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Hill-Murray newcomer Mitch Slattery (28) and teammates celebrate his goal in the Pioneers' 6-3 victory over Eastview in Thursday's Class 2A quarterfinals. Photo by Brian Nelson.

When he's not behind the bench, Hill-Murray coach Bill Lechner must be a master puzzler. After top-ranked Hill-Murray beat Eastview, 6-3 in the Class 2A quarterfinals Thursday, March 7 at the Xcel Energy Center, Lechner used that analogy to describe his program.

"We have been fortunate to look at the big picture," Lechner explained. "Begin with the end in mind and get results and put pieces in. Yes, people don't have sympathy for us because we have pieces, but they're all over the place."

Some years, the puzzle is a 50-piece breeze.

Some years, it's  a 1000-piece abstraction.

"I promise you it's harder than it looks," continued Lechner.

Lechner is correct that the Pioneers get little love by casual hockey fans. They see an inherent advantage in a Twin Cities private school that doesn't have boundaries that define its territory. But that also means that continuity is more difficult. Players haven't grown up in the same youth systems, gaining chemistry. It's even more difficult when graduation and early departures decimate a team that was expected to follow up its state runner-up finish with more of the same.

Of course, as Lechner said, nobody feels sorry for him. They may even relish it.

"I think people wrote us off a little bit after some guys left early," said goaltender John Dugas, one of the holdovers from last year's state Class 2A runner-up. "We knew what we had in store, but I don't think everybody else knew.

"We always knew what we were and what we were capable of."

Lechner felt he still had the pieces to have a big year, but they weren't necessarily ready to fit together. The Pioneers said goodbye to a huge senior class that included Mr. Hockey finalist Charlie Sampair -- then lost top forward Jake Guentzel and hard-hitting defenseman Blake Heinrich to junior hockey. The returning players had talent, but hadn't been asked to step into the roles they were now asked to.

The experts seemed to agree. But out of respect for Lechner's cachet, the Pioneers were still slotted in the back half of the preseason top-10. 

They ended the regular season as No. 1.

"From (that ranking), you start putting the pieces together and (tell the kids) not to buy into it," Lechner said, although he admitted a guilty pleasure in seeing his program ranked at the top after the offseason it endured.

The Pioneers' success starts in the defensive zone, where Dugas is the team's anchor in goal and senior defensemen Ryan Black and Sam Becker have become unsung team leaders. 

"They're two guys we weren't worried about," Lechner said. "Blackie's not very big, but he's a corner and safety on the football team and loves to hit. And Becker is just a really good hockey player."

"Sam is a guy that doesn't really get a lot of credit but he's our anchor back there defensively," Dugas concurred. "And guys like Ryan Black, (Jacob) Olson and (Logan) Sharp. They're not really big-name players but they're big role players."

Lechner and assistant coach Pat Schafhauser also preach to the forwards the need to get involved in the "gritty end" of the rink. That combination propelled the Pioneers to the top of the rankings midway through the year, a spot they've held much of the final two and a half months -- and one they hope to have when the state tournament ends Saturday night.

"It's kind of hard to hold it," Lechner said. "Now, if that's where (the media) says we are, then we have to put a chip on our shoulders to prove that they're right.

"But talk is cheap."

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