After leading the Hornets to a state champioship last March, senior goaltender Connor Girard is having another strong season. Photo by Helen Nelson
Last season, in late February and on into March, an Edina team that was baffling in its inconsistency suddenly became a precision unit that dismantled opponents with machine-like efficiency.
That transformation took the Hornets all the way to a state Class 2A championship.
This season, well, Edina hasn’t peaked just yet. Even if they have climbed to No. 1 in the state rankings.
“We’ve got to get back into the mental approach that we have to got shut down their ice down even when we are up by two or three goals,” Hornets coach Curt Giles said last week after escaping a wild third period with a 5-4 victory over No. 5 Benilde-St. Margaret’s. “We have to continue to smother them and continue to take their ice away from them.”
Naturally Giles, a former NHL defenseman, is concerned first with the play in the Hornets’ zone.
Edina junior Ben Walker has scored nine goals this season. Photo by Helen Nelson
“If we want to go anywhere we are going to have to learn to do it,” he said about turning in more consistent defensive efforts. “I would rather learn it now rather than try to figure it out at the end of February sometime.”
Defensive lapses aside, it should be noted that the Hornets (9-2-2) have done OK so far this season. They have defeated No. 10 Burnsville, No. 9 Eagan, No. 3 Eden Prairie and No. 2 Duluth East. Edina also skated to a tie with No. 4 Hill-Murray before losing in a holiday tournament shootout.
“We are not playing our best hockey yet,” Giles said. “We are finding some ways to win games. We are depending on some different people to get things done.”
Edina hardly has an iron grip on the top spot. Duluth East, Eden Prairie and Hill-Murray all could easily make the jump to No. 1 in a Class 2A jumble of talented teams with lineups capable of making deep playoff runs.
Defending state Class 2A champions had an eventful week, beating Holy Angels and Benilde-St. Margaret's by identical 5-4 scores but in drastically different -- but equally dramatic -- fashion. Hornets aren't winning big, but they are winning nonetheless.
The Greyhounds' overtime win against Eden Prairie capped a rugged, and highly successful, week in which they also knocked off high-powered Grand Rapids. Mix of JoJo Jeanetta's stellar goaltending and power-play that is connecting at a 38-percent rate makes for team that is built for extended playoff run.
The Eagles have played just one game at their home rink -- a season-opening triumph over Apple Valley on Dec. 2. Tough schedule? Seven of Eden Prairie's last nine opponents are currently are ranked in the top 10. The Eagles' Lake Conference schedule gets cranked up on Saturday against Wayzata.
The Pioneers are allowing just 1.79 goals per game, thanks in large part to the play of senior goaltender Tim Shaughnessy (1.68 goals-against average, .913 save percentage). Ben Bahe is top goal scorer with 15; Zach LaValle ranks second with 10.
The Red Knights' rallied from big deficit to give No. 1 Edina a scare in eventual one-goal loss. Grant Besse has eight goals in B-SM's last four games. Goaltending situation remains unsettled, with Anders Jecha and Justin Quale sharing time.
The Trojans would be perfectly happy to never again face Moorhead goaltender Michael Bitzer. The Spuds' junior has stopped a combined 72 of 74 shots in Moorhead's two upset wins of Wayzata. Trojans' top line has scored 41 of team's 67 goals.
The Skippers, who have lost just once in their eight games, slowly are climbing the rankings. How high can they go? After a mini-slump in which he went four games without a goal, sophomore Vinni Lettieri has four in his last six games. Minnetonka's third-period doldrums seem to have mostly disappeared, but it still is being outscored 19-13 in the final period.
The Crimson are amazingly balanced (four players share the team lead with five goals) and feature two standout defensemen in senior Steven Popowitz and sophomore Jordan Gross. Throw in the steady goaltending of Ryan Coyne (2.13 goals-against average, .903 save percentage) and that's a formula for a team that is more and more looking like the class of the northern suburbs.
Just when you though the Wildcats might elbow their way up the rankings, they lose to unranked Bloomington Jefferson. Consistency has not been the Wildcats' trademark this season, but they have proven they can win the big games (they defeated Eden Prairie). They take a shot at South Suburban Conference leader and No. 10-ranked Burnsville on Thursday.
The Blaze have lost just once in their last seven games, and that was a 4-2 setback to Eden Prairie that included an empty-net goal for the Eagles. Upcoming three-game stretch against Eagan, Lakeville South and Wayzata will put questionable depth after outstanding front-line group forwards and defensemen to the test.
Honorable mention: Grand Rapids, Bemidji.
Stunning 5-1 victory over highly regarded Grand Rapids vaults the Hawks into the top spot in the poll. As the state's last unbeaten team, the interest -- and pressure -- intensifies for each game. A tough one awaits on Tuesday against Superior, which is ranked No. 5 in Wisconsin.
The Cadets are coming off a big win over Delbarton Academy, New Jersey's top-ranked prep school. Another private-school hockey powerhouse awaits on Tuesday, when St. Thomas Academy travels to Faribault to play high-powered Shattuck-St. Mary's.
The Mustangs rallied from a three-goal deficit by scoring twice in the final period against high-powered Delbarton, N.J., in an eventual 3-2 loss in rare Monday afternoon game. Breck's much-anticipated showdown with St. Thomas Academy is set for Saturday.
The Bears' special teams have been outstanding all season. Blake's penalty killers have allowed just nine goals in 58 power-play chances. Meanwhile, the Bears' power-play is converting on 36 percent of its opportunities. Last week's loss to big-school power Minnetonka (No. 7 in Class 2A) didn't hurt Bears in rankings.
The Bluejackets rebounded from 4-3 loss to Cloquet on Tuesday by beating Iron Range Conference rival Virginia on Saturday by the same score. Sophomore Adam Johnson's 30 goals places him solidly in second place statewide, seven behind leader Ville Rantanen of Mankato West.
The Eagles solidified their place among the top Class 1A teams by knocking Duluth Marshall out of the top 10 with 4-1 triumph. Eagles have just one loss, to No. 3 (tie) Blake. Saturday's North Suburban Conference matchup against Class 2A powerhouse Benilde-St. Margaret's (ranked No. 5) will provide huge test.
Virginia drops in poll after needing overtime to escape upset bid by Detroit Lakes and then lossing to Iron Range rival Hibbing on goal in the final minute. In a somewhat surprising stat, Blue Devils have been outscored 24-22 in the third period.
The Warriors, who have run hot and cold all season, and riding an eight-game win streak that includes a 4-1 triumph over northern neighbor and longtime rival Roseau. How good could Warroad be if its power play was clicking? The Warriors are converting just 13 percent of their extra-man opportunities.
The Flyers have not allowed more than two goals in a stretch of nine games dating back to 4-4 tie with Fergus Falls on Dec. 14. Big road win over tough and talented Brainerd on Tuesday keeps Little Falls in the top 10, although overtime win over River Lakes two nights later was surprisingly close.
The Packers crack the top 10 for the first time this season. They are quietly getting superb seasons from several players, most notably senior goaltender Luke Palmquist (.919 save percentage, 2.36 goals-against average) and senior defenseman Adam Barlow (seven goals, 14 assists).
Honorable mention: Duluth Marshall, St. Cloud Cathedral, Rochester Lourdes.