As February rolls around in Minnesota, it means one thing for high school hockey: heavy conference play. The Conference Championships are up for grabs. Some conferences are already locked up, some have favorites but are still up in the air, and some will be a dog-fight to the end. Two of the big surprises thus far in the conferences:
1) Chanhassen leads the Missota Conference. Normally a conference dominated by the Academy of the Holy Angel, the Chanhassen Storm have a one-point lead in the conference. Oddly enough, the Stars have an 8-2-2 conference record, but have a 0-10-0 record against non-conference foes. The two teams don't meet again, so AHA will need some help to repeat as conference champions.
2) Edina leads the Lake Conference. I know it's not that big of a shock to see Edina at the head of the class, but they are beating the #2 Skippers in the conference. In the two conference game meetings (the Schwan Cup meeting does not count towards conference record), the two teams split, with Edina getting the pre-Hockey Day upset. Like the Missota, Minnetonka is going to need help to take the Lake Conference.
The race to the finish line, along with a Conference Championship, also brings a preferable seeding in the Sectional Tournament. In a section like 6AA, the seeding could mean the difference between facing Holy Family Catholic or Benilde-St. Margaret's in the first round.
Benilde-St. Margaret's vs. Wayzata
The #8 Red Knights have been an enigma all season long. They can pound teams at will but have struggled against top-ranked competition. In fact, the Knights had not beaten a Top-10 team (Hill-Murray was not ranked in the Top 10 at the time). The #9 Trojans would give Benilde their last opportunity to play a top-ranked AA team before the Section Tournament, while Wayzata would have to finish a tough Lake Conference schedule.
The 1st period was a pretty evenly played period. Both Benilde and Wayzata have great talent on their top lines. The Red Knights had a great opportunity to take control early as the Trojans were called for a check to the head major, but Benilde was unable to cash in on the 5-minute powerplay. To compound matter, the Knights took a penalty of their own as the major was set to expire, giving Wayzata a boost of momentum from the kill and the powerplay. The Trojans, unlike their inter-city counterparts, cashed in on their man advantage. Matt Halverson was able to wrist a shot past Anders Jecha to put Wayzata up 1-0. Miles Death and Kage Tiller were credited with the helpers on the powerplay goal. The Trojans would hold off the Red Knights and end the period with the one-goal lead.
The Red Knights were in danger of being outplayed by another top-ranked team, leading to a greater sense of urgency in the 2nd period. The Knights started putting a lot of pressure on the Wayzata net, forcing turnovers in the neutral zone and hemming the Trojans in their own zone. Benilde finally cashed in when Grant Besse scored from a sharp angle. The assists on the play went to Patrick Graham and T.J. Moore. The tie wouldn't last long, as Brock Sorenson scored from the slot to put Wayzata back on top, with Sam Majka getting the lone assist. The Trojans wouldn't have long to celebrate, as they took a quick penalty after the goal. Besse cashed in on the powerplay, from Moore and Christian Horn, tying the game at 2. The Red Knights got rolling, as Jack Glover finished off a 3-on-2 rush, with Jake Horton and Horn getting the helpers. It wouldn't take long for Benilde to strike again, as Horn banged home a rebound from Dan Labosky and Jonah Johnson. Wayzata had to call time out, as the Red Knights poured in 3 goals in just over 3 minutes. The break worked, as Kevin Miller pulled Wayzata back to within one with a deflected shot in the slot. Chandler Lindstrand and Kage Tiller got the helpers on the Miller goal. The 2nd period would end with Benilde holding a 4-3 advantage thanks to a quick flurry of goals.
Clinging to a one-goal lead, Benilde needed a good team effort to hold off a talented Wayzata team, but they didn't do themselves any favors when the Red Knights were given a boarding major early in the 3rd period. The Trojans had some good looks and got a lot of pucks to the net, but Justin Quale made the big saves in the final period. The penalty kept Benilde on their heels for much of the period, but Quale and the defense were able to keep the Trojans off the board in the frame. The Red Knights were able to hold on and finally get a win against a Top-10 team, beating Wayzata 4-3.
