The 75th Minnesota boys’ high school state tournament will take place March 6-9 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. Photo: Nick Wosika
You could say that the Trek to the X begins in October when captain’s practice begins. Coming into the 75th season of the Minnesota boys’ high school hockey state tournament, most hockey fans know who the stalwarts are and who the challengers may be. But it usually takes until midway through the season to really see where teams are standing. There are always several factors that can play a role in a team’s uprising, or their demise.
This week we take a look at the top 10 Minnesota Class AA and Class A boys' hockey teams based on Let’s Play Hockey’s rankings on Jan. 9. While there are some sure-fires among them, there are also a few surprises. The looming question is, who will ultimately complete the trek all the way to the Xcel Energy Center in March?
Minnetonka senior goalie Charlie Glockner has backstopped the No. 1 Skippers to a 14-0-0 overall record. Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill
1. Minnetonka (14-0-0)
The defending state champions picked up where they left off last year, winning their first 14 games. The Skippers have done so with a potent offensive attack, but it is also their ability to keep the puck, not just out of their net, but also out of their zone. They have not allowed more than two goals in any single game and have only allowed two goals in three games. Two of those games were against top-10 teams Duluth East (5-2) and Maple Grove (5-2). The Skippers have three players with over 20 points and all are Division I commits — Josh Luedtke (9-15--24, Denver), Jack Bayless (7-15--22, UMass Lowell) and blueliner Grant Docter (3-19--22, Michigan Tech). They also have 10 players with at least 10 points. Couple the balanced scoring with a strong defense and one of the state’s top goalies in Charlie Glockner and it looks like it might be Tonka’s time all over again. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 9 at Edina.
2. Andover (12-0-1)
Some may be surprised Andover is undefeated and ranked No. 2 in the state, but don’t be. The Huskies were one goal away from a state trip last year when they lost to eventual state runner-up Duluth East in the Section 7AA finals. The Huskies also returned their top two scorers in Nick Dainty (19 points in 13 games) and Charlie Schoen (17 points in 10 games) and their goaltender Ben Fritsinger (0.88 GAA, .954 SV%). To get to state this year, they will have to battle through the ever-tough Section 7AA. But so far they have shown they are ranked right where they belong with a 3-2 win over Duluth East on Dec. 8. Another big match-up looms when the Huskies will take on top-ranked Minnetonka next Saturday as part of Hockey Day Minnesota in Bemidji. Key remaining match-up: Jan. 19 vs. Minnetonka (at Bemidji).
3. Edina (11-1-1)
A perennial power, this year’s version of the Hornets is no different. Led by their big three forwards – Mason Nevers (8-20--28), Liam Malmquist (12-14--26) and Jett Jungels (11-14--25) – their only loss came against a quality Chaska team who came from behind to beat a dogged Hornets’ squad in the Hockey For Life Classic over the holidays. The Hornets also tied No. 4 Maple Grove. Edina always plays a tough schedule and that schedule is about to get tougher as they get Hill-Murray, Minnetonka, Eden Prairie and Wayzata twice each in their final 12 games. They may not win them all, but chances are, due to these tough battles, the Hornets will be playing their best hockey come section playoff time. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 9 vs. Minnetonka.
4. Maple Grove (10-1-1)
The only smudges on the Crimson’s schedule are an early-season tie to No. 3 Edina and a 5-2 loss to top-ranked Minnetonka. That has Maple Grove in the top five with their 10-1-1 mark as they head down the stretch where they will face Andover twice, Blaine (Section 5AA rival), Hill-Murray and Duluth East. If they don’t get through their tough section this year, the future is bright. Their top two scorers are both underclassmen with freshman Justin Janicke (7-19--26) and sophomore Kyle Kukkonen (10-12--22). Key remaining match-up: Jan. 19 vs. Blaine.
