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Game of champions

By Tim Kolehmainen, Breakdown Sports USA, 02/04/13, 2:15PM CST


Last two Class 2A champions clash in the Hub's top 10 games of the week for Feb. 4-9

Lee Smith and Eden Prairie hopes to get its playoff consistency rolling in a big showdown with Section 6AA opponent Benilde-St. Margaret's. Photo by Loren Nelson.

1. Benilde-St. Margaret’s at Eden Prairie
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

Repeating isn’t easy.

When a big-school program wins a Minnesota state high school hockey championship, plenty of disparate pieces have to be in the right places – and come together like a well-stitched quilt or a tight-fitting puzzle. It’s not easy to do and it takes more than a bit of serendipity, even for programs with the best talent.

Doing it two years in a row has proven to be even more difficult.

Since Bloomington Jefferson won three straight titles from 1992-94 (the first two in the old Tier I system), no big-school program has repeated as champions.

There have been a few close calls – Duluth East’s defending champions falling in five overtimes to eventual champion Apple Valley in the 1996 semifinals, Moorhead falling in the title game in both 1994 and 1995 and again in 2004 and 2005, Grand Rapids doing the same in 2006 and 2007 – but no one has followed up a state title with so much as another championship game appearance, let alone victory.

Call it the “target-on-our-backs” syndrome. Everybody gets up to the play the champion. Everyone wants to be the one to knock them from their perch. And for the last 20 years, everyone has.

This year it’s Benilde-St. Margaret’s turn to wear the target. In the Hub’s Game of the Week, the Red Knights face another team familiar with championship aspirations in No. 13 Eden Prairie (10-10-1) in a matchup of the last two Class 2A state champions. 

Grant Besse has racked up 151 goals in his varsity career...and counting. Photo by Katherine Matthews.

The second-ranked Red Knights (15-5-0) have as strong a team as any to return following a title and just could be the one to break the streak.

That’s not to say there haven’t been hiccups for coach Ken Pauly’s club. Benilde-St. Margaret's was knocked from the top spot in the rankings early in December with losses to Hill-Murray and Blaine. Section 6AA rival Wayzata shocked the Red Knights with a running-time victory in the Sports Authority Holiday Classic championship game in late December. Grand Rapids ground out an overtime victory in a blustery and miserable Hockey Day Minnesota encounter.

But the Red Knights keep rallying.

Fortune smiled on Pauly and the Red Knights in the offseason when Mr. Hockey favorite Grant Besse (36-19-55) chose to return for his senior season. Besse, of course, was celebrated last winter when he scored five goals in the state championship game victory over Hill-Murray – cementing his legend forever.

Besse has continued to power Benilde-St. Margaret's, not only playing forward on the most prolific line in the state with Dan Labosky (9-42-51) and T.J. Moore (14-20-34) but also taking a turn at defense from time to time. His goal total leads all of Class 2A and in a four-year varsity career already has 151 goals and 100 assists for 251 points, 12th on the all-time career list in state history. At his pace, he’ll surpass the legendary John Mayasich for sixth by season’s end.

That top line of Besse, Labosky and Moore is enough to carry most teams. Besse has the best hands in the state, Labosky is a speedy and agitating playmaker and Moore plays a solid all-around game. But Benilde-St. Margaret's also has good scoring depth, led by junior Spencer Naas (25-20-45).

Defensively, the Red Knights have been paced by sophomore Ben Newhouse (1-15-16), junior Johnny Austin (2-16-18) and senior Patrick Graham (1-9-10). Early departures did cause a shakeup on the blue line with two expected regulars leaving for the USNTDP, while the goaltending duties were taken over by Shattuck-St. Mary’s transfer Andrew Sprang (13-5-0, 2.60, .896).

Last year, Benilde-St. Margaret's had struggles in its back end during the year, but figured out its own defensive zone at the right time. Don’t be surprised to see Pauly do the same with this year’s team.

Steven Spinner leads Eden Prairie in scoring this winter with 36 points. Photo by Loren Nelson.

Speaking of ups and downs, Eden Prairie has certainly had more than its share this winter. A preseason top-five team, the Eagles have struggled mightily to gain consistency. Through 21 games, they’ve had nothing longer than a two-game winning streak and haven’t had a streak of any kind since the new year. In the last nine games, it’ been win one, lose one for coach Lee Smith’s team.

The final four games of the regular season will be a good test, as the Eagles face Wayzata, Benilde-St. Margaret's, Minnetonka and Edina – all ranked in the top seven in Class 2A.

There is plenty of talent on Eden Prairie’s roster. The Eagles have three Division I recruits – junior forward Steven Spinner (15-21-36) and junior defensemen Luc Snuggerud (4-29-33) and Hunter Warner (3-4-7). Spinner and Snuggerud are headed for Nebraska-Omaha while Warner committed to Minnesota State-Mankato.