Minnetonka vs. Edina
It's been up and down lately for #2 Minnetonka. A January 19th loss to Edina raised some eyebrows, but two days later they dominated Duluth East. One week after that, the Skippers slipped up again, this time against Eden Prairie. This was a game the Skippers needed to stay on the heels of the #5 Hornets in the Lake Conference, who had rattled off three straight conference wins against Hopkins, Wayzata, and Eden Prairie.
The Skippers came out with some quick pressure, but as Edina has all year, the Hornets got in front of shot opportunities and clogged lanes, but you can only be trapped in your own zone for so long. The Skippers capitalized early on the quick start, scoring 4 minutes into the game. Erik Baskin found a loose rebound to put home from Connor Thie and Jimmy Schuldt. The Skippers kept up the pressure through the first half of the period, but the Hornets kept getting bodies in lanes. The Hornets finally got a chance to get some offense going, but Paul Ciaccio made some pretty saves late in the 1st period to maintain the one-goal lead. The period ended with the Skippers leading 1-0.
The Hornets brought their lunch pails to the game, and it was the little things that led to their first goal. Connor Hurley blocked a shot from the point, springing Hurley and Dylan Malmquist for a 2-on-1. Hurley waited until the last moment, made a good pass to Malmquist who beat a helpless Ciaccio to tie the game at 1. The pace evened out, as Edina caught the momentum from the goal. A Minnetonka tripping penalty gave Edina their first real chance to take the lead, and the Hornets capitalized quickly. Matt Nelson hammered a quick one-timer from Jack Walker and Louie Nanne off the draw to put Edina on top, 2-1. The Skippers then took a 5-minute major for boarding, giving Edina a great chance to blow the doors open, but an Edina boarding major took away about 3 minutes of powerplay time. The 4-on-4 benefited the Skippers skill more, and it showed when Sam Rothstein finished some pretty passes between Baskin and himself. The 2nd period would end with a 2-2 tie and no team with a real distinct advantage.
Minnetonka came out in the 3rd with more focus on using their speed and skill to outplay Edina. It looked like it was going to work, as Sam Rothstein scored his second goal on an easy rebound goal. Thie and Baskin got the helpers. The Skippers started to ramp up their game, getting the better of the Hornets. Michael Prochno made it 4-2 on a wrist shot that fooled Willie Benjamin, with the assists going to Rothstein and Baskin. The 2-goal lead didn't last very long though, as Malmquist scored his second goal of the game off a Andy Jordahl rebound. The goal got the Hornets back in the game, as it looked like the Skippers were getting ready to roll. The Hornets kept the pressure on, getting the equalizer, compliments of Connor Hurley. Hurley ripped a one-timer from Malmquist, with Parker Reno getting the secondary helper. The late goal meant this game was going to overtime.
The OT period didn't last long, as Sam Rothstein scored just 42 seconds into the frame for his hat-trick and the game winner. Rothstein found a soft spot out front and hammered home a one-timer from Prochno and Thie. The Skippers got a must-win to remain in the Lake Conference chase and #2 in Class AA. Edina still a young team, but the Hornets have improved all season long. Minnetonka has a 2-1 advantage in the season series (counting the Schwan Cup), but they could have a 4th meeting in the State Tournament.
Wayzata vs. Eden Prairie
The Trojans looked to bounce back from a tough loss to Benilde by battle their Lake Conference rivals, the #7 Eagles. Wayzata may be out of the conference race, but the wins matter for how they will be seeded in their section. They don't have the luxury of lying down for anyone. Eden Prairie looks to stay in the Lake Conference race, as a win would put them one point back of Edina.
While both teams came out ready to play, Wayzata started to gain the early advantage. The Trojans started getting pucks past the Eden Prairie defensman and going to work in the zone. The early battle level of Wayzata drew a hooking penalty, giving the Trojans an early powerplay. The top powerplay for Wayzata went to work, and it was Sam Majka was able to bury the first goal of the game right in front of the net. Kage Tiller and Matt Halverson got the helpers on the Majka goal, and Wayzata jumped out to an early 1-0 lead. The Trojans kept the pressure on, but Eden Prairie was able to escape trailing only by 1.