5. Duluth East (9-3-1)
The Greyhounds made it to the state title game last year, but graduated some key seniors. This year, though, they have one of the top prospects in the state in Ryder Donovan (6-12--18). But the question is if the Hounds have the depth to get back to the big dance. They are coming off a 5-2 loss to the top-ranked Minnetonka last week, a repeat of last year’s title game. Their other two losses were against No. 2 Andover 2-1 and a 3-1 loss to Champlin Park where they ran into the Rebels’ Brennan Boynton who stopped 56 of 57 shots. There is still plenty of hockey to be played, and chances are we haven’t seen the best of the Greyhounds yet. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 12 vs. Maple Grove
6. White Bear Lake (11-1-1)
Is this the year the Bears break through and make a run to the X? So far they have been impressive despite not having the star power that some other top 10 teams have. WBL has impressive wins over Hill-Murray, Cretin-Derham Hall and Stillwater, and its only loss has come at the hands of No.5 Duluth East. Section 4AA has been owned mostly by Hill-Murray in recent years. But could this be the Bears’ turn? Chances are it will be a Pioneers/Bears section final once again. They will have to play Minnetonka, Andover, Blaine and Edina ... all good tests to see if these Bears will claw their way to a section title. Key remaining match-up: Jan. 29 vs. Blaine.
7. Blaine (7-2-2)
A 3-2 loss to Maple Grove, a 7-6 loss to Eden Prairie and 1-1 ties with both Andover and Duluth East says that Blaine is on the cusp of breaking into the top five if they have a strong stretch of games in the coming weeks. Led by one of the state’s best players in Bryce Brodzinksi (13-20--33), the Bengals will have a tough test this Saturday against Holy Family at TRIA Rink in St. Paul. They will also play Andover, Maple Grove, White Bear Lake and Hill-Murray down the stretch. Those three games will determine where they land in the rankings, but what really matters is how they will fare in Section 5AA where they and Maple Grove look to be the two vying for a trip to the X. Key remaining match-up: Jan. 19 at Maple Grove.
8. Eden Prairie (8-4-1)
The Eagles already have four losses, and their schedule is about to get tougher. Down the stretch, they will play Duluth East, and Edina and Minnetonka twice. But they have strong senior leadership in Jack Jensen (15-12--27) who is headed to the Gophers. And there’s a couple more Mittelstadts coming up through the ranks already making noise. Junior John Mittelstadt has eight goals and 24 points, and sophomore defenseman Luke Mittelstadt has 19 assists and 22 points. The Eagles got knocked out in the first round of Section 2AA playoffs last season by Chaska. They might be out for revenge come section playoff time this year. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 14 at Edina.
9. Thomas Academy (10-3-1)
The Cadets moved into the top 10 this week after big wins over Rosemount, Mahtomedi and Cretin-Derham Hall. After winning their section last year, it looks like they have the inside spot heading into the second half of this season as well. Rosemount looks to be the main contender with Eastview always a formidable foe as well. The Cadets, like White Bear Lake, don’t have one specific player who will light the lamp 30 times, but they have solid depth and play a strong system that makes them very difficult to beat. Their losses have come against Minnetonka, Edina and Hill-Murray, and they tied Eden Prairie 2-2. Count the Cadets as one of several teams, who, if they get hot at the right time, could make some big noise late in the year. Key remaining match-Up: Jan. 31 vs. Hill-Murray.
10. Chaska (9-5-0)
This team is loaded with talent and it’s only a matter of time before things start clicking on all cylinders. Perhaps they already have. The Hawks have won their last five games, including a 4-3 win over No. 3 Edina and a 6-3 win over No. 8 Eden Prairie. They have four Division I commits, led by offensive defenseman Mike Koster (9-16--25, Minnesota). Rhett Pitlick (Minnesota) leads the squad at 13-16--29 and 6-5 Blaine Warnert (12-7--19, Omaha) and Shane LaVelle (10-5--15, Wisconsin) round out the fearsome foursome. Watch out for these guys down the stretch.