Spinner has paced the Eagles in scoring much of the year, including a five-point night (three goals, two assists) in the most recent 10-0 victory over Hopkins, while Mason Bergh (17-15-32) has also had a big year and leads the team in goals. But they’re the only two Eagles with more than seven goals as Eden Prairie is averaging just 3.57 goals per game and hitting at just 16.2 percent on the power play.

Defensively, Eden Prairie is allowing 2.90 goals per game. Smith has rotated goaltenders Jake Gerdes (4-2-1, 2.48, .902) and Jake Kielly (6-8-0, 2.97, .891) this season. Kielly has started the last two games – a 5-4 loss to Edina and the 10-0 victory over Hopkins.

Smith certainly knows the difficulty of repeating as state champion. With Mr. Hockey Nick Leddy and a precocious group of sophomores led by Kyle Rau, the Eagles surprised everyone with their first state title in 2009. A year later and more experienced (but missing Leddy), the Eagles didn’t get out of the section tournament unscathed. Then in 2011, Rau capped his Mr. Hockey campaign with a diving, three-overtime tally that gave Eden Prairie its second title in three years over Duluth East.

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2. Wayzata at Minnetonka
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

Lake Conference play continues its second round this week with another handful of superb games, none better than this tilt between No. 6 Wayzata (17-4-0) and No. 5 Minnetonka (15-5-1). The Skippers have really cranked it up once conference play started and are a perfect 5-0-0, including two victories over Edina. Minnetonka also beat Wayzata 3-1 on the Trojans' home rink back on Jan. 24 behind goals from leading scorer Max Coatta, Austin Burt and Jack Ramsey. Key to the Skippers' surge has been getting scoring from outside the top line, although only Coatta (20 goals) has more than eight markers on the season. Wayzata has two players over that threshold, sophomore Matthew Freytag (18-11-23) and freshman Max Zimmer (14-9-23) and is even stingier defensively with Aaron Dingmann (13-3-0, 1.70, .928) posting a dominating senior season in goal.

3. Duluth East at Cloquet/Esko/Carlton
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

There are some terrific rivalry games around the state. With apologies to the folks up in the northwest (Roseau vs. Warroad) and the east metro (Hill-Murray vs. White Bear Lake), this one could just be among the best of them all. No. 3 Duluth East (17-4-0) and No. 16 Cloquet/Esko/Carlton (12-6-2) distinctly don't like each other -- and it shows on the ice with games that are rugged, testy and usually close, no matter the season each team is having. Both teams are enjoying strong seasons, with the 'Hounds winning nine straight and allowing just 1.86 goals per game. Defense is East's forte, with a strong corps led by Meirs Moore (13-15-28), Phil Beaulieu (6-6-22), Alex Trapp and the ornery Andrew Kerr. On the other bench, the 'Jacks can really light up the scoreboard from the line of Beau and Westin Michaud and Karson Kuhlman. The trio has combined for 67 goals and 140 points.

4. Princeton at St. Cloud Cathedral

The race for the Section 5A title is on and there are a few traditional contenders -- and one surprise. Is No. 12 Princeton (16-4-1) for real? Can the Tigers challenge annual powers Hermantown and No. 6 St. Cloud Cathedral (15-6-0)? Regular season results look good, as the Tigers defeated Cathedral 4-3 on Dec. 11 and are among the highest-scoring teams in the state (6.19 goals per game). Seven players have double-digit goals, led by Dan Muench (22-18-40), Daniel Voce (19-26-45) and Jake Green (19-20-39), so it isn't a one-line show. With Max Mattson (14-4-1, 2.43, .902) in goal, the Tigers are allowing 2.19 goals per game. Princeton isn't playing the same Cathedral team from mid-December, though. The Crusaders have clamped down defensively in winning seven straight games, allowing just 10 goals. In that same span, leading scorer Austin Poganski (20-18-38) has seven goals and Tommy Hall (17-17-34) has eight.

5. Prior Lake at Burnsville

As a rising program, No. 12 Prior Lake (13-7-0) has continued to show improvement under coach Joe Pankratz. The former Bloomington Jefferson star has the Lakers winning with a defense-first style that should result in a low-scoring game against No. 11 Burnsville (12-8-1). In their first meeting on Jan. 5, the Lakers ground out a 2-0 victory behind 30 saves from Jordan Moran (12-6-0, 1.81, .933). That's not a surprising result, as Prior Lake has allowed just 1.90 goals per game -- and scored 3.40 goals per game. No Lakers player has double-digit goals (Blake Busch and Jack Murphy each lead the team with nine). Other than in two losses to Eagan, only one other team has scored more than four goals against Prior Lake. Burnsville has won five of six and comes in looking to take hold of the No. 2 seeding spot in Section 2A behind Edina. Leading scorer Tyler Sheehy (13-23-36) just committed to Ohio State.

