaltender David Zevnik (14-1-1, 1.19, .948). He already has two state championships under his belt and is angling for a third, which would make him one of the most decorated goaltenders in state history. But Zevnik is not alone. His defensive corps is as strong as any in the state, anchored by seniors Tony Bretzman (2-13-15) and Wyatt Schmidt (0-5-5) and junior Jack Dougherty (2-12-14).
Offensively, the Cadets haven’t been required to put up big numbers, but they have the capabilities. Sophomores Tom Novak (13-16-29) and Christiano Versich (8-9-17) lead the team in scoring.
Novak has a nose for the net and great ice vision – and he’s improved his stickhandling and craftiness off an impressive freshman season in which he had 43 points. Versich is in his first varsity season and has missed time with an ankle injury, but he also has great instinct for the game.
Alex Johnson (6-9-15) scored 21 goals last winter, while Henry Hart (7-5-12) is quick and slippery. Gunnar Regan (6-4-10), Alec Broetzman (6-3-9), Jack Stang (0-8-8), Matt Perry (6-2-8), T.J. Samec (2-5-7) and company are also very capable of big games.
Hill-Murray's Mitch Slattery leads the Pioneers with 16 goals and is tied with Zach LaValle for the team lead in scoring with 31 points. Photo by Katherine Matthews.
Hill-Murray (14-2-1) plays a similar game, in that the Pioneers are also tough to score against (1.47 goals per game) and are led in scoring by an underclassman, junior Mitch Slattery (16-15-31), a transfer from Shattuck-St. Mary’s U16 team.
Grinder Colton Greeder (7-11-18) has made the most of his promotion to the Pioneers’ top line, providing a great complement to Slattery and senior Zach LaValle (12-19-31). Junior Willie Brown (3-12-15) has a rocket of a shot, but it hasn’t led to consistent goal-scoring yet this year, although he did notch the shootout goal that gave Hill-Murray the win in the Schwan Cup Gold title game. He also tallied 17 goals as a sophomore.
Tyler Funk (8-2-10), Zach Mills (4-7-11), Curt LaChappelle (6-4-10), Josh French (3-6-9), Dusty Krueger (2-6-8), Matt Littler (4-4-8), Mike Rawlings (3-2-5) and crew give Hill-Murray great depth up front. All but LaChapelle, Littler and Rawlings will be back next season out of that group.
Defensively, the Pioneers are also deep, but may not have the “name” players of past seasons. At least for now. They're quickly making themselves known around the state. Seniors Sam Becker (3-12-15) and Ryan Black (3-10-13), junior Logan Sharp (1-3-4) and sophomores Davis Zarembinski (0-3-3) and Jacob Olson (2-3-5) round out a great blue line corps.
They have plenty of help in goal from senior John Dugas (13-2-1, 1.35, .943), a hard-working and technically sound goaltender who earned team captaincy this winter.
2. Minnetonka at Wayzata
Despite a late-December to mid-January swoon that saw it go 2-4-1 in seven games, No. 6AA Minnetonka (11-4-1) now sits atop the imposing Lake Conference by beating Edina and Hopkins in its two most recent games. The Skippers had been struggling to score goals, but posted a combined 10 against the two Lake opponents. Leading scorer Max Coatta (15-20-35) had a hat trick against Hopkins, but four players tallied goals in the one-goal victory over Edina, a good sign for a team that has been top-heavy in its scoring recently. Still, eight players have at least five goals. Top-ranked Wayzata (15-2-0) will be a tough test for Minnetonka, as the Trojans allow just 1.71 goals per game and have won 14 of their last 15 games while allowing more than three goals just once in that span. Senior goalie Aaron Dingmann (12-1-0, 1.45, .935) has been All-State caliber in goal, while sophomore Matthew Freytag (15-8-23) has made his inaugural varsity campaign a big one.
3. Edina at Wayzata
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It's definitely a big week at the Plymouth Ice Center, as top-ranked Wayzata (15-2-0) also hosts second-ranked Edina (13-4-0). The Hornets will likely fall from that perch, though, as they've only managed to split their last eight games (4-4-0). Goal-scoring was the issue at the start of that stretch, as the Hornets scored just 11 goals in the first six games. They've managed 13 in the last two, but allowed 10, so defense has now suddently become suspect. The real culprit has been injuries, which have nagged at the Hornets the past few weeks. On the other bench, Wayzata has been healthy and on a roll since losing 3-0 to the Hornets way back on Nov. 24. That game signaled that unranked Wayzata might just be a top-10 contender to many observers. They were right. The Trojans have won 14 of 15 since and vaulted into the top spot.
4. Moorhead at Roseau
It's a fact that's been repeated many times in this space, but it bears another look just for the sheer dominance of it. It's been 17 years since anyone other than these two powerhouse programs has represented Section 8AA at the state tournament (Alexandria in 1996 for those who are curious). Coming into the season, both were expected to again battle for that top spot, but it's been a challenging year so far. Neither is ranked in the top-20 and both have endured rough patches. Moorhead (9-8-1) seems to have righted itself after a five-game losing streak, including a loss to section foe Brainerd -- the first time the Spuds have lost to the Warriors since the 1999-2000 season. The Spuds recently handed East Grand Forks its first loss and powered past Warroad for a two-game winning streak. Unlike recent Moorhead teams, this one relies on its goal-scoring to win games. So does Roseau (10-6-1), which is 2-3-0 in its last five games, also including a loss to Brainerd -- and to EGF and Warroad. This game is big for section seeding and a possible semifinal home game.
