Zach Mills (14) and Hill-Murray enters the new year as the top-ranked team in Class 2A after claiming the Schwan Cup Gold division championship. Photos by Tim Kolehmainen.
1. No. 1 Hill-Murray at No. 2 Wayzata
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game
All right, one quick question. And let’s be honest here. When the season started, how many of you thought that when we got to early January, the two best teams in Class 2A would be Hill-Murray and Wayzata?
C’mon, I said be honest.
Maybe a hand here and there from a Pioneers’ or Trojans’ fan drinking the Kool-Aid. But for both teams? I’m not even sure coaches Bill Lechner and Pat O’Leary could have predicted it.
Yet here we are on January 8 and who sits atop the polls? Lechner’s No. 1 Hill-Murray juggernaut and O’Leary's No. 2 Wayzata sensation – and we’re treated to a great showdown between the surprising duo this Saturday, Jan. 12 at the Plymouth Ice Center in our Game of the Week.
Tyler Funk (26) has been one of many Hill-Murray forwards to step up his production this winter.
If there’s a lesson to be learned, it’s that top-ranked Hill-Murray (11-1-1) should never be counted out.
The Pioneers were in the Class 2A state championship game last winter, falling to Grant Besse and Benilde-St. Margaret’s. That was the first loss – but not the only by any stretch of the imagination – the Pioneers suffered in the last nine months. Graduation again robbed Lechner of several of his top players, including Mr. Hockey finalist Charlie Sampair.
But the Pioneers really felt the hurt when it was announced that leading scorer Jake Guentzel and hard-hitting defenseman Blake Heinrich weren’t returning for their senior seasons.
Suddenly, Lechner seemed to be scrambling to fill a roster. The pollsters knocked the Pioneers down and wondered if it was a chance for someone else from Section 4AA to step forward and get to St. Paul.
How little we really knew.
Just six weeks into their “lost” season, the Pioneers are back at No. 1 and haven’t lost to any of the other top Class 2A teams, beating Burnsville, Eagan, Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Minnetonka and Edina – Top-10 teams all.
Returning veteran Zach LaValle (8-13-21) is part of a terrific top line along with Shattuck-St. Mary’s transfer Mitch Slattery (10-9-19). Willie Brown (2-8-10) and grinder Colton Greeder (4-7-11) have spent time on the wing. LaValle is the general on the ice, a four-year varsity regular with great vision, and Slattery is a magician with the puck on his stick.
But it’s defensively where the Pioneers have really made their mark. They’re allowing just 1.15 goals per game and only one team has scored more than two goals in a game against them (a 3-3- tie with St. Thomas Academy on Dec. 28). John Dugas (11-1-1, 1.13, .952) has been stingy in goal and is getting plenty of help from defensemen such as Ryan Black (3-9-12), Sam Becker (3-5-8), Davis Zarembinski (0-2-2), Logan Sharp, Jacob Olson and Dan Dolan.
Matthew Freytag leads Wayzata in scoring in his first varsity season. Photo by Brian Nelson.
Defense has also been the rock that Wayzata’s great start has been built upon.
If Hill-Murray was supposed to be struggling without its veterans, even less was expected from the Trojans (11-2-0), who graduated 12 seniors including their top seven scorers and goaltender Alec Almquist. O’Leary returned almost no proven scoring, little depth on the blue line and a goaltender (Aaron Dingmann) who had missed much of last winter due to injury.
So what happened?
Dingmann (8-1-0, 1.31, .938) has been even better than advertised – and he was supposed to return at full strength. He’s a highly confident and athletic senior who hasn’t had a lapse of concentration all season long. Through the first 11 games (until a 5-2 loss to Benilde-St. Margaret’s last Thursday, a game in which Dingmann sat out), Dingmann and the Trojans had allowed more than two goals only once (a 4-3 victory over Moorhead on Dec. 28) and had given up one or fewer goals eight times.
Defensively, Kyle Olson (1-2-3), Chandler Lindstrand (1-1-2) Alec Hemenway (1-7-8), Alex Stevens (1-2-3) and Robert Zitzlsperger (0-2-2) have kept opposing forwards at bay.
And offensively, the Trojans have received just enough spark from newcomers Matthew Freytag (9-9-18) and Maxwell Zimmer (8-5-13) to go with improved efforts from returning veterans such as Brian Machut (5-8-13), Chad Olson (3-10-13), Jack Sorensen (3-8-11), Akash Batra (2-5-7) and Hopkins transfer Jalen Wahl (3-4-7).