Other Class AA teams to watch:
• Hill-Murray (8-3-1) – Like Edina, Hill-Murray is a program that is always there at the end of the year and always has a chance to hoist the trophy. Last year they upset White Bear Lake in the section final despite finishing the season with a .500 record. Last year’s young team is a year older, however, and could make some noise in the postseason.
• Rosemount (11-3-0) – Don’t be surprised that Rosemount is on the cusp of the top 10 ... they have had a successful and growing youth program for several years as the program has made a positive turn toward the future. The Irish have proven to be resilient, winning five one-goal games thus far and are allowing just 2.21 goals per game through the first half of the season. In order to get through Section 3AA, however, they will have to get past St. Thomas Academy, who handed them a 3-1 loss Jan. 3, which included an empty-netter in a game the Irish outshot the Cadets 43-28. That means it could be anyone’s section.
• Wayzata (8-4-2) – The Trojans are a skilled bunch with an unbelievably tough schedule. They will get Edina and Minnetonka twice down the stretch, and we know from the past few years that no matter their win-loss mark or ranking coming into the playoffs, they are always a team to be reckoned with.
• Roseau (9-2-1) – After a slow start, the Rams have won eight in a row and could be the team that comes out of Section 8AA.
What makes high school hockey in Minnesota so great are the unknowns that come with every season. Minnetonka might be the best team in the state right now, but that doesn’t mean they will be standing on top in the end. The list above is a good idea of who we may see at the X come March, but there might be a team or two not listed who could go on a late run and make things happen. These next seven weeks are sure to be as entertaining as ever. It is why we love watching high school hockey and why it will always remain the best ticket in town, and why the long, cold winter in Minnesota truly is the best time of year for hockey fans.
Hermantown senior defenseman Sam High looks to lead the Hawks to their third Class A state title in the last four years. Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill
Look who’s back on top. While the Class A field might not be as deep as the Class AA field, it is just as intriguing. Hermantown was ranked No. 2 until this week when they made the leap to No. 1 after St. Cloud Cathedral lost their first game of the season to … you guessed it … the Hawks.
Here is a look at the top teams who will be vying for a trip to the X as the second half of the Class A season gets underway.
1. Hermantown (9-3-0)
Sure they have lost three games, but all three losses have to come to Class AA teams, and good ones such as Wayzata, Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Rosemount. All were one-goal losses and the Hawks have also defeated Eden Prairie and last week beat Cathedral 2-1 in what could end up a precursor to the state title. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 2 at Mahtomedi.
2. St. Cloud Cathedral (12-1-0)
The Crusaders are probably the deepest Class A squad when it comes to pure skill. They are loaded with talent on both ends of the ice. They are currently without University of Minnesota recruit Nate Warner due to an injury and are still winning games handily. They have outscored opponents 74-17, but their craziest stat is they have allowed just one third period goal all season. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 9 at Mahtomedi.
3. Mahtomedi (10-2-0)
The Zephyrs have become one of those programs that is always in the mix at the end of the season, but just can’t seem to get that coveted state title they have always yearned for. That’s because there have always been the Hermantowns, East Grand Forks, Brecks and St. Thomas Academy’s of the world. But Orono made it through last season to claim their first title, and Mahtomedi certainly fits a similar bill. They recently lost their second game of the season, but it was to STA, who is now a Class AA power. They still have Hill-Murray, Cathedral, Hermantown and STA on their schedule, and how they do against those teams will be a telltale sign of how good they are. Key remaining match-Up: Feb. 2 vs. Hermantown.
4. East Grand Forks (11-3-0)
After starting the season 11-1, East Grand Forks has lost their last two games, 5-2 to Grand Forks Central (N.D.) and 4-3 to Moorhead. They hope to get back on the winning track and make a run like they have so many times in the past decade. They will play Roseau twice, and will match up against Alexandria, who finished as state runner-up last year and return a solid roster. All will be good tests. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 9 at Alexandria.
