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Showdown for No. 1

By Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA, 01/02/12, 10:59AM CST


Duluth East at Maple Grove highlights the Hub's Top 10 games for Jan. 3-7

Maple Grove defenseman Jordan Gross leads the Crimson in scoring. Photos by Helen Nelson

1. Duluth East at Maple Grove
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

Talk about a true spotlight game. The only game in the state on Wednesday night is the latest of the MN Hockey Hub’s top games of the week, a showdown between the two remaining unbeaten Class 2A teams in the state, No. 1AA Duluth East (11-0-0) and No. 2AA Maple Grove (10-0-1).

Both teams enter the game off of stiff tests over the holidays.

East won the prestigious Schwan Cup Gold Division with three straight victories over No. 9AA Burnsville (4-2), No. 2A St. Thomas Academy (5-4) and the most impressive of the tournament, a 6-2 rout of then-No. 2AA Minnetonka in the championship game.

Even more frightening for potential rivals of the ‘Hounds is that Duluth East has remained unbeaten despite being at less than full strength much of the season. Senior forward Trevor Olson (3-1-4), last year’s leading scorer, returned from a knee injury over the holidays, scoring a hat trick in his first game back.

His return clearly helps the ‘Hounds balance an even more potent offense that includes seniors Jake Randolph (17-14-31) and Dom Toninato (9-29-29) and juniors Ryan Lundgren (8-11-19), Conner Valesano (4-9-13), Alex Toscano (7-5-12) and Jack Forbort (5-7-12).

But while Olson returned, senior defenseman Nate Repensky (1-10-11) missed the holidays with a wrist injury. Repensky is arguably the ‘Hounds’ best defenseman and anchors their special teams units. He will miss the game against the Crimson after having surgery over the weekend to deal with an infection in a tendon and two joints in his right wrist.

In Repensky's absence, junior Meirs Moore (3-13-16) and sophomore Phil Beaulieu (1-5-6) proved they can be quite effective. Their growth was a major reason the ‘Hounds were able to run the gauntlet of the Schwan Cup.

At full strength, no team in the state may be as deep as Duluth East, which also features to very capable goaltenders in senior Paige Skoog (5-0-0, 1.80, .918) and junior Dylan Parker (6-0-0, 1.00, .944).

Meanwhile, Maple Grove stormed to the title in the Sports Authority Holiday Hockey Classic in St. Louis Park, beating Elk River 3-1, Wayzata 4-2 and No. 6AA Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the final, 5-3. It was the second time in 10 days the Crimson beat the Red Knights, who at season’s start were ranked as high as No. 2 in the state. The Wayzata victory also avenged the Crimson’s only non-victory of the season, an opening night 3-3 tie with the Trojans.

Junior Jordan Gross (9-13-22) has staked his claim as arguably the best defenseman in the state through the season’s first half. He’s a whirling dervish on the blue line, capable of creating an offensive rush at any moment. But he’s also solid in his own defensive zone – a lethal combination. Gross, who has committed to play at Notre Dame, leads the Crimson in scoring, just ahead of senior forwards Dylan Steman (9-12-21), Shane Wolden (9-10-19), Tony Paulson (8-9-17) and Spencer Bell (7-10-17).

Maple Grove is a veteran club that has been looking for a breakthrough to a state tournament berth for the past several years. This is the last year for the seniors to make that statement and they look ready.

Joining Gross on the blue line is a solid crew led by hard-hitting senior Drew Aspinwall (2-8-10) and junior Joe Franta (0-8-8).

Between the pipes, senior Kyle Koop (11-0-1, 2.20, .913) has taken over for graduated All-Stater Ryan Coyne without skipping a beat. He’s been terrific, playing all but one period thus far.

Dylan Parker was stellar in Duluth East's victory over Minnetonka in the Schwan Cup Gold finals.

Game of the Week

'Week Ahead' Archives

Other top games

2. Eagan at Minnetonka
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game
OTSN.tv Live Webcast

In any other week, this showdown between No. 3AA Minnetonka (10-1-0) and No. 4AA Eagan (8-1-0) would easily be the top game of the week. Call it a redemption game for two teams that are also expected to contend for a state title but have one loss on their resume. Eagan just edged Woodbury to claim the South St. Paul Premier Tourney title over the holidays, led by hard-hitting seniors Michael Zajac (11-12-23) and Will Merchant (10-10-20). Minnetonka just suffered its first defeat in the Schwan Cup Gold final to Duluth East. Juniors Vinni Lettieri (11-18-29) and Max Coatta (11-14-25) continue to snipe for the Skippers. The winner could get a bump up the rankings, while the loser won't drop too far. At this point in the season, the four top teams in the polls appear to have an edge on the rest.

3. Hermantown at Duluth Marshall
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

It isn’t just a big week for the top teams in Class AA, as two of the top-four teams in the Hockey Hub’s latest Class A poll also do battle in the next few days. No. 3A Hermantown (10-0-0) remains unbeaten after winning the Thief River Falls holiday tournament, outscoring three opponents by a combined 22-4. The Hawks are terrific both offensively with Jared Thomas (12-15-27), Andrew Mattson (7-12-19) and Chris Benson (10-5-15) leading the way and defensively with Jared Kolquist (2-10-12), Brian LeBlanc (6-6-12) and Jake Zeleznikar (3-6-9). No. 4A Duluth Marshall (8-4-0) continues to climb the polls after winning its own holiday tournament, beating the No. 1 team in Wisconsin (Green Bay Notre Dame) in the final, 5-4. The ‘Toppers four losses have come against No. 1A Breck, No. 2A St. Thomas Academy, No. 6AA Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Grand Rapids. Senior Judd Peterson (23-15-38) continues to rack up multiple-goal games against all comers.

