Hill-Murray's Willie Brown skates with the puck alongside linemate Zach LaValle. Photo by Katherine Matthews
The newly minted Hill-Murray forward combination of senior Zach LaValle and juniors Mitch Slattery and Willie Brown isn’t the most highly touted trio in the state.
No, that sort of rock star status is reserved for Benilde-St. Margaret’s Grant Besse, Dan Labosky and T.J. Moore, a combination of seniors that already has space reserved in the state history books.
Labosky has 120 career points and a scholarship waiting for him at Colorado College. Moore has 117 career points and led the Upper Midwest High School Elite Hockey League in scoring this fall.
Besse ranks 14th all-time in the state in career goals with 118 and figures to crack the top 10 by the end of his career. He scored all five Red Knights goals – three of them shorthanded – in their 5-1 state Class 2A championship victory over Hill-Murray last March. He’s headed to Wisconsin.
“Those guys are amazing,” LaValle said. “I had an opportunity to skate three days a week with T.J. Moore in the summer. I just have so much respect for those guys, and they played a hell of a game.
LaValle paused for a second. He’s a respectful kid. Smart. Sincere. Measures his words. Would never disrespect an opponent.
Hill-Murray's Zach LaValle scored twice and added an assist on Saturday. Photo by Katherine Matthews
LaValle wouldn’t say it, but the surprising truth is Hill-Murray’s top line outplayed that of Benilde-St. Margaret’s in the No. 5-ranked Pioneers’ 4-2 victory over the No. 1 Red Knights on Saturday, Dec. 9, at the St. Louis Park Rec Center.
Sometimes the sideshow is better than the main attraction.
LaValle, a varsity regular since he was in the eighth grade, has long been known as a superb talent with no holes in his game. He plays the body. He works the corners. He wins battles. He gets back on defense. He can score some, too, although he’s not in the same stratosphere in that category as, say, Besse.
Yet, with the game hanging in the balance in the third period, there was LaValle, drilling a shot from the top of the right faceoff circle over the glove of Red Knights’ goaltender Andrew Sprang.
LaValle’s goal put the Pioneers (4-0-0) ahead 3-2 early in the second period.
“That was great,” Hill-Murray goaltender John Dugas said about LaValle’s laser shot. “I see it every day in practice. I play against it. So I knew it was there. It doesn’t surprise me that he unleashed it.
“He’s a great player.”
LaValle scored 64 points (28 goals, 36 assists) last season but was overshadowed by the exploits of teammate Jake Guentzel (75 points). Guentzel is playing junior hockey this season, leaving LaValle and Dugas as the unquestioned leaders of a team that certainly had the look of a title contender against the Red Knights (2-1-0).
“Zach has been on the team since he was in the eighth grade,” Dugas said. “You kind of just look at him, and he has a demeanor that calms everybody down. He kind of gives everybody that confidence that we can do this.”
The Pioneers proved Saturday they have a top line capable of most anything. Brown scored 17 goals and 17 assists last season and figured to be a reliable scorer for the Pioneers. Slattery, who played at Shattuck-St. Mary’s last season, was recently moved up alongside LaValle and Brown and had a goal and two assists on Saturday. He leads Hill-Murray with nine points (five goals, four assists).
“We always start one way, then we change it up and that’s just kind how things roll here at Hill,” LaValle said about the Pioneers’ forward combinations. “Slattery got moved up to our line and we’ve been clicking, scoring goals in practice and it carried over to the game.”
Hill-Murray's Mitch Slattery slides the puck into an empty net after maneuvering around Benilde-St. Margaret's defenseman Ben Newhouse. Photo by Katherine Matthews
This is what you get when you are the defending state champions.
You get your opponents’ best game.
You get large, loud crowds – a playoff atmosphere in early December.
Sometimes, you get beat.
“We talked about this at the beginning of the year,” Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach Ken Pauly said. “It is going to be very, very difficult. It is cliché, yes, but you are going to get everyone’s best effort.”
The Red Knights, unbeaten and ranked No. 1 heading into Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Hill-Murray in front of a huge St. Louis Park Rec Center crowd, return their top line from last season’s state Class 2A championship team, but they are retooled on defense and have a new goaltender in Andrew Sprang.
“Believe me, I don’t like losing,” Pauly said. “It’s good to get tagged with a couple during the year. We’re not the Bloomington Jefferson dynasty where you are going to win 31 games.”
The Red Knights had two freshmen and a sophomore in the their five-man defensive rotation on Saturday. Hill-Murray found plenty of holes en route to a series of breakaways and odd-man rushes.
“We coughed the puck up, we got caught out of position,” Pauly said. “When you play our style and try to do what we do, those things are going to happen. And that can be frustrating. But we believe we make some small losses for greater gains.”
Benilde-St. Margaret’s suffered similar defensive breakdowns last season but the Red Knights were virtually impenetrable in February and March as they made their run to the title.
Pauly said the biggest positive out of Saturday’s loss was the play of senior goaltender Andrew Sprang, a transfer from Shattuck-St. Mary’s. Sprang made 23 saves for the Red Knights.
“I think a great takeaway is the play of Andrew Sprang tonight,” Pauly said. “I thought he was terrific. That was a big question mark for our team, ‘Well who is going to be your goalie?’ Of all the positive takeaways, that was great.”
Senior Zach LaValle scored twice, including the game winner on a rocket into an upper corner early in the third period, as No. 5-ranked Hill-Murray knocked off No. 1 Benilde-St. Margaret’s 4-2 on Saturday, Dec. 8, at the St. Louis Park Rec center in a rematch of last year’s state Class 2A championship game.
LaValle, a varsity regular for the Pioneers since he was an eighth-grader, also scored in the second period as the teams exchanged scoring chance after scoring chance and relied heavily on the quality goaltending of Hill-Murray’s John Dugas and Benilde-St. Margaret’s Andrew Sprang.
Much of the final half of the final period was played in the Hill-Murray end, but the Red Knights had only a few quality scoring chances. Dugas, a senior, made seven of his 25 saves in the third period and, at one point, needed a break to readjust his gear after being at the bottom of a pileup in the crease.
Mitch Slattery scored an empty net goal for Hill-Murray with 4 seconds remaining. Slattery, playing on a line with LaValle and Willie Brown, also had two assists.
Tyler Funk scored also scored on a first-period power play for Hill-Murray.
T.J. Moore and Spencer Naas scored for Benilde St. Margaret’s, and Sprang had 23 saves.
1. Zach LaValle, Hill-Murray
The senior hasn’t been playing for the Pioneers for an eternity, it just seems that way. LaValle, a football star who suffered a knee injury in the fall, scored twice while playing his usual sterling two-way game. His winning goal in the third period was a laser over the catching glove of Benilde-St. Margaret’s Andrew Sprang.
2. Mitch Slattery, Hill-Murray
Recently moved to a line with LaValle and Willie Brown, the elusive Slattery had two assists and showcased his clever stickhandling on an entertaining empty net goal with 4 seconds remaining.
3. Spencer Naas, Benilde-St. Margaret’s
The junior scored in the second period and was around the puck much of the game, using his speed to pressure Hill-Murray’s defensemen and create openings for his linemates.