5. Thief River Falls (9-4-2)
Thief River has had somewhat of a Jekyll and Hyde season thus far, losing to the likes of Farmington and Tartan, but tying the likes of Roseau, and beating Bemidji and Warroad. Evan Bushy, a St. Cloud State commit, leads their squad down the stretch. They will get Roseau and Warroad again, and East Grand Forks twice. You know they are good because they sit atop the Mariucci Conference, which includes Moorhead, Roseau and Bemidji, all Class AA squads. Last season, they made it through sections by upsetting Warroad and East Grand Forks as the No. 4 seed. Can they do it again? Key remaining match-up: Feb. 12 at East Grand Forks.
6. Orono (8-4-0)
The Spartans took home the title last year but that was a long time and 10 seniors ago. They are still a very good team, but have scored only 39 goals in the team’s first 12 games. They have also given up 39, but 26 of those came in lopsided losses to Grand Forks Central (N.D.) 10-0 and Class AA powers Chaska 7-1 and Holy Family 8-0. Their other loss came against East Grand Forks in the season opener, 3-1. The second half of the season will tell the tale as to whether Orono can make their trek back to the X or if it will be an early exit after earning glory last March. Key remaining match-up: Jan. 12 vs. St. Cloud Cathedral.
7. Sartell-St. Stephen (10-2-0)
The Sabres are one of those teams who is good year in and year out, but are stuck in arguably the toughest Class A section in the state with other perennial powers Alexandria and St. Cloud Cathedral. One of those three teams will survive and it could be the Sabres. This is a team that defeated bonafide Class AA contender Chaska 3-1 earlier this season. Section 6A will be one to watch close as three of the state’s top 10 teams compete. Two will go home and one will move on. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 7 vs. Alexandria.
8. Alexandria (10-4-0)
The Cardinals are coming off a year where they fell one goal short of a state championship. The good news is they return their top scorers in Ben Doherty and Jack Westlund. Doherty was a 64-point scorer as a sophomore before struggling with injuries last year. Westlund has good size, speed and hands, and Caleb Strong gives them a trio of players who can bury the puck. They are coming off an impressive 3-2 win over Wayzata after suffering a 1-0 loss to Sartell-St. Stephen. The two teams are very evenly matched, which should make their section fun to watch as they both vie to knock off each other and then try to defeat Cathedral. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 7 at Sartell-St. Stephen.
9. Warroad (8-5-0)
Everybody loves to see Hockeytown USA down at the X, and they have been there aplenty. This season, they could be on the verge of another trip. They played East Grand Forks tough in a 2-1 loss and beat Sartell-St. Stephen 4-3. But they face a tough section, having to get through both East Grand Forks and Thief River Falls. They will play TRF on Jan. 17, and EGF on Feb. 5. Both games will be big signs on how the section will play out. Key remaining match-up: Feb. 5 vs. East Grand Forks.
10. Totino-Grace (9-4-0)
The Eagles are off to a good start this season with nine wins, but the question is are they good enough to defeat Mahtomedi in Section 4A. Three of their losses have come against top Class A squads East Grand Forks and Hermantown, and Class AA’s Maple Grove. They have a good schedule down the stretch with contests against Mahtomedi, Blaine and Andover. The Mahtomedi game will likely be a precursor to the Section 4A finals and will be one to watch closely. Key remaining match-up: Jan. 22 at Mahtomedi.
Other teams to watch:
• Monticello (9-4-1) – After a sluggish start, Monticello has won seven of their past eight games as they head into the second half of the season. Troy Dahlmeier (17-16--33) is a dynamic player who can take over games so they will be a team to watch.
• North Branch (11-2-1) – It will likely be Monticello and North Branch vying for a trip to the X in Section 5A. Last year it was Monticello who clipped them in the finals 4-1 after a 20-win season. This year it looks as though Section 5A is up in the air.
So the question remains, as it usually does this time of year. Will we see the familiar foes at the X, or will there be a surprise or two, such as Sartell or Totino-Grace breaking through the section gridlock. Will Hermantown get back on top or is it finally Cathedral’s year? Or is it the year of the Zephyr?
Sit back and get some popcorn. It’s going to be a fun ride.