Monday, March 6, 2017

2017 Boys Class AA State Tournament Preview

The eight teams are set for the Class AA 2017 Boys State Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center, March 8-11. I don't believe it is necessary to analyze the Class A tournament as Hermantown and Delano will be the heavy favorites to square off against each other Saturday morning, so I'm skipping that part of that tournament altogether. Here are the matchups in Class AA:

*Regular season stats and records noted, unless otherwise stated.

#2 St. Thomas Academy (20-4-1) vs. Lakeville South (15-9-1), Thursday, 11 am

St. Thomas Academy (STA) steamrolled their way through the sectional playoffs against East Ridge, Eagan, and Bloomington Jefferson - teams not ranked in the top 20 in the state, according to Let's Play Hockey. In those games, STA gave up one goal, but the competition made them one of the least tested teams coming into the state tournament. During the regular season, amongst other teams making it to state, STA beat Wayzata, split the season series against Hill-Murray a game apiece, and had a regulation tie against Eden Prairie at the Schwan's Gold Cup (Eden Prairie advanced in a shootout). With Hill-Murray being the signature victory, they have played a challenging schedule with games against teams mentioned above, plus Edina, Minnetonka, and Centennial. The team has two players with 20+ goals, and goaltender Atticus Kelly keeps them in games with a terrific .927 SV%.

Lakeville South got past their vulnerable northern counterpart to win the Section 1AA championship. North beat South twice during the regular season, and it's tough to beat a team three straight. It does happen every so often, as Edina completed the trifecta against Eden Prairie during the 2014-15 season. South does not score much, with no single player with more than 13 goals during the regular season. While not a deeply talented team, it is getting respectable goaltending out of Isaiah DiLaura with a .914 SV%. They played a more challenging schedule over the second half of season that included aforementioned Lakeville North, along with Holy Family and Duluth East, but did not get it's defining victory until defeating North in the section championship. South stayed mainly in the bottom tier of the top 20 rankings all year, and they are perhaps generating the least amount of buzz among teams in the tournament.

Pick: St. Thomas Academy

Players to watch:

#23 Willie Reim - 20 goals, 45 points
# 2 Robbie Stucker (NAHL, Minnesota Magicians) - an offensive defenseman with 40 points

Lakeville South:
#10 Josh Ess (Wisconsin) - an offensive defenseman and team leader with 28 points
#21 Sam Malinski - another offensive defenseman with 27 points

#3 Moorhead (19-3-3) vs. Hill-Murray (16-5-4), Thursday, 1 pm

Like St. Thomas Academy, Moorhead got through their section with relative ease. They did not allow a goal during their run to state. The team's primary season scoring came from it's top line of centerman Cole O' Connell, and wingers Carter Randklev and Jack Stetz, that combined for 124 points during the regular season. Moorhead defeated Hill-Murray, 4-3, in the regular season finale and their other notable victory came against Holy Family, one of the top teams in the state. If not for Grand Rapids run through section 7AA, Moorhead would have been the outstate team with the best opportunity of winning the state title.  Both goalies on the Spuds roster have seen a fair number of games, with save percentages better than .920. Like Eden Prairie, Moorhead has not lost a game in 2017, finishing the regular season with a 15 game winning streak.

Hill-Murray defeated a top five team in Stillwater in sectional play to reach the state tournament.  Perhaps a home game for Hill-Murray playing on it's home rink at Aldrich Arena.  Hill-Murray got most of it's production from Brock Bremer and Kyler Yeo, but neither player reached the 20 goal plateau this season. The highlight of this team has been the performance of goaltender Jake Begley, who posted an incredible .936 SV% this season, and is up for the Frank Brimsek Award for top senior goaltender, and is the only finalist from Class AA.

Pick: Moorhead

Players to watch:

#6 Carter Randklev (USHL, Fargo Force) - 46 points, 26 goals
#11 Cole O' Connell - 20 goals, 41 points
#21 Jack Stetz - 27 assists, 37 points

#20 Brock Bremer - 19 goals, 40 points
#9 Kyler Yeo (USHL, Omaha Lancers) - 21 assists, 34 points
#1 Jake Begley (USHL, Cedar Rapids RoughRiders) - Frank Brimsek Award finalist, top Class AA goaltender in the state.

