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Collision course

By Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA, 11/19/12, 10:45PM CST


Burnsville at Hill-Murray highlights the week ahead for Nov. 23-Dec. 2

Goaltender John Dugas will be a key to the reloading efforts at Hill-Murray this winter (Photo by Helen Nelson).

1. Burnsville at Hill-Murray
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game
FSN PrepZone Webcast

When two programs with storied hockey traditions decide to square off in the opening week of the Minnesota high school season, what do we get? Great hockey to begin the Hockey Hub’s slate of Spotlight Games as Burnsville invades Aldrich Arena to face Hill-Murray on Thursday, Nov. 29.

Hill-Murray's Zach LaValle returns for a fourth season on the Pioneers' varsity as the leading scorer. Photo by Helen Nelson

Both teams are ranked in the preseason top-10 rankings in Class 2A (Hill-Murray at No. 6 and Burnsville at No. 7), yet both are facing challenges this season.

The Pioneers enjoyed a great playoff run last season, advancing all the way to the Class 2A state championship game before being felled by Benilde-St. Margaret’s, 5-1. Coach Bill Lechner’s team had a good mix of experienced seniors and talented underclassmen, which gave the Pioneers hope of continuing its 35-year run of excellence even with graduation losses that included Mr. Hockey finalist Charlie Sampair.

But in the offseason, Hill-Murray also lost three regulars to early departures (leading scorer Jake Guentzel, rugged defenseman Blake Heinrich and Jim Tich, who provided depth at forward). Suddenly, the Pioneers were in all-out reloading mode.

But at Hill-Murray, which has 25 state tournament trips and three state titles since 1975, that’s exactly what it is. Reloading. Never rebuilding.

“We lost some graduating seniors and some players leaving early to pursue their different roads, but the players returning believe in the complete package of Hill-Murray and will be ready to represent their team again,” said Lechner.

Senior Zach LaValle (28-36-64) knows about the Pioneer way as he’s entering his fourth year as a regular and second as a team captain. He’s a great leader who will help power the offense along with junior sniper Willie Brown (17-17-34), Tyler Funk (5-6-11), Zach Mills (3-3-6) and Shattuck-St. Mary’s transfer Mitch Slattery.

Defensively, the Pioneers remain solid thanks to players such as seniors Sam Becker (4-12-16) and Dan Dolan (0-3-3), junior Logan Sharp (2-2-4) and sophomore Davis Zarembinski (1-8-9). In goal, John Dugas (18-6-1, 2.27, .903) is a veteran influence who has great technical skills.

Burnsville's Tyler Sheehy will look to use his speed to beat the Hill-Murray defense in the opening week of the Minnesota high school hockey season. Photo by Helen Nelson

Burnsville has also long been recognized as a state power, yet the Blaze have only qualified for one state tournament in the last two decades (2007), largely because of the presence of Section 2AA powerhouses such as Edina, Bloomington Jefferson and Holy Angels. The Blaze have consistently produced talented teams throughout that span but must find a way to get past that bottleneck.

Coach Janne Kivihalme’s team returns half a dozen players from last year’s 17-victory squad that gave Edina a run in the Section 2AA final, including speedy junior forward Tyler Sheehy (21-28-49) and junior defensemen Teemu Kivihalme (9-22-31).

Teemu, who is Janne's son, has committed to play at Colorado College. Sheehy is also a top Division I prospect. They will anchor their respective units, as will goaltenders Chris Mallon (12-7-1, 2.55, .916) and Nic Anderson (5-3-0, 3.89, .855).

But it’s how the Blaze fill in behind them from the JV and Bantam graduates that will determine how strong Burnsville will be this winter.

“You want to have secondary scoring and scoring by all three lines,” Kivihalme said. “By the end of the year, you want to have everybody contributing, so other teams can’t just focus on your top line but have to worry about the second, third and even fourth line providing offense.”

Kivihalme expects a breakout year from junior forward Anthony Rikberg (5-8-13) after an injury-plagued campaign as a sophomore. But beyond Sheehy and Rikberg, it’s an inexperienced forward crew.

On defense, the Blaze are more veteran with Kivihalme, senior Dan Ames (4-8-12) and junior Sam Dockry (0-5-5). Sophomore Jack Ahcan could also break into the lineup as a mobile defenseman with good puck movement skills.

The winner of Thursday's game certainly should get a boost to its reloading efforts, although based on past history, it would be unwise to count either out at season's end.

Willie Brown should add plenty of scoring punch to Hill-Murray's lineup after scoring 17 goals as a sophomore. Photo by Helen Nelson

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2. Holy Family Catholic at Edina (Hockey Hub Spotlight Game)

It's a terrific showdown at Braemar Arena that helps drop the puck on the opening day of the Minnesota high school hockey season, featuring the perennially powerful Edina squad against the rising Holy Family Catholic program. And with arguably the top two underclassmen in the state -- Hornets' junior Connor Hurley and Fire sophomore Shane Gersich -- the game is interesting on an individual level, as well. Edina has been picked by many as not only a favorite in Section 2AA, but as a probable state championship contender. The Hornets have a revered program with few weaknesses: a deep forward lineup, veteran defensemen and goaltender Willie Benjamin. Holy Family Catholic is a newcomer that made the jump to Class 2A last year and has challenged itself with a tough schedule, including this game, in the hopes of rising to Edina's level.

