How does it get any better than No. 1 versus No. 2?
That was a rhetorical question, of course. It doesn’t get any better.
Hockey fans will be treated to that match-up when the No. 2 team in Class A (St. Thomas Academy) travels to the No. 1 team (Breck) for a showdown Tuesday night. The two Twin Cities private school powers will clash in what could very well be a preview of the Class A state championship game in March.
From the East side of the river, St. Thomas Academy hasn’t had a game yet this season, but they must be hungry for this one after falling unexpectedly in the Section 4A finals to Mahtomedi last year.
The Cadets have three All-Classic Suburban snipers in seniors Christian Isackson (18 goals, 39 assists, 57 points last seasaon) and Justin Crandall (23-27-50) and junior A.J. Reid (27-21-48). Isackson was also an honorable mention All-State choice. Add in senior Noah Gavin (11-15-26), juniors Zach Schroeder (12-19-31) and Matt Kroska (10-11-21) and sophomore Pete Krieger (4-9-13) and the Cadets have numerous lines that can score.
Defensively, junior Taylor Fleming (2-26-28) was an All-Classic Suburban choice, as well. He will join forces with senior Joe Graveline (4-12-16) and sophomore Eric Schurhamer (3-14-17) to form a roadblock to opposing teams.
Even when they do get through for a shot, opponents will have to contend with senior goalie Kurt Altrichter (13-4-1, .906), yet another All-Classic Suburban choice for the Cadets. Junior Matt McNeely was to split time with Altrichter this season, but chose to play for the U.S. National Team Development Program instead.
From the West side of the river, Breck already has been tested and responded to each with a resounding victory. The Mustangs opened the season with a big 7-1 victory over Mahtomedi and followed it up with an 8-3 rout of Red Wing, two programs expected to be among the best in Class A. Eleven players scpred in the two games, a tribute to the depth of the Mustangs, who return 20 letterwinners from last year’s state championship squad.
Senior forwards Tyson Fulton (2-5-7) and Riley Borer (2-3-5) lead the way on offense and should get big contributions from fellow seniors Mike Morin (1-1-2), Chase Nystedt (3-1-4), Cameron Born, Brendan Yates and Charlie Borer; juniors Shayne Ciernia (0-2-2) and David Zosel and sophomores Nate Traina and Wes Iverson (1-2-3).
Defensively, the Mustangs are sound and have allowed only 17 shots on goal in two games behind players such as seniors Mike Mooney, Ben Gislason (1-2-3), David Crowe (0-2-2) and Joe Zeidler and rugged sophomore Austin Rudnick (2-1-3).
In nets, senior John Russell (2-0-0, 2.00) has started the past three seasons, including a stellar performance in last year’s state title game victory over Warroad. He’s as solid as they come and finishes off a Breck team that appears to have no weaknesses. But if any team can find one, it’s St. Thomas Academy.
|2||Benilde at Hill-Murray (8 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 8)||
Two of the five best teams in Class AA (at least according to our pollsters) square off at Aldrich Arena in a game televised by FSN. Both teams are led by high-scoring young forwards (junior Ben Bahe and crew for the Pioneers, freshman Grant Besse and sophomore Christian Horn for the Red Knights), but this one may come down to defense and goaltending.
|3||Blaine at Osseo (7:30 pm, Thursday, Dec. 10)||
Last year in the Section 5AA semifinals, Osseo nearly upset Blaine to keep the Bengals from their fourth straight state appearance. But a last-minute-of-regulation goal by Zac Frischmon, who also netted the game-winner in overtime, saved Blaine’s season. Frischmon isn’t around to play savior this winter, although the Bengals are still loaded. Osseo is an underrated team that could make some serious noise with a victory in this one.
|4||Apple Valley at Bloomington Jefferson (7:30 pm, Saturday, Dec. 12)||
The Lake Conference has run through Jefferson and Eden Prairie the past few years and this winter appears to be no different. Or is it? Apple Valley has a chance to jump into the fray soon with terrific young players such as freshman scoring sensation Hudson Fasching, sophomore A.J. Michaelson and sophomore defenseman Derek Smith. They’ll get their first big breakout chance against powerful Jefferson, which has rolled out to a 3-0-0 start behind a balanced and potent attack.
|5||Breck at St. Cloud Cathedral (7:15 pm, Friday, Dec. 11)||
Another Breck game? You have to give coach Les Larson credit for testing his defending state champions. This time, the Mustangs travel up I-94 to St. Cloud for a showdown with Cathedral. The Crusaders lost much of their defensive corps from last winter, but are strong in nets (Nick Maiers) and up front (Jordan Palusky, Alex Koopmeiners, Kyle Kudak and crew).
|6||Grand Rapids at Virginia/MIB (7:30 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 8)||
Although Hibbing and International Falls may have something to say about it, the Iron Range Conference may again go through Grand Rapids and Virginia this winter. The two rivals get an early test on the Blue Devils' home rink this week. Last year, Garrett Hendrickson and Virginia took this game and went on to win the IRC crown.
|7||Moorhead at Bemidji (7 pm, Thursday, Dec. 10)||
Bemidji moved up from Section 8A to Section 8AA this winter. A recipe for a tough season? Not necessarily, as the Lumberjacks could be an upset contender to the title annually owned by either Roseau or Moorhead. Bemidji’s players have had success in the youth ranks against the two powerhouses and expect to carry it over to varsity. Moorhead, despite losing much of its defense, will be a tough out, though. The Spuds have two All-State caliber goalies in Logan Marks and Michael Bitzer.
|8||Little Falls at Alexandria (7 pm, Friday, Dec. 11)||
How much does Alexandria want to get a crack at the young, new-look Little Falls team? We’ll all find out Friday, as the Flyers visit the Cardinals. Little Falls has knocked out the Cards from the section playoffs three times in the past four years, winning all 11 games between the two teams in those four years. Last season, all three games were decided by a single goal. Alexandria lost All-State goaltender Matt Hemingway, but the Flyers graduated five 100-point career scorers.
|9||New Ulm at Faribault (1:30 pm, Saturday, Dec. 12)||
Looking for a game between two teams you just might see in the state tournament in March? Here's one that just might have slipped by with little attention. New Ulm was the preseason favorite to come out of Section 3A after falling just short the past few years, while a veteran Faribault program looks like the team to beat out of Section 1A.
|10||Hibbing at Warroad (7:30 pm, Friday, Dec. 11) and Hibbing at Roseau (1 pm, Saturday, Dec. 12)||
Which Hibbing team will show up for the trip to the Northwest corner of the state? The Bluejackets that began the season with three straight victories, or the one that has lost two straight, allowing a disappointing 16 goals? Ryan Johnson has been a Godsend for a Bluejackets offense trying to find scoring after the graduation of Aaron Jamnick. He has nine goals in five games, but the rest of the team has just five. Warroad and Roseau will certainly be ready for their neighbors to the east with their annually outstanding programs.