Thursday, December 28, 2017

2017 Schwan's Cup Gold - Day 1

I attended the evening session of the opening day of Schwan's Cup Gold games at Ridder Arena. Here are some notes from the pair of games I saw on Tuesday night. Got to my seat just as the puck dropped for Centennial and Hill-Murray.

Centennial 4, Hill-Murray 4

While I was primarily interested in the nightcap between Edina and Minnetonka, a battle of #1 vs #2 in state, a matchup of the two top teams that occurs infrequently during the regular season, Centennial was still a mystery team of all the teams in the top ten to me. They had beaten Elk River and give Duluth East a competitive game. Coming into the season, my expectations were high for Hill-Murray, but the team struggled out of the gate going from a pre-season top ten team to being out of the top twenty entirely in the coaches poll. With a private school, there are the transfers in and out, so the experience level of playing together is not there.

Expecting Centennial to handle Hill-Murray rather handily, what I was given between Centennial and Hill-Murray by the conclusion was an entertaining back-and-forth affair that required a shootout to determine which team advances in the championship bracket. After the first period, the score was tied at 2. Lucas McGregor and Joshua Hermes scored for Centennial and Michael Fleischhacker and Brett Oberle scored for Hill-Murray. Hill-Murray had a slight edge in shots and also controlled the puck more in the attacking zone, so advantage Pioneers after one. Centennial came out and controlled play in the second period, creating more scoring opportunities, but the frame finished with both teams trading goals and the score tied at 3. McGregor got his second goal for the Cougars, and Charle Strobel scored for Hill-Murray. The three period was pretty even and did not feel any real advantage for either team, however, McGregor got the hat trick, or "hatty" to be hip, in the period on a nice move to get around the goaltender and go backhand, making a case to be Minnesota's Mr. Hockey this year. This kid is the heart and soul of Centennial's offense. Without him, this feels like an average team offensively. The game went to overtime as both teams traded goals yet again with the other goal in the period being scored by Fleischhacker of Hill-Murray. Overtime was pretty even as well, and after the eight minutes session, the game went to a shootout. Hill-Murray moved on to the semi-final around by scoring twice and McGregor got the lone goal in the shootout, making him the only player on Centennial to beat Hill-Murray's Wyatt Vint all night. As Hill-Murray celebrated the shootout victory (officially recorded as a tie), the Centennial bench stood in disbelief as they came to the realization they would be finishing the tournament in the consolation bracket. Lucas McGregor was the best player on the ice this game.

What I learned from watching Centennial is that they need to play a more defensive style of hockey against higher caliber opponents to give themselves a chance to win since Lucas McGregor is the primary offensive threat on this team. They need to keep opponents to two or three goals and not get into high scoring track meets. On the other hand, Hill-Murray has a nice collection of skilled players, but they do not have that one explosive guy, or difference maker on the roster like Centennial has with McGregor, a terrific playmaker. One thing to watch the second half of the season will be whether the Pioneers begin to gel as a team and start to trend upwards and be the team to beat in Section 4. Stillwater will be the primary competition in section play and have played well this season.

Minnetonka 5, Edina 2

Now onto the main event that fans had been eagerly awaiting. Like two heavyweights in a boxing match getting ready to collide. Ridder Arena was nearing capacity after a disappointing crowd for the earlier contest. All season long, I was reading all the hype on Edina and the questions that came up by those in the high school hockey community on whether they would have an undefeated season and the comparisons already being made to the great Bloomington Jefferson teams of the 1990s. Edina had played top level teams in Holy Family, Cretin, Elk River, and Edina, but certainly had not faced anyone in the top five. Now we finally got to see that opportunity. They were left vulnerable at the Edina Classic when Elk River managed to score seven goals on them. In the warm-ups, I saw Demetrios Koumontzis and Lewis Crosby for Edina on the ice, both of whom missed time in the previous game due to injuries, so it was a good sign both teams would have their full rosters available.

The first period was an even duel between the two schools as they traded a pair of goals. The Joe Molenaar, Luke Loheit, and Matt Koethe line, nicknamed the "MLK line", came to play. Molenaar had one of the Skippers goals during the period. Josh Luedtke got Minnetonka on the board first. Jett Jungels and Sammy Walker got Edina's next two goals. While at intermission, I wanted to check out the lone concession stand at Ridder Arena, which was surprising considering the building holds 3,400 fans. There was quite the line, which was not moving real fast. By the end of the first intermission, I had moved less than 10 feet. The second period started and I was pretty much stuck listening to the action, unable to see around people in the standing room area above the bowl. Minnetonka scored twice in the first five minutes of the period, both goals I missed. Koethe scored both. Wanting a brat and hot chocolate, both of which were sold out, I settled for a hot dog and watched the rest of the game standing up and walking around to get different perspectives of the action. The second period was all Minnetonka, and that was the difference in this game. Edina didn't score in the period or for the rest of the game. In the third period, you could sense the urgency from Edina to get back into the game. They had some opportunities, including a shot that rang off the pipe by Sammy Walker in an attempt to close the lead, but the Hornets could not get anything to go as Charlie Glockner came up with big saves. Minnetonka clearly deserved to be #1 after this game. It was such a big game, I momentarily forgot there was still more hockey to be played the next two nights. Hopefully Minnetonka was able to enjoy the sweet taste of victory for a little while.

Minnetonka would go on to play Hill-Murray the next night. The Skippers are a talented team with no one individual player that sticks out from the rest. Perhaps that is the beauty of the team, they just have the chemistry and play well together. Certainly not a collection of individual stars. As for Edina, it perhaps was a good thing to get this loss out of the way early in the season to bring the team and supporters back down to earth. It also created the notion that this season is up for grabs. Edina was not going to just simply run away with the title this year.

Between the two games, I certainly felt that I got my ten dollars worth. This was my first visit to Ridder Arena, and aside from the concession issue, it has a nice, intimate feeling to it. It is definitely a great venue for high school sports with ample seating for all but the larger section tournaments, where Mariucci Arena would be required.

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