David La Vaque has covered all but one state hockey tournament game since 2009 and has worked as a Star Tribune high school sports reporter since 2004. His favorite tournament experiences include cheering for alma mater St. Paul Johnson in 1991 and staying for most of the Apple Valley/Duluth East marathon semifinal game in 1996. Loren Nelson has covered every state tournament since 2009 as the national media editor and community manger for SportsEngine. He attended many, many other Tourney games as a high schooler from the far northern reaches of Minnesota making the annual pilgrimage south to the old St. Paul Civic Center in the 1980s.
Stream of consciousness as we prepare for tonight’s big No. 1 vs. 2 showdown featuring Stillwater and Elk River (follow our live coverage of the game here) in a 7:30 p.m. start at the St. Louis Park Rec Center:
I don’t keep a log on how many 1 vs. 2 regular season games I’ve seen, but the last one I recall wasn’t that long ago. Back in 2014 Edina, then the two-time defending state Class 2A champion, traveled to Lakeville North for a much-anticipated early-December matchup. The teams had met in the previous season’s state title game, won 8-2 by Edina.
Lakeville North won the rematch 3-1 at a packed-to-the-rafters Ames Arena in Lakeville. The most lasting memory from that game was the absolutely electric atmosphere. The bleachers were packed by the end of the junior varsity game, then the stairs on either side of the bleachers filled up, too. Fans stood two and three rows deep behind the plexiglass at ice level - what a crazy scene that was.
Of course, the Panthers, led by senior twins Nick and Jack Poehling and younger brother Ryan, would go to win the state title with a 31-0-0 record.
Writing about the scene for that 2014 game reminded me of the huge crowd that filled the Maple Grove Community Center, back in 2012, when No 1. Duluth East traveled to play No. 2 Maple Grove on Jan. 4.
Again, the aisles doubled as bleachers and fans were stacked two- and three-deep behind the plexiglass as Duluth East won the battle of unbeatens 4-1. Both teams went on to reach the state tournament as the top two seeds (Duluth East was No. 1, Maple Grove No. 2), and both were knocked out in stunning fashion in the quarterfinals (as were the No. 3 and 4 seeds, Eagan and Edina, in an amazing series of first-round upsets).
Not sure what to expect for tonight’s 1 vs. 2 showdown, but getting there early should be a priority. The St. Louis Park Rec Center certainly holds more fans that either Ames Arena or the Maple Grove Community Center, and I’d expect it to be filled for what is easily the most intriguing game of the season so far.
Stillwater is 10-0-0 but has played a relatively soft schedule. Victories over Lakeville South (5-3) and Prior Lake (3-1) are the most impressive for a team that lost 2-1 to eventual state champion Wayzata in the semifinals of last year’s state tournament.
Noah Cates (10 goals, 18 assists) leads the ponies in scoring, just ahead of fellow senior Luke Manning (8 goals, 16 assists). T.J. Sagissor (8 goals, 6 assists) is the other proven scoring threat on, if the trio are paired together, one of the state’s most potent lines.
Jesse Bjugstad (7 goals, 4 assists) anchors the defense and Seth Eisele, a first-year starter, has been stellar in goal (1.14 goals-against average, .932 save percentage).
Elk River (10-1-0) has played a much tougher schedule, notching victories over No. 3 Grand Rapids, No. 4 Eden Prairie, No. 8 Centennial and No. 9 Lakeville North. The Elks’ lone loss to Edina, a 5-0 beatdown in the Hornets’ holiday tourney at Braemar Arena.
Elk River figures to have more depth than the Ponies, as seven Elks players have 15 or more points led by senior defenseman and St. Cloud State commit Nick Perbix (3 goals, 16 assists).
Goaltender Benny Meyers also has posted stellar numbers (1.75 goals-against average, .923 save percentage).
With this being the third game in three days for both these teams, I’m guessing the team with the better depth wins.
And that the stands will be packed.