Maple Grove's Tyler Dunagan celebrates a goal during the St. Louis Park Holiday Hockey Classic. The Crimson are 14-0-1 since losing to Eden Prairie in that tournament. (Photo by Tim Kolehmainen).
For the past three years, it's been easy to mark the Section 5AA champion in a state tournament bracket. When playoffs started, one just grabbed the pen and marked in Blaine without hesitation. The Bengals have qualified for the last five state tourneys in a dynastic run that continued regardless of graduation losses.
This winter, the Bengals had to say goodbye to 2010 Mr. Hockey Nick Bjugstad and several other talented graduates. But as the saying goes, Blaine never rebuilds under coach Dave Aus, it only reloads.
No. 2 Blaine (17-4-4) remains strong, but a new favorite has taken center stage in Section 5AA. No. 1 Maple Grove (20-3-2) closed the season with a 15-game unbeaten streak (14-0-1) since losing to Eden Prairie in the St. Louis Park Holiday Hockey Classic in late December. They've only allowed 15 goals in that stretch and no more than two in any game.
No team in the state has been as hot, yet the Crimson still seem to be undervalued by many. Perhaps that's a result of a solid lineup that doesn't seem to include many stars.
A deep playoff run and those names might become household ones. They certainly deserve it.
Maple Grove doesn't play with the flair of some other top teams, but the Crimson are extremely deep and dedicated to strong defensive in their own zone. It isn't sexy, but it wins games. The Crimson allow just 1.48 goals per game and have seven shutouts, six by top goaltender Ryan Coyne (18-3-2, 1.61, .925) who is in the top-10 in the state in several categories.
Make not mistake, though. Maple Grove can score. Tyler Dunagan (19-20-39) leads the team in goals, while Dylan Steman (15-29-44) is tops in points. Five players have scored double-digit goals and seven have at least 22 points -- and that doesn't include top defensemen Steven Popowitz (4-11-15) and Drew Aspinwall (3-11-14).
Tyler Cline and the Bengals seek to return to state for the sixth straight season and fourth straight out of Section 5AA. (Photo by Helen Nelson).
It wouldn't be wise to count out Blaine, though.
The Bengals finished second in the Northwest Suburban Conference behind Maple Grove and ahead of No. 3 Osseo (16-9-0) and No. 4 Centennial (12-11-2), all of whom will be competing for the Section 5AA title, and have played a very difficult schedule that has molded the team into a contender -- again.
Blaine has all the ingredients for a deep playoff run: strong special teams (29.3 percent on the power play and 87.5 percent on penalty kill), a sniper who can win a close game with any shot in Jonny Brodzinski (27-25-52), strong goaltending with Nick Malvin (14-4-4, 1.86, .931) and a supporting cast that knows how to win.
The Bengals will be a tough out.
Most thought Osseo's best chance at a breakthrough was last winter, but the Orioles have surprised many by remaining strong despite graduation losses. The leadership and scoring touch of Tim Bonner (32-30-62) have been key.
Centennial is stronger than its near .500 record might indicate. The Cougars were just 2-8-1 after losing to Osseo on Jan. 6, but finished with 10 victories over the final 14 games, including a victory over Blaine and tie with Maple Grove. Centennial will have to play close, low-scoring games. The Cougars allow just 2.52 goals per game, but have struggled to score at times. Riley Colvard (20-18-38) leads the team in scoring.
No. 5 Champlin Park (13-11-1) could spoil the plans of some of the top seeds with diminutive John McDonald (17-23-40) leading the way. No. 6 Anoka (10-15-0) is a few years past its heyday, while No. 7 Coon Rapids (7-18-0) is still on the rise.
Section 5AA has been Blaine's playground for the past five years, but Maple Grove has the best chance of any team to end that streak this winter. The Crimson aren't loaded with "name" players, but play a solid all-around game in all three zones. Maple Grove tied Blaine 2-2 in the first meeting on Dec. 9, but came back with a 4-2 victory on Jan. 27, part of a closing 14-0-1 streak in which the Crimson allowed only 15 goals.
The Rebels are a No. 5 seed for a reason, as they went 1-7-0 against the four teams ahead of them. But lost in that record is the improvement shown by Champlin Park, which lost to both Maple Grove and Osseo by a single goal since the beginning of February. The Rebels also beat Blaine 3-1 on Jan. 4. This is not a program to overlook.
2010 – Blaine
2009 – Blaine
2008 – Blaine
2007 – Burnsville
2006 – Eagan
2005 – Holy Angels
2004 – Holy Angels
2003 – Holy Angels
2002 – Holy Angels
2001 – Eastview
2000 – Bloomington Jefferson
1999 – Holy Angels
1998 – Bloomington Jefferson
1997 – Bloomington Jefferson
1996 – Apple Valley
1995 – Bloomington Jefferson
1994 – Bloomington Jefferson