5. Thief River Falls at East Grand Forks
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Get ready to rumble, indeed. Section 8A has been in the corner of Warroad and Thief River Falls for the past decade, with the Prowlers making the last two trips to the X. East Grand Forks has been on the outside looking in, but this could be the year that all changes -- and this could be the game that signals that. The second-ranked Green Wave (13-1-2) will come in fired up after losing their first game of the season -- the last Minnesota team to fall from the unbeaten. The East Siders have already beaten Warroad at home and look to take control with a victory here. They've been tough to score against all year, posting seven shuouts and a 1.44 goals against average. No. 18A Thief River Falls (9-6-0) is on a roll, winning seven straight games since a terrible 2-6-0 start. The Prowlers are grinding out impressive victories, allowing seven goals in that span. Keep an eye on senior Chris Forney (4-10-14), one of the top defensemen in the state.
6. Bloomington Jefferson at Prior Lake
Can we call this the Joe Pankratz game? The former Bloomington Jefferson standout is now coaching at Prior Lake and his Lakers take on his alma mater in an important game not only in the South Suburban Conference standings, not only in the Section 2AA seeding race, but in the crowing and chirping category. Bragging rights are huge. And Pankratz has something to sing about. His No. 13AA Lakers (10-6-0) have been impressive this season, winning the Schwan Cup Silver title and seven of their last nine games. They've done it behind strong defense and goaltending, as they've outscored those nine teams 26-8 and have four shutouts. No. 11AA Bloomington Jefferson (10-6-0) won the earlier meeting, 5-2 on Dec. 11 at home. Tyler Johnson (9-10-19) netted the game-winner 55 seconds into the third period and Grant Martens (10-6-0, 2.83, .907) made 33 saves.
7. Princeton at Little Falls
This Princeton team is really getting to be a thorn in Little Falls' side. Despite being lower-ranked the last two years, the Tigers (13-4-1) have beaten the No. 11A Flyers (12-3-0) all three times they've played, including a 3-1 victory on Dec. 14 in Princeton. There are no section implications in this game, but it does give Little Falls the chance to avenge those losses and it gives Princeton a chance to show it should be ranked higher -- and be considered a threat in Section 5A. It's a game of contrasting styles, as Little Falls is one of the stingiest teams in the state (allowing just 1.60 goals per game) whereas Princeton is one of the highest-scoring (averaging 6.33 goals per game). The Tigers already have six players with at least 10 goals, led by the trio of Daniel Voce (17-23-40), Jake Green (18-20-38) and Dan Muench (19-15-34). They'll test the Flyers defense and goaltender Michael Stumpf (11-3-0, 1.65, .938), a three-year veteran.
8. Breck at Blake
These two Tri-Metro and Section 2A rivals have been going in opposite directions since Blake made its last state tournament trip in 2008 (the last of three straight visits to St. Paul). While the Bears have seen turnover -- both on the roster and behind the bench -- and are rebuilding with a young team that has had its share of struggles (6-12-0 this winter), the Mustangs have advanced to four straight state tournaments and won two state titles. Coach Les Larson has brought consistency to the program and despite graduation losses, the No. 2A Mustangs (12-3-1) are again state contenders. Their only two losses in the last 14 games (11-2-1) are both by a 2-1 score to No. 1A St. Thomas Academy. As expected, returning veterans Matt Colford (19-25-44) and Thomas Lindstrom (15-10-25) have led the way for the Mustangs.
9. Albert Lea at Rochester Mayo
There will be a new state record set when thse two teams meet on Saturday night in Rochester -- and every time they meet with longtime coaches Roy Nystrom and Lorne Grosso behind the benches. There has never been a Minnesota high school game featuring a greater combined victory total then the two legends, who have teamed for 1,305 victories. That's no surprise, as the former linemates at the University of Minnesota are ranked 1-2 in career victories ahead of Edina's Willard Ikola. With a four-game winning streak the last two weeks, Grosso and Mayo (13-3-1) have overtaken Nystrom and Albert Lea (7-9-0) in the record book. As of Jan. 21, Grosso has 653 victories and Nystrom has 652. Grosso also has bragging rights this year, as the Spartans beat the Tigers 3-2 back on Dec. 21, overcoming a 2-0 deficit.
10. Legacy Christian at Minneapolis
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Looking for a game to go to this Wednesday night? Well, there's only one show in the entire state, but if features a couple of teams that deserve a bit of notice -- each has 13 victories already and posted some impressive numbers. Legacy Christian (13-2-2) continues to build its program under coach Steven Larson and has won 10 straight games by a combined 64-7 score (five by shutout). Brock Thompson (18-13-31), Tyler Arenz (17-11-28) and Ike Larson (9-19-28) lead the way in the scoring column for the Lions. Minneapolis (13-3-1) has also been on a roll, winning nine straight and scoring in double-digits the past five games (by a 56-3 score). First-year coach Joe Dziedzic has a true sniper in Henry Christman (32-20-52), who has 19 goals in those last five games and leads the state in goal-scoring.