For the most part, the Trojans haven’t been blowing teams out of the water – they’ve just found ways to win. Wayzata will likely fall out of the No. 2 spot in the next rankings after losing to Benilde-St. Margaret’s last Thursday, but it doesn’t diminish what has been an outstanding start for the Trojans.
Defenseman Alec Hemenway and goaltender Aaron Dingmann have been key to Wayzata's great start to the season. Photo by Brian Nelson.
2. Roseau at Warroad
The granddaddy of all rivalries in Minnesota high school hockey drops the puck on a new year as Roseau heads the short trek up Highway 11 to face Warroad. The Rams (8-3-1) are currently unranked after a slow start to the season but have won five straight games. As expected, offense has led the way, particularly the top line with Zach Yon (19-13-32) and Alex Strand (13-15-28), last year's wunderkinds as sophomores. No. 8A Warroad (10-2-1) is also on a six-game unbeaten streak (5-0-1) and has its own young prodigies leading the charge. Sophomores Jared Bethune (14-13-27) and Kobe Roth (12-8-20) have supercharged the Warriors' offense, but it's the play of first-year goaltender Justin King (10-2-1, 2.04, .930) that has been the most pleasant surprise for new coach Jay Hardwick.
3. Grand Rapids at Duluth East
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game
The two northeastern superpowers have had some great games in recent years (witness the 2011 Section 7AA final that went to overtime) and this could be another instant classic. No. 14 Grand Rapids (8-3-2) may finally be getting healthy at the right time. The Thunderhawks have been up-and-down all season, but the return of University of Minnesota recruit Jake Bischoff (3-1-4 in five games) will certainly help. Big Avery Peterson (12-16-28) has been as consistent as they come, scoring at least one goal in eight of the last 10 games. No. 6 Duluth East (8-3-0) has turned up the heat after a rough start, winning four in a row by allowing just one goal in each game (to the powerful quartet of Edina, Minnetonka, Blaine and Moorhead). Goaltender Dylan Parker (6-3-0, 1.56, .921) and senior forward Jack Forbort (8-11-19) have keyed the run along with the 'Hounds always tough defense.
4. Minnetonka at Benilde-St. Margaret's
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game
Let's call this Section 6AA battle the Ken Pauly Game, with the coach's current school (Benilde-St. Margaret's) against his former school (Minnetonka). Both were ranked in the top-three at the season's start, but both have had tough stretches that have pushed them downward. No. 7 Minnetonka (8-3-1) is in the midst of its slide, going 1-3-1 in its last five games. Goal-scoring outside of the top line with Max Coatta (11-16-27) and Connor Thie (6-11-17) has been an issue during this stretch. No. 5 Benilde-St. Margaret's (9-3-0) has recovered from its lowest moment, losing a running-time game to Wayzata on Dec. 29 by beating the same Trojans team 5-2 just five days later. Senior Grant Besse (23-10-33) continues to build his Mr. Hockey candidacy -- and rewrite the Red Knights' record books in the process.
5. Hermantown at St. Cloud Cathedral
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game
The last five Section 5A titles have gone through these two programs (2008-09 to St. Cloud Cathedral and 2010-12 to Hermantown) and it's likely one will claim the crown again this winter. Coach Bruce Plante seems to grow superstars out of the hillside, as No. 4 Hermantown (10-1-1) is scoring goals in bunches and again looks like a contender to -- dare we say it -- get to a fourth straight Class 1A championship game. The top line of Travis Koepke (15-20-35), Chris Benson (14-17-31) and Bo Gronseth (11-19-30) is as dangerous as any in Class 1A. No. 9 St. Cloud Cathedral (8-6-0) needs a victory to right its ship, as the Crusaders have lost three of four to St. Cloud Tech, Warroad and Holy Family Catholic. Coach Eric Johnson has high hopes for this crew, which also has highly-regarded scorers such as Austin Poganski (13-8-21), Will Hammer (7-4-11), Tommy Hall (9-10-19), Mitchell Fritz (11-5-16) and big Austin Swingle (3-19-22).
