Thursday, March 8, 2018

State Tournament Expansion

By Michael Platzer

Class AA state quarterfinals were predictabley uncompetitive this year, which is again sparking discussion of a format change, namely expanding the state field of 8 to a field of 16 teams. Fans, coaches, sponsors, advertisers, and broadcasters all have legitimate arguements for change; not to mention increased revenues for the MSHSL.

The field expansion would likely be accomplished by advancing the two section finalists to the state field of sixteen. The section final would still be played, thereby retaining the prestige of winning these tournaments. The teams would then be reseeded based on a combination of section tournament placement and final state rankings. This would allow good teams from the sections stacked with elite teams to add even more excitement to the tournament, sections 2AA and 7AA come to mind this year--which go 5 deep with solid clubs.

Here is what the tournament field would have looked liked this year based on advancing the section semi-finalists to the big show--the rankings are speculative of course. Granted there would be some lopsided match-ups in the first round, by the quarterfinals the field would likely be more competitive than this year's field.

1. Edina
2. Minnetonka
3. Duluth East
4. St. Thomas Academy
5. Holy Family Catholic
6. Andover
7. Eastview
8. Wayzata
9. White Bear Lake
10. Centennial
11. Moorhead
12. Hill-Murray
13. St. Michael-Albertville
14. Lakeville North
15. Maple Grove
16. Lakeville South

With the already inherint difficulty of getting tickets for the semis and finals, how long will it be before March Madness is at The Bank?

Monday, March 5, 2018

Ramblings from the Rink

by Michael Platzer

Southwest Big 6: Edina, Minnetonka, Holy Family Catholic, Chaska, Eden Prairie, and Wayzata, sections 2AA and 6AA.

Section tournaments recently concluded, the best of the Southwest Big 6 are traveling to the 2018 MSHSL Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center, March 7, 8, 9, and 10. Edina and Minnetonka are head-and-shoulder-pads above the rest, both featuring formidable defense, elite team speed, and snipers galore--goaltenders beware!

The very slight edge goes to the Hornets for brick-wall defense; lightning-fast transitions; and surgically-precise up-ice rushes geared to feeding the trailer. The Skippers surpass all in overall team speed and creative offensive chaos.

Holy Family Catholic is the odd-man out of The Tourney, losing a double-overtime heart-breaker to Tonka's Skippers. A spectacular performance by the goalkeep wasn't enough, as the Fire's strength, offensive puck control, was disrupted by the speedy Skippers.

Chaska, Eden Prairie, and Wayzata were the best of the rest, and could defeat each other or any superior opponent on any given night at the rink. Young Chaska is comparable to Minnetonka of yesteryear, but suffered significant injuries to key players, including goaltender. Eden Prairie features elite talent, but sometimes sloppy puck-work. And Wayzata remains the perennial blue-collar tough-guy team, but lacks scoring proficiency. Which all added up to ultra-competitive sections this year, which will continue into the foreseeable future, barring the rumored exodus of key players.

Addendums from the Box:

Also-Rans: Holy Family Catholic and Andover are arguably the two best squads not in this year's post-season finale at the X.

Tourney-Watch: Can St. Thomas Academy's physical defense disrupt the Hornets' or Skippers' always impressive offensive output?

Crystal Puck: Barring departures, Chaska and talented, disciplined Eastview will be top 20 staples in 2018-19.

Apologies to 2AA and 6AA Benilde-St. Margaret's, Cretin-Derham Hall, and Prior Lake as I did not attend any of their February games.

Class AA 2018 Boys State Hockey Tournament

The eight teams are set for the Class AA 2018 Boys State Hockey Tournament at Xcel Energy Center, March 8-10. There were some surprises this year as number one section seeds White Bear Lake and Moorhead were upset by Hill-Murray and St. Michael-Albertville, respectively.