4. Minnetonka at Moorhead
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

The next two games involve the team with the toughest schedule this week – and perhaps the toughest back-to-back games any team has had in recent memory. No. 7AA Moorhead (8-1-0) begins its weekend task by hosting No. 3AA Minnetonka (10-1-0) on Friday night at the Moorhead Sports Center. The Spuds will be seeking to continue their momentum gained by a third-place finish at the Sports Authority Holiday Hockey Classic in St. Louis Park. Moorhead beat No. 8AA Eden Prairie in the quarters, were edged by No. 6AA Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the semis, then came back to beat Wayzata in the third-place game. The Uglem twins, juniors Tony (10-4-14) and Nick (7-5-12) had a big week, combining for five goals and three assists.

5. Moorhead at Duluth East
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

What does No. 7AA Moorhead (8-1-0) do for an encore? The Spuds travel to Duluth the very next morning for a game against No. 1AA Duluth East (11-0-0), which is coming off a rout of then-No. 2AA Minnetonka in the final of the Schwan Cup Gold Division. East presents the biggest challenge the Spuds will have faced all year and on the second night of back-to-back games on opposite sides of the state. No doubt senior goaltender Michael Bitzer (8-1-0, 1.75, .928) will be faced with plenty of shots and must come up big for the Spuds to have a shot, although he’ll need help from a strong defensive corps led by Jacob Uglem (2-5-7), Terry Leabo (1-6-7) and Ben Welle (1-4-5).

6. Benilde-St. Margaret's at Wayzata
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game
FoxSportsNorth Live Webcast

A huge game from a seeding perspective in Section 6AA, as No. 6AA Benilde-St. Margaret’s (7-3-0) faces Wayzata (7-4-1). The Red Knights may be as potent offensively as any team in the state, but this is their first test against a potential section semifinal playoff opponent (with only a Jan. 12 game at Minnetonka remaining). A loss by Benilde-St. Margaret's might just relegate that team to a No. 4 seed. Senior power forward Jake O’Borsky (8-9-17) is coming off a big holiday stretch in which he scored game-winning goals against Centennial and Moorhead. Meanwhile, the Trojans have plenty of chances with two more games left against each of Minnetonka and Eden Prairie. The return of Aaron Dingmann (1-2-0, 2.02. 928) in goal will be big.

7. Lakeville North at Lakeville South
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

The annual battle for Lakeville has its first of two meetings this Saturday (the rematch is Feb. 9) as Lakeville North (5-5-0) goes across town to visit No. 10AA Lakeville South (6-3-0). North has played spoiler in this series the last two years, losing to South during the regular season but beating it in the Section 1AA final both seasons. That has to burn at favored South, which has won six of its last seven games after an 0-2-0 start. The Cougars’ three losses have come to No. 4AA Eagan, No. 5AA Edina and No. 1A Breck. South’s duo of Justin Kloos (13-16-29) and Alex Harvey (10-10-20) is as dangerous as any in the state, but North’s Blake Winiecki (12-13-25) and Charlie Hayes (10-6-16) have also hit double-digit goals.

8. St. Thomas Academy at Mahtomedi
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

Here's another game between teams that have an interesting recent playoff history. No. 2A St. Thomas Academy (5-3-0) is the defending state champion in Class A, but in the two previous seasons the highly-favored Cadets were upset in the Section 4A playoffs by No. 7A Mahtomedi (7-4-0). That was forgotten last year as St. Thomas Academy rolled to its third state title in the last six seasons. The Cadets may not have a great record, but have played a tough schedule that includes Hill-Murray (a 2-1 loss on Dec. 10), No. 1AA Duluth East (a 5-4 loss on Dec. 27) and No. 5AA Edina (a 3-2 loss on Dec. 28). Mahtomedi has been climbing the rankings recently with senior Tanner Jordan (15-11-26) leading the way offensively. He’s scored in nine of 11 games and had five goals in holiday victories over perennial Iron Range powers Hibbing/Chisholm and Virginia/MIB.

9. White Bear Lake at Roseville

Two of the three teams atop the Suburban East Conference standings do battle Thursday when White Bear Lake (5-4-1) travels down I-35E to Roseville (7-3-1) for what likely will be a low-scoring, tight-checking game. The Bears lead both Roseville and Stillwater in the conference standings, but with plenty of games remaining, much is to be decided. The Bears have recovered nicely from the graduation of its top three scorers, with Mitch Morrisette (11-12-23) and young Jake Wahlin (6-10-16) leading the way. They’ll be counted on to provide offense against a stingy Roseville team that allows only 2.18 goals per game. Zack Larson (4-1-1, 1.72, .920) and Sam Podobinski (3-1-0, 2.73, .907) have been anchors in net following the graduation of both of last year’s top goaltenders from Roseville.

10. Delano/Rockford at Mound-Westonka

Two teams looking for a little respect play an important early Wright County Conference game when Delano/Rockford (7-4-0) visits Mound-Westonka (9-3-0). Neither is ranked in the Hockey Hub polls, but both are stating their case with strong early starts behind strong goaltending. David Engel (6-2-0, 2.19, .903) and Andy Seats (3-1-0, 3.00, .902) have continued a recent tradition of strong play in goal for the White Hawks while Ryan Pinoniemi (7-4-0, 2.57, .915) is a veteran influence for the Tigers. Mound-Westonka had won seven straight until falling at Little Falls in its most recent game, 5-2. Delano/Rockford took the consolation trophy at the Duluth Marshall Hilltopper Holiday Classic, losing to the hosts in the quarterfinals.