If some hockey fans got their wish and this year’s state tournament switched to a “Sweet 16” format, the St. Thomas Academy at Minnetonka game Saturday night might be the concluding game of such a tournament. As it is, the game is an early-season showdown between the No. 1 team in Class A (St. Thomas Academy) against the No. 1 team in Class AA (Minnetonka).
Officially, not much is on the line other than another regular season victory.
Unofficially, there are plenty of bragging rights at stake. Public versus private. Big school versus small school. East side versus West side. Offense versus defense. It doesn’t get much better.
Minnetonka has started the winter as well as any team could be expected to play, sweeping its first four opponents by a combined 30-1 score. The Skippers are led by four Division I recruits in defensemen Troy Hesketh (Wisconsin), Justin Holl (Minnesota) and Andrew Prochno (St. Cloud State) and big forward Max Gardiner (Minnesota).
Hesketh (2-3-5) was drafted by the NHL’s Edmonton Oilers this past season – just as his coach was about a decade earlier. He’s a 6-foot-2 stay-at-home defenseman who has good hands and a long reach, but prefers to pass the puck up ice rather than rush it. Holl (2-2-4) is also a defense-first player who does have the ability to add offense, but Prochno (4-11-15) takes care of much of that role as a terrific offensive threat from the blue line.
They support senior goaltender Jim Kruger (3-0-0, 0.33), who has started for the past three years for the Skippers.
No team in the state is as talented and experienced in their own zone as Minnetonka. But make no mistake, the Skippers can score, as well. Through four games, they’ve tallied 30 goals, paced by six each from Gardiner (6-9-15) and Thomas Schutt (6-2-8).
St. Thomas Academy also has come out flying this season, beating its first three opponents by a combined 22-10 score. The most impressive victory was the very first, a 4-3 defeat of defending Class A champion Breck in which the Cadets held a 57-26 edge in shots on goal.
St. Thomas Academy doesn’t have a stingy a defense as Minnetonka, but the Cadets are plenty talented along the blue line with junior Taylor Fleming (1-2-3), senior Joe Graveline and sophomore Eric Schurhamer in front of senior goaltender Kurt Altrichter (2-0-0, 3.71), who has also started for the past three years in nets.
The Cadets may have the edge on the forward lines, as they have more than a half dozen top forwards and can place plenty of pressure on opposing defenses. Through the first two weeks, the Cadets roll with a first line of Christian Isackson (6-4-10), Justin Crandall (2-7-9) and Pete Krieger and a second line as potent in A.J. Reid (2-4-6), Zach Schroeder (7-2-9) and Noah Gavin or Matt Kroska (1-5-6).
|2||White Bear Lake at Hill-Murray (8 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 15)||
Some of the greatest rivalries in high school hockey take place this week and any of them could easily be the game of the week, starting with the annual battle between White Bear Lake and Hill-Murray. The Pioneers have dominated the rivalry in recent years, winning 10 straight and knocking the Bears out of the playoffs in each of the last four years. But no matter, the history says these two programs and fan bases will be fired up for the meeting, which will be broadcast by FSN.
|3||Cloquet at Duluth East (7:30 pm, Thursday, Dec. 17)||
Another terrific longtime rivalry between two annual contenders in Section 7AA. Duluth East has had the edge in the past year, although the Lumberjacks did upset the Greyhounds in the section semifinals two years ago. East again has to be considered the favorite despite graduation losses, while Cloquet is in a rebuilding mode. Watch for the next generation of stars in players such as East’s Kyle Lutzka and Cloquet’s Jack McFarlane.
|4||Roseau at Moorhead (6 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 15)||
Ask most hockey fans from the Northwest and this rivalry has elbowed in on the traditional Roseau-Warroad game for interest level. Mostly, that has to do with the potential playoff preview, as both Moorhead and the Rams are in Section 8AA – and have represented the section at state in each of the past 14 years. Roseau has the highest scoring line in the game in Adam Knochenmus, Shane Omdahl and Cole Kostzewski. The Spuds are again very deep and quick and feature two top goalies in Logan Marks and Michael Bitzer. LOOK FOR SPOTLIGHT COVERAGE OF THIS GAME
|5||Hibbing at Duluth Marshall (7:30 pm, Thursday, Dec. 17); International Falls at Virginia (7:30 pm, Friday, Dec. 18)||
Section 7A gets a shake-up this week with these two games between the four teams that have dominate the section year-in and year-out since they were placed together. Duluth Marshall was the section representative at state for several years until this past winter, when Virginia/MIB broke their hold. Hibbing and International Falls are also annually in the running.
|6||Sartell-St. Stephen at Alexandria (7 pm, Saturday, Dec. 19)||
The two teams most likely to take advantage of the graduation of the Little Falls dynasty in Section 6A go head-to-head Saturday night at Alexandria. Many observers expect the deep Cardinals to be the favorites even after the graduation of All-State goalie Matt Hemingway, although Sartell has had some impressive victories to date and have two terrific scoring lines with Ryan and Matt Nahan, Austin Plaine, Andy Worzala, Matt Husmann and Andrew Deters.
|7||Elk River vs. Eden Prairie at Edina Holiday Classic (6 pm, Thursday, Dec. 17)||
The Edina-Elk River showdown on Saturday night may be more anticipated, but Elk River is an interesting team in its own right. The Elks may just be the favorite out of Section 7AA and they’ll get a big test in their first game at Edina when they face defending state champion Eden Prairie. The Eagles boast junior sniper Kyle Rau, who’ll have to be at his best to beat Elk River sophomore goalie Anders Franke.
|8||Mahtomedi at South St. Paul (7:30 pm, Thursday, Dec. 17)||
Everyone seems to expect St. Thomas Academy to run away with Section 4A this winter, but these two teams will have something to say about it. Mahtomedi upset the Cadets in last year’s section finals and will be anxious to get junior defenseman – and Minnesota recruit – Ben Marshall back form injury. South St. Paul has its own junior Minnesota recruit in goaltender Adam Wilcox.
|9||Litchfield/D-C at Hutchinson (7 pm, Thursday, Dec. 17)||
Let’s give Section 3A some love. Hutchinson is the defending section champion and upset Mahtomedi in the state consolation semifinals. Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato represented the section at state two years ago and opened this winter with four straight victories. The Tigers return top goaltender Zak Swenson, who’ll face off against Dragons’ sniper Nate Adams, who already has nine goals.
|10||Minneapolis East at Minneapolis West (7:30 pm, Tuesday, Dec. 15)||
It seems like it’s been a long time since Minneapolis had powerhouse hockey programs like the 1970 Southwest team that won a state title. Now the entire city is down to just two surviving co-operative programs, West (Minneapolis North, Patrick Henry, Southwest and Washburn) and East (Minneapolis Edison, Roosevelt, South and Transitions Charter). East started the season strong with victories over Cooper and the St. Paul Saints but have since lost two straight. Alec Kelly (4-0-4) and Jack Kelly (0-6-6) are the leading scorers. West has dropped its first three games, but has outshot its last two opponents.