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Benilde-St. Margaret's players braced aginst the blowing winds during introductions for the second game of Hockey Day Minnesota on the shores of Lake Pokegama in Grand Rapids in January.

Benilde-St. Margaret's boys' hockey coach Ken Pauly is amused by the ironic nature of some of his hockey- coaching brethren.

Those coaches stress all season the need to win games critical to section seeding, then later downplay whatever seed they draw.

Pauly's Red Knights, the defending Class 2A champions, earned their first No. 1 seed in the section playoffs since 1999, when assistant coach Troy Riddle, 31, was a junior standout at the school. The difficulty of navigating Section 6 leaves Pauly grateful for any advantage.

"We'll take it," Pauly said. "The key is to embrace whatever comes your way."

Teams throughout the state will try heeding Pauly's advice. Most section play-in games and quarterfinals begin Tuesday. The ensuing two weeks of passionate hockey will produce eight state tournament teams in each class.

Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith, whose team won Section 6 and state titles in 2009 and 2011, said Benilde-St. Margaret's status as favorite works two ways.

"They have the confidence they can do it again and they know how to play in those pressure games," Smith said. "But teams are going to be hungry to knock them out."

Three teams are capable of throwing such a punch. No. 2 seed Minnetonka, No. 3 Wayzata and Smith's fourth-seeded Eagles all are ranked in the state's top 12 teams.

History indicates Benilde-St. Margaret's faces the toughest road to repeating as section champion. Section 6 has recycled winners through the years, but the bottom line is this: No one has won consecutive titles since Edina captured four in a row from 1995 to1998.

The situation is different in Section 5, where Blaine set a modern-day standard for continuity with six consecutive titles. Maple Grove ended the run with a 15-1 shellacking in last season's section final.

Blaine holds the No. 1 seed ahead of Centennial (No. 2) and Maple Grove (No. 3). Bengals coach Dave Aus believes the mental wounds have healed.

"I'm not concerned with our guys at all because both teams are completely different," Aus said.

Class 1A, Section 4

Top-ranked and two-time defending Class 1A champion St. Thomas Academy is favored to emerge from Section 4, but co-head coach Greg Vannelli is wary of the field for different reasons.

He called No. 2 seed Mahtomedi a "good team with a lot of balance on its three lines," he credited No. 3 seed Totino-Grace for possessing a high-powered first line and said No. 4 seed St. Paul Academy has the goaltending you need at playoff time.

"Three of the top 14 teams in the state are in this section, and we're glad with the way the seeding worked out that we only have to play one of them," Vannelli said.

 

 

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