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In defense of a title: Eagles visit Skippers

01/05/2010, 2:46pm CST
By Tim Kolehmainen

Jan. 5-11: The Week Ahead

Game of the Week

 

A big statement game kicks off the week ahead, when the defending state Class AA champions (Eden Prairie) visit the team everyone expects to knock them off this winter (Minnetonka).

True hockey fans have no excuse not to catch this game, as even if they aren’t able to get down to Minnetonka, Pete Waggoner and the MyFoxHockey crew will be webcasting this one from Pagel Activity Center beginning at 7 pm (click here for the Wagontrain’s preview of this game).

Eden Prairie comes into the tilt with a 6-1-0 record and is ranked No. 5 in the state. But the Eagles are a bit overlooked right now, not the least bit because they haven’t played since a Dec. 22nd victory over Burnsville.

Coach Lee Smith’s club took the holidays to fine tune their game in practices and scrimmages rather than play in a high-profile holiday tournament. Despite their gaudy record, there have been some struggles at times for the Eagles as they look to repeat.

 

Last year, Eden Prairie rode a very deep and balanced lineup and Mr. Hockey defenseman Nick Leddy to the state title. The Eagles’ sophomore class, which had won a state Bantam title the previous year, was a big contributor to the championship, as well.

Leddy departed for the Gophers (and was drafted by the NHL’s hometown Wild), but with much of the remainder of the team back with experience, Eden Prairie was expected to remain a contender.

Junior defenseman Dan Molenaar has had to step into that leadership role on the blue line and has done well, but surprisingly, the Eagles have had trouble scoring goals. Outside of its top line of junior Kyle Rau (12-7-19) and seniors Mitch Rogge (5-10-15) and Mike Erickson (4-4-8), the rest of the team has just eight goals in seven games.

The Eagles are firing an average of 38.6 shots a game on net, so the threat of offense is there. But until they start denting the twine, Eden Prairie will find itself in close games. Thankfully, they’ve been strong on defense with just 23.0 shots and 1.86 goals per game allowed. Junior Andrew Ford (5-1-0, 1.79, .920) has carried the load between the pipes as he did throughout the playoff run last winter.

Meanwhile, until the past week, everything was looking rosy for Minnetonka. The Skippers have raced out to a perfect 11-0-0 record and are a unanimous No. 1 team after claiming the Schwan Cup Gold division over the holidays. They beat Edina by a goal in the championship, even without senior forward Max Gardiner (11-18-29) who leads the team in scoring.

The Minnesota recruit broke a wrist in the semifinals and will reportedly be out for up to six weeks. His leadership will be missed, as will the rapport he had established with high-scoring freshman Max Coatta (10-8-18) and junior Derek Frawley (6-14-20) on the Skippers’ top line. Minnetonka’s other forwards will have to step up in his absence.

And it’s quite likely coach Brian Urick’s crew will rely even more on its formidable defensive unit led by D1 recruits Justin Holl (7-2-9), Troy Hesketh (2-6-8) and Andrew Prochno (5-16-21). All three are headed to WCHA schools (Holl to Minnesota, Hesketh to Wisconsin and Prochno to St. Cloud State) and have different – and complementary – strengths on the ice. Prochno is a free-wheeling offensive defenseman, Hesketh is well-rounded on both ends of the ice, while until this year Holl had proven to have a defense-first mindset. But with seven goals in 11 games, he’s finding his heavy shot from the blue line is tough to stop.

The trio provides plenty of support for senior goaltender Jim Kruger (9-0-0, 1.44, .930), who is in his third year of starting for the Minnetonka varsity. He’s an experienced and talented netminder and a terrific last line of defense.

Not only will tonight’s game be important in the state rankings, it will also be a key battle for the Section 6AA playoff seeding. Both teams (along with Wayzata and Benilde-St. Margaret’s) are part of the toughest section in the state.