6. Duluth Denfeld at Hermantown

Another terrific battle up in the northeastern corner of the state between No. 9 Duluth Denfeld (15-6-0) and No. 5 Hermantown (16-4-1). The Hunters won the first meeting in a 5-4 upset back on Dec. 20, but they won't sneak up on anyone, certinaly not in the Duluth area, anymore. Not after sweeping the first round of games against local rivals Duluth East, Hermantown and Duluth Marshall (an 8-3 thumping last Thursday). Leading scorer Levi Talarico (27-28-55) and the Thompson brothers -- senior foward Alex (19-20-39), sophomore defenseman Nick (5-25-30) and senior goaltender Zach (12-6-0, 2.92, .906) have played huge roles. They'll be tested by the Hawks, who continue to have one of the best power plays in the state (39.7 percent) with the line of Travis Koepke (23-32-55), Bo Gronseth (18-29-47) and Chris Benson (22-25-47) along with crafty defensemen Jake Zeleznikar (8-23-31) and Neal Pionk (8-10-18).

7. Eden Prairie at Wayzata
FSN PrepZone Webcast

Speaking of big games, both Lake Conference positioning and Section 6AA seeding are at stake when No. 13 Eden Prairie (10-10-1) visits the Plymouth Ice Center and No. 6 Wayzata (17-4-0). The Trojans already claimed the first meeting 4-2 on Jan. 19 when Chase Haller tallied two goals, Jack Sorensen added three assists and Aaron Dingmann made 22 saves. Wayzata has been a surprise team this year, even holding the No. 1 ranking in the state for a time after the holidays. Young scorers have stepped up to join a tough defensive team under coach Pat O'Leary. Eden Prairie was expected to be near the top of the charts but has struggled to gain consistency. The Eagles have only had two modest two-game winning streaks all season, although they are coming off a 10-0 whitewashing of a good Hopkins team in which Steven Spinner (15-21-36) had a hat trick and Mason Bergh (17-15-32) and Michael Graham (6-7-13) each scored twice.

8. Mankato West at Rochester Mayo
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

In the Big 9 Conference, the race comes down to high-flying No. 14 Mankato West (17-4-0) and solid Rochester Mayo (17-3-1), led by legendary coach Lorne Grosso. West has been scoring goals at a massive clip, particularly the duo of Derek Frentz (31-26-57) and Galt Goettl (20-26-46). Frentz has scored in 17 of 20 games this winter and has four hat tricks. But the Scarlets were shut down in the first meeting way back on Dec. 6, a 2-1 Mayo victory in which Case Hansen (17-4-0, 1.88, .915) made 36 saves for the Spartans. Grosso's big season at Mayo has allowed him to surpass longtime friend Roy Nystrom of Albert Lea for the most career coaching victories in state history. The Spartans are unbeaten in Big 9 play and have won eight straight games by a combined 47-11 score.

9. Burnsville at Bloomington Jefferson

These two traditional hockey powers are in chase mode this year, as both are trying to run down Eagan in the South Suburban Conference race and Edina in the Section 2AA seeding race. No. 11 Burnsville (12-8-1) has the upper hand based on a 4-1 victory over No. 15 Bloomington Jefferson (13-8-0) back on Jan. 8. In that game, Ohio State recruit Tyler Sheehy (13-23-36) had a pair of goals and goaltender Chris Mallon (6-5-1, 2.78, .909) made 33 saves as the Blaze were actually outshot, 34-26. Jefferson has won three straight games -- allowing only one goal in each -- with Grant Martens (13-8-0, 2.67, .910) continuing his solid play in goal. Colin Hernon (19-11-30) leads the Jaguars in scoring, while Jono Lindquist (13-16-29) is hot on his heels.

10. White Bear Lake at Cretin-Derham Hall
Hockey Hub Spotlight Game

The Suburban East Conference race is taking shape -- and might very well be decided after this game between Cretin-Derham Hall (14-6-1) and White Bear Lake (12-8-1). The Raiders seem to be in control after winning nine of their last 10 games, but did lose to the Bears 5-4 back on Dec. 15. In that game, Max Green (4-4-0, 3.47, .874) made 32 saves in goal for White Bear Lake, which was outshot 36-26 but earned the win when Sam Anderson (4-1-5) scored 5:20 into overtime. Since the holidays, though, Chase Gorman (7-2-0, 1.44, .931) has seen the majority of time in goal. Cretin-Derham Hall has also been getting strong goaltending from Trent Jancze (11-1-0, 1.60, .940), who has also taken over full time duties since the holidays. Keep an eye on White Bear Lake's Jake Wahlin (24-23-47). There may be no better sophomore in the state.