6. Bloomington Jefferson at Burnsville
Two traditional Minnesota hockey powers will look to wrestle for seeding positioin in Section 2AA, where Edina has been the bully on the block in recent years (six straight trips to St. Paul). It's been a while since either has been to the X (Jefferson in 2005, Burnsville in 2007), but both have had a resurgent season so far. No. 11 Bloomington Jefferson (9-3-0) already has surpassed last year's victory total behind a veteran group of returners such as Colin Hernon (11-9-20), Jono Lindquist (9-10-19) and Johnny Panvica (7-9-16). Goaltender Grant Martens (9-3-0, 2.89, .902) has played nearly every minute between the pipes. No. 8 Burnsville (6-6-1) doesn't have a great record, but with resume-building victories over Eden Prairie and Blaine -- and several close losses in arguably the state's toughest schedule so far -- the Blaze have remained in the Top 10. It also helps to have star power, which the Blaze have in junior Division I recruits Tyler Sheehy (6-17-23) and Teemu Kivihalme (4-7-11).
7. Mankato West at Rochester Lourdes
What to make of Mankato West? Do the Scarlets think it's 2008 all over again? We'll have a much better read of where No. 13 Mankato West (11-2-0) stands in its bid to return to state since the heyday of Ricky Litchield and Corey Leivermann when it faces Section 1A bully and sixth-ranked Rochester Lourdes (6-4-0). Mankato West has won seven of eight behind an offense reminiscent of the 2008 high-scoring version. Derek Frentz (17-20-37) and Galt Goettl (18-16-34) are lighting up the scoreboard, but the Scarlets are also only allowing 1.85 goals per game. Lourdes isn't nearly as hot as West, losing three of four games while allowing 25 goals in that span. It will have to tighten up defensively to stop West, but the Eagles can counter with its own high-scoring duo of Jason Samuelson (11-19-30) and Alex Funk (13-15-28). Lourdes is also the four-time defending section champion -- they've gone to St. Paul every year since West won in 2008.
8. St. Thomas Academy at Duluth Marshall
There is some terrific history between these two private school Class 1A dynasties -- well, at least if you're a Cadets fan. They met in the state championship game twice in three years from 2006-08, with St. Thomas Academy winning both times (Duluth Marshall also lost to Hermantown in the 2007 championship game). Those victories started the top-ranked Cadets (10-1-1) current run of four titles in seven years, which looks to be on the fast track to five-in-eight. St. Thomas Academy hasn't only beaten all Class 1A comers, the Cadets have given the best in Class 2A fits so far this winter, beating now-No. 1 Hill-Murray and then-No. 1 Edina. No. 7 Duluth Marshall (7-6-0) is hoping to get back on track after losing three straight games (including losses to Class 1A-ranked Hermantown and Totino-Grace). The Hilltoppers offense hasn't yet clicked, as they're scoring just 3.46 goals per game and have no one with more than Kris Mckinzie's eight goals.
9. Benilde-St. Margaret's at St. Thomas Academy
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game
Had this game happened two months ago, it most certainly would have been the No. 1 game of the week. The two defending state champions (Benilde-St. Margaret's in Class 2A, St. Thomas Academy in Class 1A) returned plenty of talent and looked to be the early favorites to repeat as champs. Through a dozen games, the Cadets (10-1-1) still appear to be that prohibititve favorite in Class 1A. They're loaded across the board and welcomed newcomer Christiano Versich (8-9-17) to an already deep lineup. Having two-time state champion goaltender David Zevnik (10-1-1, 1.18, .947) certainly helps. On the other hand, No. 5 Benilde-St. Margaret's (9-3-0) is still a contender, but its path doesn't appear as certain as the Cadets. There have been cracks in the Red Knights' armor, although no one can send more offensive firepower than coach Ken Pauly's crew led by Grant Besse (23-10-33), Dan Labosky (7-24-31), TJ Moore (7-15-22) and Spencer Naas (16-11-27).
10. Various inter-community rivalries
This may be the first time I haven’t placed a specific game in the top-10, but with so many inter-community games happening this week, I couldn’t single one out. Take a look at these potentially heated rivalries between schools separated by just a few neighborhoods: Duluth East at Duluth Denfeld (Jan. 8), Orono at Delano (Jan. 8), Mankato West at Mankato East (Jan. 10), Park at Woodbury (1/12), Rochester Mayo at Rochester Century (Jan. 12), Eastview at Eagan (Jan. 12) and even the Virginia/MIB at Hibbing/Chisholm game (Jan. 12). Check out any of these games – or more than one – for some of the liveliest hockey around.