Ken Pauly is back to lead his Benilde-St. Margaret's program against Hill-Murray in a rematch of the Class AA state championship game. Photo by Helen Nelson.
1. Hill-Murray at Benilde-St. Margaret’s
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game
Déjà vu anyone?
In the first week of December, hockey fans across the state get to relive a matchup of last winter’s Class 2A state championship game when Hill-Murray visits Benilde-St. Margaret’s on Saturday, Dec. 8. Even though it’s a new season and one of the teams looks quite a bit different, it’s an easy choice as the Hockey Hub’s Game of the Week.
The Pioneers are hoping for a better result than March’s 5-1 loss in which Grant Besse scored all five goals – a spectacular record-setting night that left Hill-Murray all but an afterthought. After all, no one remembers the runner-up, right?
Coach Bill Lechner and his team are certainly more than tired of seeing Besse goal-scoring celebrations.
Hill-Murray goaltender John Dugas stopped 41 of 44 shots in the first two Hill-Murray victories. Photo by Helen Nelson.
But it will be a new-look Pioneers’ team that takes the ice at the St. Louis Park Rec Center. Hill-Murray not only graduated a big senior class that included Mr. Hockey finalist Charlie Sampair, it also lost three regulars to early departures (leading scorer Jake Guentzel, rugged defenseman Blake Heinrich and Jim Tich, who provided depth at forward).
Mitch Slattery, a transfer from Shattuck-St. Mary’s, has been an offensive threat right off the bat for the Pioneers and leads the team with three goals and four points. He scored two goals in a 3-2 overtime victory at Eagan – the second one-goal victory to open the season (the Pioneers also beat Burnsville, 2-1).
Two veteran stalwarts have also been key, co-captains Zach LaValle and John Dugas. LaValle, a senior forward, is in his fourth season as a varsity regular and second as team captain. He’s a great leader and terrific all-around athlete. Dugas, a senior goaltender, also has been through the wars at Hill-Murray and was nearly impenetrable in the first two games. He has stopped 41 of 44 shots for a save percentage of .932.
Dan Labosky (27) and Benilde-St. Margaret's top line with Grant Besse and TJ Moore is a major reason the Red Knights are contenders to defend their Class AA state title. Photo by Helen Nelson.
The Red Knights look much more familiar to hockey fans.
Despite overtures inviting them to leave early, the top line of Grant Besse, T.J. Moore and Dan Labosky is back for another season of terrorizing goaltenders.
In a 6-1 romp at Moorhead to open the season last Saturday, the trio combined for four goals and 10 points. Besse, a University of Wisconsin recruit, has arguably the best hands in the state and can score from seemingly anywhere in the offensive zone.
Labosky, a Colorado College recruit, isn’t big, but uses his tremendous speed and surprising strength to create room. Moore is a playmaker and often overlooked among the trio – but he led the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League in scoring this year and certainly earned acclaim.
Add secondary scorers as good as Blake transfer Spencer Naas, St. Louis Park transfer Alec Baer, Zack Hale and others, and no team can match the scoring depth of the Red Knights.
Speaking of overlooked, with the offense on the ice it’s easy to do so in Benilde’s defensive zone. But Patrick Graham and Blake transfer Johnny Austin are good blue liners who are capable of supercharging the offense even more.
And in his first start in goal, Shattuck-St. Mary’s transfer Andrew Sprang made 25 of 26 saves against Moorhead. His maturation is key for the Red Knights to avoid pinball-like shootouts.
Coach Ken Pauly upgraded the Red Knights' schedule this season with a new independent status. It’s allowed them to test themselves with more games of this caliber.
2. St. Thomas Academy at Holy Family Catholic
The one that stayed versus the one that moved up. This game is either going to give St. Thomas Academy's detractors new fodder for which to badger the program or an early gift of a loss for the Cadets. Either way, they're either happily miserable or miserably happy. St. Thomas Academy has taken plenty of grief by winning four of the last seven Class 1A state titles -- and is a big favorite to take home the crown again this winter. The Cadets are that loaded and showed it with an 8-1 rout of Rochester Lourdes last week. Meanwhile, Holy Family Catholic is building its program with young stars such as John Peterson and Shane Gersich and moved up to Class 2A last season -- with the expected growing pains.
3. Hermantown at Thief River Falls
Two perennial state tournament contenders clash in an early season battle of northeast (Hermantown) versus northwest (Thief River Falls). The Prowlers have certainly tested themselves with tough losses against Roseau and Totino-Grace and a victory over Blake. And as usual, the grinding Prowlers have relied on a strong defensive corps led by Chris Forney. They're only allowing 2.0 goals per game -- but are scoring only 2.0 as well. On the other hand, Hermantown looks as explosive as ever despite big graduation losses. Coach Bruce Plante's program just keeps churning out top players and has scored 21 goals in two victories, three goals each from veteran forward Travis Koepke, defenseman Neal Pionk and newcomer Lane LeGarde.
