One of the most exciting days of high school hockey takes place on section semifinal Saturday. There are very good hockey games played across the state of Minnesota as lesser teams are weeded out in earlier rounds, and many of the ranked teams in the state face off against each other. The final four teams of the section 2AA playoffs was the only section that featured teams ranked in the top 20 by the Let's Play Hockey coaches poll. This section is where I spent my viewing on Saturday.
Eden Prairie 2, Prior Lake 1
As the Eden Prairie and Prior Lake matchup drew closer, I knew it wasn't going to be the 7-0 beating that Eden Prairie gave Prior Lake back on January 7. Since the early season loss to Eden Prairie, Prior Lake went 10-3, with notable wins over both Lakeville schools and Burnsville. Eden Prairie hasn't lost a game yet in 2017. Being that it was the playoffs, both teams were going to give it everything, and whacky things do happen. In 2012, Armstrong upset Eden Prairie, 2-1, in the quarterfinal round of section 6AA.
As the puck dropped for Eden Prairie and Prior Lake, both teams came out to play. It was a defensive minded game for the first two periods. EP employed a dump-and-chase style game early on, and Prior Lake did a great job holding EP in check, with the Eagles registering a combined 14 shots. Eden Prairie was forced to ice the puck several times. Prior Lake lead the game 1-0 through two periods, with their lone goal coming on a shorthanded breakaway after Nicky Leivermann mishandled the puck at the point during an offensive attack. With just a one goal difference, it set the stage for a very exciting third period and that's where EP's offense came alive. Casey Mittelstadt came away with assists on both of EP's two third period goals, despite having two or three guys draped all over him all game. Outside of the taking advantage of EP's power play mistake, Prior Lake struggled to get much going offensively, but had a couple great scoring chances late in the game. It was a very entertaining game. The crowd was alive and Braemar arena was near capacity. The last empty spots in the north end zone were filling up by the end of the first period. This game was easily worth the $8 ticket.
Holy Family 5, Minnetonka 1
The second semifinal of the day in 2AA featured Holy Family and Minnetonka. The winner playing against Eden Prairie for the section championship at Mariucci on Wednesday. During the regular season, Holy Family was one of the hottest teams in the state. Since beating Grand Rapids in overtime on January 6, their only loss came against Stillwater in the regular season finale. On the other hand, Minnetonka was a regular in the middle portion of the rankings. They are a good team, but one or two years from being elite and beating the top teams in the state.
In between getting out of the Braemar parking lot after the Eden Prairie/Prior Lake game, dropping my brother off at home, grabbing lunch at the McDonalds's drive-thru, and getting over to Bloomington Ice Gardens, finding a parking spot, and purchasing a ticket, I missed the first period of this one. Bloomington Ice Garden's ticket selling process leaves a lot to be desired. Meeting my friend, Michael, in front of the arena around 3 pm, the scheduled start time for Holy Family and Minnetonka, there was still a long line out the main entrance. A suggestion to the folks that run BIG, set up a table with multiple ticket sellers. Two ticket windows aren't enough when the building is at capacity. It doesn't help when you have rink employees in the background of the ticket office doing nothing but staring at patrons. Have them sell tickets! The folks at Braemar finally got it right this year by setting up a table with two additional spots to buy tickets.
Ok, enough venting...We arrived to find the game was 1-0 in Holy Family's favor at the end of the first period. Skipping to the second period, Minnetonka had more shots on net, but most of the action was down in Minnetonka's zone, and that was the story of the final two periods. I never felt in doubt about Holy Family winning this game. Holy Family was up 2-0 after two periods, and I told my friend that this would be a 4-1 game in Holy Family's favor. I had that feeling that Holy Family was ready to break the game wide open and that's exactly what they did. Towards the end of the game, it started to get a bit chippy and dirty, and it appeared that a repeat of the ending between Bemidji and Brainerd was going to happen, but the officials did a great job keeping the game under control in the closing seconds. The Wisconsin Badgers are getting a solid player in Ben Almquist, a junior for Holy Family that transferred in from Edina. He'll be in the Mr. Hockey discussion next year.
Eden Prairie and Holy Family is shaping up to be the game of the playoffs at Mariucci. Arguably the two best teams in the state, although the coaches still seem to think Edina is the second best team behind Eden Prairie. Two different styles. Eden Prairie is about puck control, and Holy Family is fast and loves to crash the net.