#2 Edina (26-2-0) vs. Lakeville North (16-10-2), Thursday, 11 am

Edina is coming into the state tournament on a roll, allowing only one goal in each of its three section playoff games. Edina's section final opponent in 6AA, Wayzata, a team ranked towards the bottom of the top ten all year, was no match for the Hornets as the contest finished in running time. During the regular season, amongst other teams making it to state, Edina took one of three against Minnetonka, and recorded victories against Centennial, Hill-Murray, and St. Michael-Albertville. This is team loaded with talent, and are very capable of winning the state title. Mr. Hockey finalist Sammy Walker, Mason Nevers, Jett Jungels, and Demetrios Koumontzis all finished the regular season with 20 or more goals. Sammy Walker might be the most exciting player to watch in the state with his speed and playmaking ability. Ben Brinkman anchors the blue line for the Hornets, and is very capable of scoring. Garrett Mackay has played well in net as of late for the Hornets, allowing just six goals in the last five games. He enters the tournament with a respectable .915 SV%. I like this Edina squad a lot. In their two losses to Minnetonka, the Hornets were without key players, either due to injury or off-ice situations. A fully loaded, healthy Edina team would by the favorite to win it all.

Lakeville North punched their ticket to state by squeaking out a 4-3 victory over their inter-city rival, Lakeville South, in the Section 1AA championship. This North team may not be as talented as previous years, but they nearly pulled out a victory over Minnetonka in The Opener Thanksgiving showcase, and defeated Eastview twice this year, a team ranked in the middle of the state's top 20 in the final regular season poll. They have played a schedule that included opponents such as Duluth East and St. Thomas. Against the Greyhounds, the Panthers narrowly lost 6-5. North was in and out of the bottom tier of the top 20 rankings all year. The team has one scorer with 40 or more points, and the goaltending duties have been split during the season. Will Johnson boasts a .925 SV%. This team is generating the least amount of buzz among teams in the tournament, but are capable of making games close against top teams.

Pick: Edina

Players to watch:

#10 Sammy Walker (Minnesota, Mr. Hockey finalist) - 32 goals, 36 assists, 68 points
#18 Mason Nevers - 22 goals, 38 assists, 60 points
#17 Ben Brinkman (Minnesota) - two-way defenseman with 11 goals, 33 assists, and 44 points

Lakeville North:
#14 Spencer Schneider - 25 goals, 20 assists, 45 points
#  7 Blake Brandt - 13 goals, 25 assists, 38 points
#25 Shane Griffin - 19 goals, 19 assists, 38 points

#3 Duluth East (23-2-3) vs. St. Michael-Albertville (23-5-0), Thursday, 1 pm

Duluth East is the lone greater Minnesota representative at this year's tournament and return after a two-year hiatus. The Greyhounds needed the third period and overtime to comeback against Andover in the Section 7AA Final to get to St. Paul.

The team's primary season scoring came from it's top line, nicknamed the WMD line, that consists of Garrett Worth, Ian Mageau, and Ryder Donovan. Factoring in playoff stats, each of these players have at least 50 points for the year. Garrett Worth is certainly worthy (no pun intended) of being in the Mr. Hockey talk this year. Luke LaMaster is the rock the defense, but goaltending has been spotty for Duluth East, which could be the make or break for this team over the three days at Xcel Energy Center. Over the course of the season, Duluth East has played tournament teams Minnetonka, Centennial, and Lakeville North, securing victories and all three games. Duluth East has been ranked in the top five all year long, and the win over Minnetonka proves they are a viable contender for the championship.

St. Michael-Albertville is making their first state tournament appearance in school history after defeating Section 8AA top-seed Moorhead, 6-5. The Knights come into the state tournament on a 12 game winning streak. They were beat out by Centennial for the last state seed. The northwest suburban community had played a beefy schedule this year that featured Edina, Holy Family, and Moorhead. St. Michael-Albertville got most of it's production from Adam Flammang and Luc Laylin. The Knights will need goaltender Justin Damon to play well to allow them to hang with the top teams.

Pick: Duluth East

Players to watch:

Duluth East:
#  5 Garrett Worth - 42 goals, 22 assists, 64 points
#22 Ryder Donovan - 14 goals, 44 assists, 58 points
#23 Ian Mageau - 17 goals, 35 assists, 52 points

St. Michael-Albertville:
#11 Adam Flammang - 25 goals, 22 assists, 47 points
#  9 Luc Laylin - 12 goal, 32 assists, 44 points
#  2 Blake Spetz - 14 goals, 21 assists, 35 points

#1 Minnetonka (24-2-2) vs. Hill-Murray (13-11-4), Thursday, 6 pm

Minnetonka return to state for the first time since 2010 after defeating Holy Family in double-overtime thriller in the Section 2AA Final at Mariucci Arena. Holy Family was three seconds away from going to state until the Skippers tied it in regulation.