3. Rochester Lourdes at St. Thomas Academy

Two of the best teams in Class 1A bump heads in the season's opening week with two-time defending champion St. Thomas Academy hosting Rochester Lourdes. The Cadets are an overwhelming favorite to make it three straight state titles this winter -- and would allow goaltender David Zevnik to join some heady company if he starts all three as expected. For all the grief St. Thomas Academy takes for playing in Class 1A, it gives the rest of the state a "villain" to try and knock off. Lourdes presents the first challenge on the Cadets' schedule with a program that knows what it takes to get to the X in March. The Eagles have a terrific top line of Jason Samuelson, Alex Funk and Ben Weir, but don't overlook their defensive corps with Karl Krecke and Griffin Slightam.

4. Benilde-St. Margaret's at Moorhead

These two Class 2A powers just played during the Moorhead scrimmages in mid-November and things didn't go well for the Spuds. Benilde's turbo-charged offense got the better of the inexperienced Moorhead defense, which many teams might be saying as they try to slow down the T.J. Moore-Grant Besse-Dan Labosky trifecta. That's the matchup to watch in this game, as well, to see if anything has changed. Can Moorhead find a way to replace All-State -- and Brimsek Award-winning -- goaltender Michael Bitzer and the defense that buoyed him? The Spuds have been built on defense in past years, but their top returning players are all forwards: twins Tony and Nick Uglem, Thomas Carey and Aaron Herdt. The Red Knights could also show the firepower behind its top line, which includes 40-goal scorer Spencer Naas.

5. Little Falls at Hibbing/Chisholm (Hockey Hub Spotlight Game)

The 2012-13 Minnesota high school hockey regular season officially gets underway in Hibbing Friday afternoon as Little Falls ventures across the state to take on the Bluejackets at 4 p.m. Both teams harbor hopes of getting back to the state tournament this winter -- and both have the horses to do so. Little Falls is a veteran team that has largely been together for the past three years, anchored in goal by Michael Stumpf. The Flyers aren't as "high-flying" as in past seasons as there is no Hanowski on the roster, but they'll play suffocating defense. It'll be needed against the Bluejackets, who have a preseason Mr. Hockey candidate in Adam Johnson. One of the slipperiest and most elusive players in the state, Johnson is hoping to rebound from an injury-filled junior year and lead Hibbing back to the X.

6. Hill-Murray at Eagan

These two programs have been regulars at the state tournament the past few years -- and in the case of Hill-Murray, since the 1970s -- but both could experience growing pains this winter. The early-season matchup in Eagan should be measuring stick by which one will vault up the top-10 rankings and the other headed the opposite way. Hill-Murray lost plenty to graduation and early departures from its Class 2A state runner-up squad, but coach Bill Lechner always seems to field a winner. Veteran goaltender John Dugas should help the Pioneers as they adjust to new faces early in the season. Eagan also will have a new guard leading the way as the record-setting senior class of last winter has finally graduated. Now it's up to players such as Zach Glienke, Will Peterson and Andrew Lindgren to take charge.

7. Breck at Duluth Marshall (Hockey Hub Spotlight Game)

No one feels sorry for these two Class 1A programs, despite the fact both graduated high-scoring Mr. Hockey finalists in Duluth Marshall's Judd Peterson and Breck's Grant Opperman. Such is the nature of programs that just reload and never seemingly rebuild. Breck lost plenty of talent in addition to Opperman, but coach Les Larson has built a powerhouse that should survive just fine. Matt Colford and Thomas Lindstrom are the newest superstars in Mustang black and gold and new starting goaltender Henry Johnson may bring back memories of two-time state tourney winner Johnny Russell. Duluth Marshall may have lost Peterson, but returns much of its lineup from last year's state tourney team and is also buoyed by the transfer of Jeremy Lopez from Proctor and Jordan Fralich and Alex Murray from Silver Bay.

8. Roseau at Blaine

The storylines are interesting as Roseau heads down to the Twin Cities to face Blaine in the season's first week. There's the north versus south angle. The small school versus mega-school angle. But above all, there's the matchup of two teams that could just meet at the X in early March. Roseau is favored to reclaim Section 8AA from Moorhead this winter on the strength of a potent first line of Alex Strand, Zach Yon and Alex Ziegler. Blaine would like to erase any memory of last year's Section 5AA final loss to Maple Grove and is the early favorite to do so. The Bengals are also strong offensively with Tyler Cline, Jesse Norling and Joey Lau, which could result in a shootout. Both teams must replace starting goaltenders who played the vast majority of last year's minutes.

9. Proctor at North Shore (Hockey Hub Spotlight Game)

It's not just the first game of the season for North Shore -- it's the first game in the history of the program when Proctor comes calling opening week. North Shore combines the former rivals -- or as co-coach Steve Wasko calls them, the "Hatfields and the McCoys" -- from Two Harbors and Silver Bay. They'll try to set aside their differences and blend into a winning program under Wasko, who coached last year at Two Harbors, and Shawn Barlette, his counterpart from Silver Bay. If the North Shore program is looking for a new hated rival it just may come at the expense of the Rails. Proctor is the closest small school rival for North Shore (although Ely/Northeast Range is just over the river and through the woods) and the schools long ago matched up in the old Lake Superior Conference.

10. East Grand Forks at St. Cloud Cathedral (Hockey Hub Spotlight Game)

Two teams that have been on the outside of the Class 1A state tournament field and looking in the past few years look to get off to a good start on the new season -- and both have high hopes of returning to the X. East Grand Forks hasn't been able to break the Warroad-Thief River Falls stranglehold on Section 8A recently, but the Green Wave has had plenty of talent coming through the system. They lost leading scorer Zack Lawdermilt to graduation, but may be even better and more balanced this winter. St. Cloud Cathedral is a veteran team expected to push Hermantown for the Section 5A title. The Crusaders have an outstanding offense led by Austin Poganski, Will Hammer, Mitchell Fritz and company and a pair of veteran goaltenders in Josh Robak and Connor Amundson.