It could be a study in contrasts Tuesday night at The Gardens in Warroad as one of Class A’s top lines faces one of its top goalies. Thief River Falls and North Dakota-bound senior goaltender Zane Gothberg visit Warroad and the high-scoring line of Nick Stoskopf, Brett Hebel and another North Dakota recruit, big Brock Nelson.
For that reason alone, the showdown between Thief River Falls and Warroad would be worth watching. But it’s the rest of the history behind the rivalry that makes this the game of the week.
In each of the past two years, Warroad had bounced the Prowlers from the Section 8A playoffs in heart-breaking fashion. Last year, Warroad earned a 3-2 victory in the Section 8A finals. Two years ago, the game went into double overtime before the Warriors pulled out a 2-1 victory.
This winter, both teams are on a collision course to meet again as the top two teams in Section 8A.
Warroad continues to produce an amazing plethora of hockey talent for such a small community, a tribute to its strong tradition and youth programs, as well as the varsity coaching staff led by Albert Hasbargen, in his fifth season with the Warriors.
Warroad has qualified for 11 of the past 16 state tournaments, winning titles in 1994, 1996, 2003 and 2005. And again, despite losing excellent talent to graduation, it would be difficult not to consider the Warriors the favorites in Section 8A. There are holes to fill, however, including scoring depth behind that top line.
Nelson (11-9-20), Hebel (9-9-18) and Stoskopf (4-5-9) have combined for 24 of the team’s 33 goals, while All-State defenseman Carson Gray (2-7-9) and blueliner Joey Olson (1-7-8) are the only other players with more than four points.
Those five were the main returning veterans for the Warriors, who also had to replace All-State honorable mention goaltender Jason Goldsmith. Shawn Storey (5-1-0, 2.00), Goldsmith’s backup last winter, has been solid thus far, with a .886 save percentage.
Thief River Falls returns one of the best goaltenders in the state in Gothberg (6-1-0, 2.00) and a strong defensive corps paced by All-State honorable mention senior Jacob Malwitz (1-5-6). The Prowlers just may be one of the stingiest teams in the state.
Since allowing six goals to Roseau in an opening-night defeat, Thief River Falls has won six straight while giving up just eight goals. But to win Tuesday night, they’ll have to put the puck in the net. Matt Lindquist (6-5-11) and Micah Ranum (7-2-9) have been welcomed snipers, but have tallied nearly half of the Prowlers’ goals.
|2||Minnetonka at Blaine (7:30 pm, Monday, Dec. 21)||
A shortened week of hockey kicks off with the FSN-televised battle between Class AA unbeatens in Minnetonka and Blaine. Both teams feature strong defenses, experienced goaltenders (the Skippers’ Jim Kruger and the Bengals’ Danny Harper) and a highly-regarded, huge D1 forward recruit (‘Tonka’s Max Gardiner and Blaine’s Nick Bjugstad). A great one to start the holiday season.
|3||Osseo and Andover (7:30 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 22)||
Two teams that have surprised thus far now go face-to-face in an attempt to continue their hot starts. Osseo has given fits to some highly-regarded opponents, while Andover beat one of Class A’s annual contenders (Hermantown). An interesting in-game match-up would be the Orioles’ top line of the Bonners (Tim and Patrick) and Tom Windle against Andover’s double-digit goal-scorers Cal Decowski and Taylor Portner.
|4||Virginia/MIB at Hermantown (7:30 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 22)||
Two of Northeast Minnesota’s best Class A teams square off in what could be a preview of a state tournament matchup. Virginia started the season slowly, but has come on with the return to health of its top line, featuring St. Cloud State-bound Garrett Hendrickson. Hermantown also has a strong top line led by UMD recruit Adam Krause.
|5||Moorhead at Duluth East (5:30 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 22); Cloquet/Esko/Carlton at Duluth Central (8 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 22)||
A Heritage Arena double-header for hockey fans, and both games provide intrigue. Moorhead and Duluth East are seemingly annual visitors to St. Paul for the state tournament representing Sections 8AA and 7AA, respectively. Both are replacing talented senior classes, but haven’t skipped a beat. In the nightcap, Cloquet has struggled to regain its past potency, which just might open the door for unbeaten (and long-suffering) Duluth Central to spring an upset. Central has allowed only six goals in five games.
|6||Sartell-St. Stephen at Rogers (7 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 22)||
Two programs that have never been to a state tournament – but just might end that streak this winter – hook up in a game that might slip by the casual fan. Don’t ignore this one, though. Sartell is a high-powered, offensive juggernaut loaded with senior snipers such as Andy Worzala, the Nahans (Ryan and Matt), Austin Plaine and others. Rogers showed that Section 5A might not be the sole domain of Hermantown and St. Cloud Cathedral, as they upset the Crusaders 4-1 last Tuesday.
|7||New Prague at Albert Lea (7:30 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 22)||
Section 1A appears to be up for grabs this winter, and these two teams should be in the mix. New Prague is 4-2-0 after playing three straight one-goal games (winning two). Sophomore goalie Joe Morris (3-2-0, 2.15) has been a strong factor in nets for the young Trojans. Albert Lea is 3-2-0 for legendary coach Roy Nystrom, who should have the Tigers ready come playoff time. Casey Marka (4-5-9) leads the team in goals and points.
|8||Elk River at Holy Angels (7:30 pm, Wednesday, Dec. 23)||
This is the first true test of the season for Holy Angels, which opened with three straight routs over Missota Conference teams. The Stars will prove how highly they should be ranked after this one, as Elk River is a tough team with sophomore Anders Franke in nets. He’ll have to be on his toes as the Reillys (senior twins Connor and Ryan and sophomore Mike) lead an aggressive, attacking Stars team.
|9||North St. Paul vs. South St. Paul (8:15 pm, Saturday, Dec. 26)||
The final game of the opening day of the South St. Paul Premier Tournament pits the hosts against the team from the other side of St. Paul, the North Polars. South will be looking to rebound from three losses in its previous four games, including two to Class A rivals Mahtomedi and Duluth Denfeld. Junior goalie Adam Wilcox has committed to the Gophers and will be fun to watch in this one against North’s Zac McCarver (4-8-12), Joe Rubbelke, Nick Hinz and crew.
|10||Benilde-St. Margaret’s at Rochester Century (7:30 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 22)||
Benilde-St. Margaret’s hopes to rebound from the loss of defenseman Patrick Daly for the season (and a tough loss to Cretin-Derham Hall), but they’ll run into arguably the best Section 1AA team in Rochester Century, which has won four in a row behind the Kautz familiy. Cory Kautz (12-4-16) has been on an offensive tear, scoring goals in six straight games. Brock Kautz (4-2-0, 1.79) has taken over in nets for the Panthers.