#1 Eden Prairie (19-4-2) vs. Wayzata (7-17-1), Thursday, 6 pm

Eden Prairie comes into the tournament seeking to avenge last year's championship loss to Wayzata.  The Eagles survived a back-and-forth game against Holy Family in the section final that may have ultimately decided who the state champion ends up being this year. Eden Prairie struggled during the first half of the season, failing to put away teams such as Elk River and Grand Rapids at the Edina Holiday Classic, and then turned in a lackluster performance at the Schwan's Gold Cup with a shootout win and two losses. Eden Prairie turned things around in 2017, and they remain unbeaten since the Gold Cup. The team is lead by Mr. Hockey finalist Casey Mittelstadt, an offensive playmaker with 64 points, 43 of those as assists. Hunter Johannes brings a physical, offensive presence, but has an inability to stay out of the penalty box. Nicky Leivermann, another Mr. Hockey finalist, anchors the defense as a two-way player with 34 points. Nick Wiencek is a top ten netminder, and posts a .932 SV%. Eden Prairie is the only team remaining in the top five state rankings by Let's Play Hockey.

Wayzata is the Cinderella story of the tournament, a title shared until Bloomington Jefferson was knocked out by St. Thomas Academy in their section final.  The defending state champions in Class AA couldn't find the same success it had last season, with it's shining moment being a tie to Hill-Murray at the end of January.  Wayzata came alive during the sections and knocked off powerhouse Edina, a team that many believed of having the easy path to state, to claim a spot in the tourney.  Much of that success was due to outstanding goaltending by Reid Waszczenko, who recorded just one-win and a .893 SV% during the regular season. The Trojans production came primarily from three players - Griffen Ness, Colin Schmidt, and Grant Anderson. Will Wayzata see a resurgence and play for a consecutive championship, or will the clock strike midnight on this unbelievable run?

Pick: Eden Prairie

Players to watch:

Eden Prairie:
#11 Casey Mittelstadt (Minnesota, Mr. Hockey finalist) - 64 points, 43 assists
#27 Hunter Johannes (USHL, Lincoln Stars)  - 45 points
#4 Nicky Leivermann (Notre Dame) - 34 points

#22 Griffin Ness - 26 points
#3 Colin Schmidt - 24 points
#1 Reid Waszczenko - 2 shutouts and .983 SV% in section play

#4 Maple Grove (19-6-0) vs. #5 Grand Rapids (17-7-1), Thursday, 8 pm

Maple Grove joins the state tournament after defeating Centennial in the section final.  The Crimson played consistent throughout the season with no real ups or down.  In the state rankings, they found themselves often in the mid-tier of the top 20 all year.  They are not the flashiest team, but Maple Grove snuck out a 1-0 victory over Holy Family and defeated Hill-Murray during the season.  The team does not have a ton of star power, but is lead offensively by Sam Huff (62 points), and Justin Kelley (48 points).  Jack Kelly leads the defense with 30 points on 22 assists.

Grand Rapids drew the four seed in sections, and were able to pull off impressive wins over Elk River and Duluth East. At the start of the season, Rapids was looking like the team to beat in the state, rattling off seven wins before losing to Elk River at the Edina Holiday Classic. After losing three of four games to start the new year, it followed with six wins, then lost three of four to end the season.  Grand Rapids might have as much top end talent as Eden Prairie.  They are lead by Micah Miller (56 points), a St. Cloud recruit, and perhaps the next exciting player in the tournament to Casey Mittlestadt, and like Casey, is a Mr. Hockey finalist. He is joined by other Division I recruits, Blake McLaughlin, and Gavin Hain.  The team is strong defensively with John Stampohar and Michael Heitkamp. In goal is Zach Stejskal, a keeper with a solid .920 SV%. Is this the Grand Rapids team that began the season, or the one at the end?  If it's the former, this team has the ability to win the tournament.

Pick: Grand Rapids

Players to watch:

Maple Grove:
#19 Sam Huff - 62 points
#9 Justin Kelley - 48 points
#6 Jack Kelly - 30 points

Grand Rapids:
#20 Micah Miller (St. Cloud, Mr. Hockey finalist) - 21 goals, 56 points
#7 Blake McLaughlin (Minnesota) - 49 points
#8 Gavin Hain (North Dakota) - 48 points

Semi-finals (Friday):
Moorhead over St. Thomas Academy
Eden Prairie over Grand Rapids

Championship (Saturday):
Eden Prairie over Moorhead

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