 

Terrific 10 games of the week

Rank Game Details
2 Hill-Murray at St. Thomas Academy (7:30 pm, Thursday, Jan. 7)
Two of the East side’s powerhouse private schools get together to determine who is the favorite in the Classic Suburban Conference race. Hill-Murray is one of the top defensive teams in the state, allowing just 1.82 goals per game, while St. Thomas Academy has a high-powered offense that is looking to bounce back from a slow holiday season.
3 Wayzata at Bloomington Jefferson (7:30 pm, Thursday, Jan. 7)
Both teams played in the St. Louis Park Holiday Classic, but neither ran into each other. Jefferson fell in the championship game to Centennial in a shootout, while Wayzata claimed the consolation title with a rout of Moorhead. Just as well, as there have been plenty of tournament rematches already between top teams. This one will seem fresh in comparison – and should be played at a high pace.
4 Benilde-St. Margaret’s at Spring Lake Park (7:30 pm, Saturday, Jan. 9)
Plenty of eyes will be on this North Suburban Conference showdown between Class AA Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Class A Spring Lake Park. And perhaps quite surprisingly, most of them will be sizing up the Panthers. Spring Lake Park is one of the last unbeaten teams in the state, winning its first 12 games against a slight schedule. Jorde Ranum (16-13-29) leads a high-powered offense that’s scoring 6.92 goals a game.
5 Hermantown at Duluth Marshall (7:30 pm, Tuesday, Jan. 5)
Two of the top Class A teams in the Northeast corner of the state play a Lake Superior Conference tilt tonight at Mars Lakeview Arena. Hermantown is on a roll, winning five straight games and allowing just 1.33 goals a game. The Hawks’ defense is as deep as any in the state with Jeff Paczynski, Jared Kolquist, Chad Bannor, Conner Hady and Brian LeBlanc. Marshall had won seven straight until last Saturday’s loss at St. Thomas Academy – a great rally from three consecutive losses to open the season. Seventeen different Hilltoppers have scored a goal already this year.
6 Holy Angels at Edina (7 pm, Saturday, Jan. 9)
Holy Angels will have some ground to recover its high ranking after losing all three games at the Schwan Cup Gold division over the holidays. And it doesn’t get any easier this week with games against Minnetonka on Thursday and this grinder against Edina on Saturday. As down as the Stars may be, Edina is riding in the opposite direction with a “team first” attitude under coach Curt Giles.
7 St. Cloud Cathedral at Warroad (7:30 pm, Friday, Jan. 8)
Perennial Class A contenders St. Cloud Cathedral and Warroad get together Friday night up in the far Northwest corner of the state. Cathedral ended a long break through the holidays with a 5-3 victory over Rochester Lourdes, while Warroad was plenty busy in winning its home invitational. The Crusaders have yet to get their offense going, as they’re averaging 4.0 goals a game, led by Jordan Palusky (8-5-13). Warroad doesn’t have scoring depth, but it getting plenty of production from the top line of Brock Nelson, Brett Hebel and Nick Stoskopf.
8 Blaine at Duluth East (8:30 pm, Thursday, Jan. 7)
As long as it isn’t a game against Edina or Minnetonka, Blaine has been the top team in the state. The Bengals haven’t lost to any other teams, although Thursday’s game at Duluth East will be a tough test. Bengals’ goaltender Danny Harper (5-3-0, 2.63, .917) has been on his game thus far and is far more impressive than even his stats indicate. East is just 1-2-1 in its past four games, although the two losses came to Edina and Hill-Murray.
9 Red Wing at Northfield (7:30 pm, Thursday, Jan. 7)
It’s been an uncharacteristically tough year for Red Wing, which is just 2-7-0 and has lost four in a row. Now the Wingers travel to Northfield, which has played itself into a contender in Section 1A as Red Wing has played its way out. The Raiders finished off the holidays on a three-game winning streak in the Schwan Cup Bronze division. Are they for real? This will be a good indicator against a perennial contender.
10 Silver Bay at Two Harbors (7 pm, Tuesday, Jan. 5); Lakeville South at Lakeville North (7 pm, Thursday, Jan. 7); Mankato East at Mankato West (7:30 pm, Thursday, Jan. 7)
None of these games have much impact on the state rankings – with the possible exception of the battle for Lakeville – but all three games are local rivalries that bring rabid fans to the rink. Sometimes, it’s not all about rankings, but instead about bragging rights. And this trio certainly has that.

 


 

Breakdown editor Tim Kolehmainen may be reached at tim@mnsportspreview.com.

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