4. Bemidji at Moorhead (Hockey Hub Spotlight Game)
Two of the top teams in Section 8AA will attempt to stake claim to a big seeding edge when Bemidji visits Moorhead on Thursday night. The Spuds were given a rude awakening to the new season by defending Class 2A champion Benilde-St. Margaret's last Saturday (a 6-1 loss) but should remain a contender in the northwest. Expect Moorhead to attack Bemidji with its top group of forwards such as Tony and Nick Uglem, Thomas Carey and Aaron Herdt. But the Spuds' key will be how it shores up in their own zone under new coach Pete Cullen. Bemidji will also count on veteran forwards Mike Sauer and Matt Serratore, but has a great last line of defense in goaltender Gabe Heifort, a terrific athlete.
5. Delano at Breck
With the graduation losses and transfers at Blake, the look of Section 2A could change this winter. And if early season games are any indication, the top contender to Breck's recent dominance should be Delano. The Tigers have already played four games -- and won them all, including a victory over Blake. Senior forward Eric Ylitalo has exploded offensively, scoring nine goals and 13 points in the four games, and will surely test Breck's defense and new goaltender Henry Johnson. The Mustangs and Johnson looked strong in their season opener, a 2-1 victory over Duluth Marshall in which Johnson made 34 saves. As expected, the goals came from veterans Thomas Lindstrom and Matt Colford.
6. Elk River at Andover
Arguably the deepest section in the state -- top-to-bottom -- is Section 7AA, where as many as a half dozen or more teams have the potential to arrive at the X in March. That includes these two Northwest Suburban Conference teams, both of whom will be hungry for a victory. Elk River opened the Gordie Roberts era with a 2-1 loss to Wayzata in which the Elks' offense couldn't solve the Trojans' defense, with the exception of an Andrew Zerban goal. Andover is a surprising 0-2-0 after losses to the same Wayzata team (by the same 2-1 score) and surging Centennial (4-3). Junior goaltender Chase Perry has allowed six goals in two games, but is widely considered the best netminder in the state. This matchup has it all: two teams in the same conference and section, both desperate for a win.
7. Blaine at Centennial
We're going right back to the Northwest Suburban Conference for the next top game of the week, as Blaine visits rival Centennial. The Bengals tied Roseau in the season opener, 3-3, rallying from a three-goal first period deficit. Despite the result, Blaine dominated much of the game, firing 50 shots on net and allowing only 21. Bailey Ketola got the first shot in goal to replace veteran Nick Malvin, an important position for the Bengals' hopes of returning to state out of Section 5AA. One of the teams standing in the way should be Centennial, which appears to be back after a couple of seasons out of sight. The Cougars fought hard against Edina on FSN in a loss, then shocked Andover to gain a split in the season's first week. Ryner and Hans Gorowsky have teamed up to lead the Cougars.
8. Fergus Falls at Little Falls
One of these Section 6A teams is going to get an early leg up on the top seed in the section in this early December tilt at Little Falls. The Flyers are the defending section champion and a veteran team that has proven to be as stingy defensively as anyone. Goaltender Michael Stumpf is in his third season in goal and many of his teammates have been right alongside him during that time. The Flyers are 3-0-0 and have allowed just two goals, with Stumpf making 98 out of 100 stops. Austin Bjorge and Ben Newman have powered the offense with a combined five goals and 12 points. Fergus Falls suffered a disappointing 4-1 loss to Brainerd to open the season, although the Otters held a 41-34 shot advantage. Joe Nathe is a playmaking defenseman who could charge the Otters' offense against Little Falls.
9. Duluth East at Wayzata (Hockey Hub Spotlight Game)
Longtime Duluth East coach Mike Randolph goes for victory number 500 in a road game at Wayzata. The more things change, the more they stay the same at East under Randolph -- all the 'Hounds do is win. This year, it starts with a great defense of Phil Beaulieu, Meirs Moore and Andrew Kerr in front of goaltender Dylan Parker. The 'Hounds opened with an 11-1 romp of Cambridge-Isanti. But it won't be easy to get No. 500. Despite graduating much of its roster, the Trojans have reloaded with great young players such as Matthew Freytag (four goals). Wayzata has four wins in five games, allowing only eight goals in split time between goaltenders Aaron Dingmann and Jens Vaughan Ahrens.
10. Eagan at Minnetonka (Hockey Hub Spotlight Game)
Will Eagan be the first team to score more than once against powerful Minnetonka? The Skippers are a perfect 3-0-0 and have allowed exactly one goal in each game. Jimmy Schuldt looks like the next great young defenseman to come through Minnetonka, while senior Tommy Vannelli just committed to the University of Minnesota. It will be tough for Eagan to dent the Skippers' defense and goaltender Paul Ciaccio -- or slow down Max Coatta and Connor Thie, each of whom has three goals. The Wildcats split their first two games, both of which were decided by a single goal. They beat East Ridge (5-4) and fell to Hill-Murray (3-2). Kyle Stebbing is the only Eagan player with more than one goal (he has two), while Andrew Lindgren has started both games in goal.