Moorhead's Cody Rahman (19) could again be battling Bemidji's Tyler Tatro (14) and Gabe Heifort (35) in the Section 8AA playoffs. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
Matt Pohlkamp (11) is a top playmaker for Brainerd and recently committed to Bowling Green. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
It's been 16 long years since anyone other than Moorhead or Roseau represented Section 8AA at the state tournament.
If you're a fan of the Spuds or Rams, it hasn't been a problem to watch the section's two 800-pound gorillas slug it out every season. But for fans of the rest of the field, it feels like time to quit politely waiting for a turn and force the issue.
Unfortunately for them, the path to state should again go through top-seeded Moorhead (18-5-0). The defending champion Spuds swept all their section opponents in the regular season, twice beating second-seeded Bemidji (14-10-0), No. 3 Brainerd (20-4-0) and No. 4 Roseau (14-8-1). The Spuds have been firmly embedded in the state's top-10 rankings since early in the season, thanks to their difficult schedule -- and victories over Twin Cities' powerhouses such as Eden Prairie and Benilde-St. Margaret's.
Moorhead coach Dave Morinville has built a team with traditional hockey strengths, starting from the net out. Michael Bitzer (18-5-0, 1.93, .929) is a finalist for the Frank Brimsek Award given to the state's top senior goalie. He's been a varsity contributor since his freshman season and plays much bigger than his 5-foot-9 stature. When he's on, Bitzer gobbles up all rebounds and frustrates opposing offenses.
The Spuds also have a strong defensive corps to support Bitzer, as seniors Terry Leabo (1-15-16) and Jake Uglem (6-8-14) are terrific in their own zone. Offensively, Moorhead doesn't have any true superstars, but runs three lines deep in scoring prowess. The junior line of Thomas Carey (7-20-27) and twins Tony Uglem (21-11-32) and Nick Uglem (11-16-27) has scored big goals.
Roseau's Alex Strand (5) has had a big sophomore season and leads the Rams in scoring. Photo by Tim Kolehmainen.
If there is a silver lining, it's that Moorhead hasn't throttled any of the other top seeds.
Bemidji twice led the Spuds late in the third period before falling in overtime by the same 2-1 score. The Lumberjacks have been able to hold down Moorhead's offense, but has had trouble scoring goals at key times. Junior Matt Serratore (13-15-28) is the son of Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore and a strong offensive contributor. Freshman goaltender Gabe Heifort (4-2-0, 2.35, .915) has been coming on, starting four of the last five games.
Brainerd outshot Moorhead in each game it played, but couldn't find a way to solve Bitzer, losing 5-1 and 4-0. The Warriors feature the section's most high-powered line on most nights in Mitch McLain (34-28-62), Matt Pohlkamp (22-35-57) and Aaron Rich (25-31-56).
Roseau was soundly beaten by the Spuds at home earlier in the season, but matured enough to give the top seed a run in their second meeting, falling only 3-2 at Moorhead. Sophomores lead the way for the Rams, particularly high-scoring Alex Strand (28-26-54) and Zach Yon (23-25-48).
None of the other top-four seeds are afraid of the Moorhead 800-pound gorilla, which should make for a terrific semifinal Saturday if the seeds hold.
Fifth-seeded Buffalo (7-15-1) is hoping to crash the party and is the best-positioned team to do so with a veteran goaltender in Blake Schmidt (6-10-1, 3.30, .887) and a hard-hitting, physical team. No. 6 St. Cloud Tech (7-15-2) endured growing pains early after graduating 14 seniors, but has come on lately. Seventh-seeded River Lakes (13-11-0) is led by a pair of 17-goal scorers in Jake Herges (17-9-26) and Austin Athmann (17-5-22).
No. 8 Monticello/Annandale-Maple Lake (6-17-2) has struggled to put goals on the board and is averaging only 2.56 per game. No. 9 Becker/Big Lake (7-15-1) has continued its recent growth and has goaltender Alex Darsow (7-13-0, 4.90, .866) who set a nearly unbreakable record with 102 saves in last year's section play-in game. No. 10 Northern Lakes (11-12-2) plays a largely Class A schedule, but has good bloodlines with Connor Chambers (19-19-38), the son of former NHLer and current coach Shawn Chambers.
It hasn't been resounding, but Moorhead earned the top seed -- and the favorite's role -- by sweeping the rest of Section 8AA this season. The Spuds have all the ingredients for a deep playoff run, most notably between the pipes with senior Michael Bitzer, a finalist for the Frank Brimsek Award. Bitzer is the anchor that allows coach Dave Morinville -- himself a former Moorhead High goaltender -- to build outward from the crease. When Bitzer is on, there's no goalie in the state better.
Roseau as a bracket buster? The program with 33 state appearances and seven state titles? As the fourth seed this year, the answer is yes. The Rams have plenty of young talent that won a state Bantam title last year, but the adjustment to varsity hockey has been a winding path for Roseau. Yet when they're on, they can beat anyone. That includes top-seeded Moorhead, a team that beat the Rams by a single goal a few weeks ago in Moorhead.
2011 - Moorhead
2010 - Roseau
2009 - Moorhead
2008 - Roseau
2007 - Roseau
2006 - Roseau
2005 - Moorhead
2004 - Moorhead
2003 - Moorhead
2002 - Moorhead
2001 - Moorhead
2000 - Roseau
1999 - Roseau
1998 - Roseau
1997 - Moorhead
1996 - Alexandria
1995 - Moorhead
1994 - Moorhead