Sartell-St. Stephen and Alexandria would like to skate away with the Class 1A, Section 6 title. To do so, one may have to knock the other out of contention and then move on to a potential showdown with juggernaut St. Cloud Cathedral, which is tightening its grip on the top seed for the playoffs and with it, earning home-ice advantage throughout the tournament.
It's all speculation now, but what isn't conjecture is the heated rivalry between Sartell-St. Stephen and Alexandria, which ramps up again on Thursday when the Central Lakes Conference foes meet in a regular-season clash that also happens to be our Top Game of the Week.
Games in the last three seasons between Sartell-St. Stephen and Alexandria seem to be competitive and end in narrow margins, and the Sabres' season ended in section playoff losses to the Cardinals in each of the past two years, including a 3-2 overtime decision in the 2017 semifinals. (Last season, Alexandria rolled to a 4-0 win in the section semifinals, helping catapult it to the Class 1A state tournament, where it lost the title game to Orono.)
The regular season has been more of the same. Two seasons ago, Sartell-St. Stephen won the first meeting 4-3 and Alexandria took the second matchup 5-3.
The Sabres won last year's initial meeting 2-1 while Alexandria earned a split with a 3-2 overtime victory in the second contest.
This season, Sartell-St. Stephen won the first regular-season meeting 1-0 in Alexandria, becoming the only team to shut out the Cardinals this season.
If the Sabres (14-6, 7-3), who are ranked No. 9 in the Class 1A state coaches' poll from Jan. 30, want to sweep the regular-season series on Thursday — something they hasn’t done since 2015-16 — they'll need an outright team effort, starting with goaltender Cole Bright, who (3.08 goals-against average; .884 save percentage) made 33 saves to preserve a shutout victory in a Jan. 8 shutout win and ending with forwards Jack Hennemann (a goal and two assists in his career against Alexandria), and Michael Webster, who scored the lone goal in the first meeting this season.
Alexandria will need clutch scoring — and the No. 7-1A Cardinals (16-4, 4-0) have a trio who can do just that. Ben Doherty leads the team in goals (20) and points (40), but assists-leader Jack Westlund (17-21-38) and Caleb Strong (15-20-35) shouldn't be overlooked.
In last season’s postseason run, Strong and Westlund led the offense in sections — including a point each in the win over Alexandria — and again at state, combining for four goals and four assists in three games at the Xcel Energy Center.