No. 15 White Bear Lake at No. 3 Hill-Murray
7 p.m., Thursday, Jan. 16
At Aldrich Arena, Maplewood
MN Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

Last year’s Section 4AA race came down to a final game between these two powers, won 1-0 by Hill-Murray. And it’s not the first time a similar result has occurred.

The Pioneers have had the Bears’ number in recent years, winning seven of the last eight section titles, often beating White Bear Lake on the way to that title. The history between these two schools is intense. Since Hill-Murray joined the MSHSL, it has won 26 section titles and White Bear Lake has claimed 11. Combined, the two schools have represented their section 37 times in the last 39 state tournaments.

The Pioneers come into this season’s first meeting as the favorite, currently ranked third in the state with an 11-2-0 record. They’re also coming off a week that could see them jump into the top spot, as coach Bill Lechner’s crew beat both No. 1 Edina and No. 2 Wayzata by a combined 9-3 score. Josh French (13 goals, 9 assists, 22 points) tallied two goals against Wayzata and both Joey Anderson (8-10-18) and Zach Mills (11-4-15) each scored twice against Edina. They’re three of the four leading scorers for Hill-Murray along with Mitch Slattery (9-16-25).

But outside of that quartet, scoring has been tough to come by for the Pioneers. Dusty Krueger (5-7-12), Jacob Olson (3-8-11) and Tyler Funk (2-8-10) are the only other players with more than a single goal or double-digit points. Hill-Murray has remained strong due to its defense (2.31 goals per game) and a great start for goaltender Sam Illgen (9-1-0, 2.28, .914), who took over for Brimsek Award finalist John Dugas this winter.

White Bear Lake enters the contest losing two of its last three games to drop to 10-3-1 overall. But the Bears do have the most explosive player in the game in junior Jake Wahlin (26-15-41), who has scored an amazing 42.6 percent of the team’s goals. He’s a crafty player who sees the ice extremely well.

Hunter Lovdokken (9-6-15) and Tom Giller (8-12-20) are the only other Bears with more than four goals, although defenseman Jake Dittel (3-21-24) certainly can add offense to the game. He’s physical in his own defensive zone, but willing to take the play up ice when needed.