Wayzata came out in the 2nd playing like they did in the first, controlling the flow and keeping the Eagles trapped in their own zone. The early Trojan pressure drew another penalty, but this time the Eden Prairie penalty kill was equal to the task. The Eagles kept Wayzata to the perimeter and didn't give the team in yellow and good looks at the net. The kill sparked the Eagles and got them back in the game. Eden Prairie started to get their forecheck working, getting Wayzata caught in their own zone. The Eagles finally got on the board when Chad Dahlquist went top shelf on Alec Almquist to tie the score at 1 apiece. Jack Keeley and Jack Sullivan got the assists on Dahlquist's goal. The 2nd period would end with a 1-1 tie, but the momentum was squarely with Eden Prairie.
The start of the 3rd period saw the Eagles continue where they left off, getting the early chances. Eden Prairie caught a lucky break when Almquist came out to stop the puck behind his net, but Andrew Knudson was able to bank the puck off Almquist to put Eden Prairie up 2-1. Just 8 seconds later, Steven Spinner fired a shot past Almquist, putting the Eagles up 3-1. Spinner's goal was assisted by Knudson and Sullivan. The Eagles kept the pressure on, as Luke Sudman ripped a shot past Almquist, from Andrew and Austin MacLeod, to put Eden Prairie up 4-1. The Eagles struck for 3 goals in 1 minute and 5 seconds, putting Wayzata in a big hole. Eden Prairie, with a three goal lead, focused on playing good defense, keeping Wayzata away from the dangerous scoring areas. The Eagles won an important conference game, pulling them in a three-way race with Minnetonka and Edina for the Lake Conference Championship.
Team on the Rise:
They may not be a real threat to win the AA State Title, but the Storm do control their own destiny as far as the Conference Championship is concerned.
Team on the Fall:
Duluth Denfeld Hunters
The Hunters now sport a losing record and have fallen 10 spots in the Class A rankings. Denfeld showed some real promise early in the season, but the grind has slowly worn down this team. The Hunters have lost their last 5 games in a row, going from 9-7-2 to 9-12-2.
Upset of the Week:
Totino-Grace Eagles defeated the Breck School Mustangs, 7-4.
While having a #6 defeat a #3 shouldn't be considered that big of an upset, it is in this case. The Top-10 in Class A were divided into two different classes: The Big 3 (Hermantown, St. Thomas Academy, Breck) and everyone else. The Eagles went on the road and dominated the Mustangs, a team that is expected to contend for a State Title.
Upcoming Games to Note:
Saturday, Feb. 11th:
#2 Minnetonka vs. #10 Wayzata
#6 Totino-Grace (A) vs. ##8 Benilde-St. Margaret's (AA)
Tuesday, Feb. 14th:
#4 Thief River Falls vs. #7 East Grand Forks
#14 Little Falls vs. #1 Hermantown
Thursday, Feb. 16th:
#6 Eden Prairie vs. #2 Minnetonka
#5 Edina vs. #10 Wayzata
Mr. Hockey Finalists Selected (in order of school):
Grant Opperman - The Breck School
Dom Toninato - Duluth East
Jake Randolph - Duluth East
Judd Peterson - Duluth Marshall
Michael Zajac - Eagan
Will Merchant - Eagan
Jared Thomas - Hermantown
Charlie Sampair - Hill-Murray
Justin Kloos - Lakeville South
Eric Schurhamer - St. Thomas Academy
If I had to pick who the voters will select, it's Justin Kloos. 71 points in a quickly improving South Suburban Conference, and a complete body of work that the voters consider. Only Josh Cisar, who should have gotten a little more consideration, of Moose Lake had more total points this year. Randolph has a very outside chance to steal the award, but the fact that Lakeville South remained a ranked team in an average season tells me that the voters wanted Kloos highlighted from the start of the season.
For a complete listing of scores, check out the StarTribune's complete schedule.
For updated rankings, check out the Let's Play Hockey rankings.
To see the Sections and rankings, check out Follow the Puck.