Monday, March 13, 2017

2016-17 High School Hockey Season Wrap-Up

The 2016-17 high school hockey season has reached it's conclusion with the crowning of two state champions in each of the classes.

Hermantown takes the Class A title by defeating Monticello/Annandale/Maple Lake (MAML) in a two overtime classic, 4-3, after having a goal overturned for goaltender interference in the second extra frame. The state tournament utilizes the NHL replay technology at Xcel Energy Center to determine validity of all goals. The same replay criteria used in the NHL applies with the state tournament. New this year was offside plays first introduced by the NHL last year.

Hermantown was tested in each of it's state tournament games by being taken to the extra session three consecutive days. The school has now won consecutive championships after being the runner-up six straight times.  The Class A tournament was perhaps the best tournament played in this class since the two class system was introduced in 1994 with close games and unseeded teams, such as MAML, advancing all the way to the championship game. This part of the tournament really caught me by surprise. I was fully expecting Hermantown to be playing against Delano in the championship

In Class AA, Grand Rapids won it's first title since 1980 by defeating Moorhead, 6-3, in the first all-northern final in a decade. In a rematch of a February game that Moorhead won 4-0, the Thunderhawks' Gavin Hain took over this championship game with a hat trick, and the team got good goaltending out of Zach Stejskal. The Halloween Machine was tested the entire playoff run.  It had to get past Elk River and Duluth East in Section 7, then stunned top-ranked Eden Prairie in the Friday semifinals by surviving a 50 shot onslaught to reach the title game.
The atmosphere was electric Saturday night at Xcel Energy Center.  When the puck dropped for the championship game between Grand Rapids and Moorhead, the building was near capacity, and it stayed that way until Blake McLaughlin bagged an empty net goal to seal the game late for the Thunderhawks. Watching the game from section 200 above the Grand Rapids band, the band was pumped all game. These students are very in tune with the flow of game, and have fun with the music, especially when they jump around while playing "Ole!", much like you would find in a college environment. There probably is not a better band in the state than Grand Rapids. Grand Rapids also has one of the better fanbases around. They tend to be down-to-earth, and like the band, are passionate about their team. Having followed the team quite a bit this season, they are now my favorite outstate team, whether they had won or lost in the final.
After having a perfect AA state tournament bracket last year, I struggled a bit more this year with parity that was not seen in prior years. I had St. Thomas Academy defeating Lakeville South in the quarterfinal and Eden Prairie knocking off Grand Rapids in the semifinal. After Grand Rapids got through Eden Prairie, it legitimized them as contenders for the title, and that they were for real. I knew we were going to be in for a close championship game and thought the score would be 5-3 in favor of Moorhead.  Ended up being in the ballpark for the final score - just had the teams flipped around.

Casey Mittelstadt of Eden Prairie took home the Mr. Hockey award, which was not a huge surprise to anyone that followed high school hockey closely this season.  The Frank Brimsek Award for top goaltender in the state, went to Hill-Murray goaltender Jake Begley.

The day after the state tournament feels a little odd. There is this period of withdrawal after going through all the excitement and pageantry of the tournament during the four days to being over just like that as the victorious team holds the trophy high in the air. There are no more game schedules to ponder over or figuring out the top teams in the state for another eight months. I have to say this has been the most fun I've had watching high school hockey this year in quite some time. I got to witness, either in person or online, many state tournament caliber type games this year, and sharing those experiences with friends and family members. Parity amongst teams made it interesting and provided for many surprises during the year, such as Grand Rapids' run. Very unpredictable to say the least. We also had a talented senior class, led by Casey Mittelstadt, perhaps a top ten NHL prospect that we see come out of the state once in a decade or so. Unlike the Minnesota 2006 top ten draft class of Erik Johnson, Kyle Okposo, and Peter Mueller, Mittelstadt stuck with high school hockey, which deserves much credit. As an Eden Prairie alum and fan of high school hockey, it was a pleasure to see Casey play these last three years, he will be someone special for the Gophers. As we see another senior class move on to success in Division I or junior hockey, another group of kids comes in to fill the void left on the roster. We will watch young raw talent evolve into something special before our eyes, perhaps becoming that next elite player with a bright future. As fall rolls around, we will start to think about how the upcoming season and project where our favorite team will finish. Heck, maybe there will be a chance of a championship run?

High school hockey is hockey played in it's purest form.

Eight months can't get here soon enough.

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