Minnetonka had been ranked in the top five all season long, with it's only blemishes against Edina and Duluth East, two schools in the state tournament. Minnetonka has beaten Edina twice this year. What makes the Skippers a contender, like Edina, is their depth, and the top two lines are capable of putting the puck into the net. Bobby Brink and Jack Bayless are around 50 points on the year and have great chemistry together on the ice. Josh Luedtke, one of the better defensemen in the tournament, has 31 points on the year. Charlie Glockner is capable of playing well in big games, and Minnetonka will rely on him.

Hill-Murray enters the tournament with a young team and an experienced head coach in Bill Lechner, who for my money, is one of the top coaches in the state.. This team qualifies as young when and eight grader and freshman are on the varsity roster. The Pioneers knocked off White Bear Lake, a team that had been in the top ten all year, in Section 4AA. It has been an up and down year for Hill-Murray. They had a respectable showing at the Schwan's Cup over Christmas, going toe-to-toe with Centennial, but they could not carry that winning formula throughout the rest of the regular season. However, they shutout Moorhead to end the regular season as the school pushed the youth movement on the roster. Seniors Michael Fleischhacker and Joey Petronack bring leadership as captains to this inexperienced squad. Hill-Murray is a great underdog in the tournament, and they will certainly have their work cut out for them against Minnetonka. They will need to capitalize on Skippers mistakes to stay in the game.

Pick: Minnetonka

Players to watch:

#29 Jack Bayless - 22 goals, 28 assists, 50 points
#  9 Bobby Brink (Denver) - 16 goals, 33 assists, 49 points
#10 Joe Molenaar - 29 goals, 8 assists, 37 points

#  9 Ben Helgeson (Wisconsin) - 19 goals, 16 assists, 35 points
#12 Michael Fleischhacker - 18 goals, 11 assists, 29 points
#19 Brett Oberle (Minnesota-Duluth) - 5 goals, 20 assists, 25 points

#4 St. Thomas Academy (25-2-1) vs. #5 Centennial (19-6-3), Thursday, 8 pm

St. Thomas Academy joins the state tournament after defeating Easview in the Section 3AA Final. It was not an easy fight for the Cadets as they were tied with the Lightning for two periods before taking over play in the third period. St. Thomas has been one of the powerhouse teams all year, ranked in the top five all season long. Against top seeded Minnetonka in the tournament, the two meetings this season have resulted in a loss and tie for the Cadets. Unseeded Hill-Murray and Lakeville North are other state tournament schools St. Thomas has faced, coming away with victories. Payton Matsui and Ray Christy have the majority of the points this season, while St. Thomas features one of the top goaltenders in the state in Atticus Kelly, who boasts a .941 SV% and 1.25 GAA, and is up for the Frank Brimsek Award. Kelly's big saves in the section final allowed St. Thomas to advance to play in St. Paul. This is a dangerous team, and a hot goaltender could put them in Saturday night's championship game.

Centennial advanced to the state tournament as the top seed in Section 5AA. At the start of the season, Centennial was considered by many pundits to be a top five team in the state. After starting the year strong, the Cougars struggled with the middle part of the schedule, and fell outside of the top ten. Lucas McGregor is Centennial's most explosive player, and his performance often dictates a game's outcome. The Cougars have played Duluth East, Hill Murray, and Edina this season among state tournament teams, but did not score a win against the trio, with the best result being a tie at the Schwan's Cup against Hill-Murray. The lack of depth is one knock against Centennial, and unfortunately that will eliminate a deep tourney run.

Pick: St. Thomas Academy

Players to watch:

St. Thomas Academy:
#14 Payton Matsui - 28 goals, 30 assists, 58 points
#15 Ray Christy (Colorado College) - 15 goals, 43 assists, 58 points
#30 Atticus Kelly - 21-1-1 record, .941 SV%, 1.25 GAA

#11 Lucas McGregor - 28 goals, 40 assists, 68 points
#14 Hayden Brickner - 22 goals, 26 assists, 48 points
#  8 Carter Wagner - 18 goals, 29 assists, 47 points

Semi-finals (Friday):
Edina over Duluth East
Minnetonka over St. Thomas Academy

Championship (Saturday):
Edina over Minnetonka