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Duluth Denfeld's Tre Opack (18) and Steven Maciver (19) celebrate a goal. The Hunters worked their way into the top seed in Section 7A. Photos by Tim Kolehmainen.


Denfeld's Steven Maciver.

Everyone loves an underdog. Well, at least until the underdog becomes the favorite.

That’s been the story for Duluth Denfeld (17-8-0) this year as wins against longtime rivals Hermantown and Duluth East gave the Hunters instant credibility and a clean sweep of Section 7A opponents gave them the top-seed in the 7A tournament.

Now instead of looking to pull an upset, the Hunters will be the hunted.

In order to keep focused and not rest on its previous achievements, Duluth Denfeld will have to rely on its concrete veteran leadership. Senior forwards Levi Talarico (29-32--61) and Alex Thompson (21-23--44) have been around for a while and lead the offensive charge for the Hunters, and much of Denfeld’s success has stemmed from the rejuvenated play of fifth year starter Zach Thompson (14-8-0, 3.17, .901) in goal.

All three will be vital to the section playoff trek of the Hunters, but they can’t do it alone.

Luckily for Duluth Denfeld, depth is on its side, too. Skaters such as Steven Maciver (10-13--23), Reid Lemker (9-14--23) and Tre Opack (13-9--22) have given the Hunters a dangerous mix of skill and size on their top two lines, something that it has lacked in the past few seasons. Defensively, sophomore giant Nick Thompson (7-26--33) has been the do-everything blue-liner and eats the big minutes as he plays in every situation.

But if the Hunters hope to conquer 7A and make their first trip to the state tournament since the 1988-89 season, they’ll have to go through some foes with serious upset potential to make the trip south to St. Paul.


Duluth Marshall's Luke Pavelich.

No. 2-seed Duluth Marshall (13-12-0) certainly wasn’t pleased with its regular season, one where expectations were as high as ever before the first puck-drop of the year, and the Hilltoppers will be as hungry as ever to make a return trip to the Xcel Energy Center to defend its 7A crown.

Led by a core group of senior forwards – Jeremy Lopez (11-21--32), Kris McKinzie (18-12--30), Connor Flaherty (10-9--19) and Matthew Klassen (13-7--20) – Duluth Marshall has the state tournament experience to carry it through the section bracket. But those four are the only Hilltoppers to record 10 or more goals this year, meaning Duluth Marshall will have to get solid defense from a young blue line and good goaltending from senior Caden Flaherty (8-6-0, 2.47, .924) if it wants to stamp its ticket back to the X.

No. 3 Hibbing/Chisholm (13-12-0) and coach Mark DeCenzo are no strangers to Section 7A tournament success with three section titles and 10 title tilt appearances to their name in the last 10 years. The current edition of the Bluejackets is built a little differently than the Hibbing teams in recent memory, though.

The Bluejackets don’t have as much top-end skill this year and have only three players that scored more than 10 goals during the regular season. But Hibbing does have Mr. Hockey finalist and University of Minnesota-Duluth recruit Adam Johnson (16-27--43) as its offensive catalyst, giving the Bluejackets a versatile, super-skilled player that can singlehandedly takeover games.

Senior forwards Derek Abrahamson (8-23--31) and Josh Bestul (13-12--25) are other pieces to the Hibbing puzzle that will have to play well up front for the Bluejackets to upset the teams ahead of them, and two defensemen – senior Cole Schafer (5-12--17) and sophomore Colten Perkins (17-10--27) – aren’t afraid to chip in offensively, either.

Goalie Tyler Carlson (12-10-0, 3.13, .893) has played most of the minutes for Hibbing over the past two seasons, so his experience will have to be a calming influence on the Bluejackets in the 7A tournament.

Fourth-seeded Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl (9-15-1) has struggled to find consistency all year and hasn’t fared well against top-tier teams. For the Blue Devils to string together three wins and make it to the state tournament, top scorers Zach Voss (21-25—46), Travis Kemp (15-20—35) and Zach Kalisch (8-19—27) will have to play extremely well and goalie Lucas Murray (5-8-0, 3.72, .889), who earned more playing time in the late portion of the season, will have to be lights out.


Eveleth-Gilbert's Greg Fautch.

No. 5 International Falls (11-10-4) is led by high scoring forwards Lucas Debenedet (25-31--56) and Erik Lassila (22-21--43), but the Broncos didn’t muster a lot of depth in that department as they averaged just 3.83 goals per game. Wesley Gunnerson (9-9-3, 3.49, .883) is “the guy” in net, and much like every other goalie on a team looking to shock its section opponents, he’ll have to play his best hockey in the next couple weeks.

North Shore (14-10-1) nabbed the sixth seed in its first year of existence, and will be leaning on forward Luke Small (28-26--54) to give it a boost. Goalie Zach Duresky (14-10-1, 3.03, .895) has played every second in net and saw over 30 shots per game.

No. 7 Eveleth-Gilbert (8-16-1) and leading scorer Mitchell Huffman (18-22--40) will want to avenge a 10-1 loss to Duluth Marshall earlier in the year. No. 8 Greenway (9-16-0) and No. 9 Ely (1-19-1) will play for the right to take on top-seeded Duluth Denfeld in the quarterfinals. 

Hub Prediction

The Hunters have shown that they can beat anyone, especially when Levi Talarico and the Thompson brothers are playing well. With a trip to the state tournament so close – maybe the best shot the Hunters have had since 1988-89 – odds and fate have to favor Duluth Denfeld.

Bracket Buster

Anytime you’ve got a guy like Adam Johnson on your team, you’ve got a chance to make a run in a one-and-done playoff format. If Johnson, a Minnesota-Duluth recruit who has scored more than 200 points in his career, can play to his potential and get some scoring help from some of the Bluejackets’ other talented players, watch out.

Past Champions

2012 – Duluth Marshall
2011 – Hibbing/Chisholm

2010 – Virginia/MIB
2009 – Virginia/MIB
2008 – Duluth Marshall
2007 – Hermantown
2006 – Hermantown
2005 – Virginia/MIB
2004 – Hibbing
2003 – Hibbing
2002 – International Falls
2001 – Duluth Marshall
2000 – International Falls
1999 – Silver Bay
1998 – Eveleth
1997 – Proctor
1996 – Duluth Central
1995 – International Falls
1994 – Hibbing

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