Tuesday, February 26, 2008

Michigan Tech at St. Cloud

Michigan Tech came out playing great in the first period, and as a result, got a few powerplays and had some great scoring chances early.

On Tech's first powerplay, Jimmy Kerr got the puck down low with a lot of net to shoot at, but wasn't able to pull the trigger and score. It was the start of a long night for him. The next shift, he got a great pass from behind the net, and with Jase Weslosky looking over the wrong shoulder, Kerr fired the puck into Weslosky's chest. Midway through the period on the powerplay, Tech worked the puck around beautifully and got St. Cloud out of position. The puck got passed over to Kerr in the exact same spot, where he fired a one-timer, only to have Jase Weslosky make a ridiculous acrobatic save. In the second period, Kerr got a pass on a two-on-one that he tried to one-timer, only to have the puck bounce off his stick and into the corner. By that point, Kerr snapped his stick and threw it across the ice, and really, who could blame him? To cap off the night, he got hurt in the third period.

Anyway, Tech had some great chances in the first period, but couldn't get the lead. If they had, I think it would have been a much different hockey game. Instead, St. Cloud got a powerplay at the end of the period, and capitalized. With less than 20 seconds left in the period, there was a loose puck at about the top of the left circle. A Tech penalty kill dove at it to try and knock it out of the zone, but missed. St. Cloud got control of the puck, and Tech had to scramble with one of their players out of the play. The puck quickly got moved down to Andreas Nodl on the goalline to the left of goalie Rob Nolan. Nolan had just about all the angles covered, but Nodl fired a wrist shot and bounced off the post, landing on the other side of the crease where Ryan Lasch was able to knock it in.

You might say it was a little bit of puck luck for St. Cloud to escape that period with a 1-0 lead, after Tech had so many great chances, and St. Cloud needed a lucky bounce off the post to score. But I think it highlights the difference between the two teams right now. Tech doesn't have a player like an Andreas Nodl that can take nothing and turn it into something. Instead, they were a few times where they had something, and turned it into nothing.

A lot of credit for the first period also goes to Weslosky. Weslosky hasn't played poorly this year, but he was also wasn't making many huge saves at critical times, which has been bad news for a team that struggled defensively and has needed a goalie to bail them out on several occasions. On Saturday, he made a couple of those huge, momentum-turning saves which I think was a huge boost for St. Cloud.

I should also mention that this was Marco Hunt's first series since his bungling of the DU/UND series. I thought he was really bad in the first period, but not that noticeable in the last two periods, which is pretty good for an official. I didn't get a great look at either of the two checking-from-behind majors handed out within 45 seconds of each other, so I can't comment on those. One thing I've noticed with Hunt this year, and it's not a major thing, is that he makes some bizarre choices in the naming of penalties.

The perfect example came in the first period. A Michigan Tech player came rushing down the ice with the puck, with St. Cloud's Garrett Raboin defending. Raboin tried to stand him at the blueline, so he stopped and tried to check at the player rushing at him. He maybe got his elbow up a little bit high. Hunt gave Raboin a two-minute penalty for hooking. Wait, what? I've never seen a player get a hooking penalty while standing face-to-face with an opponent.

At the start of the second period, the game really had a feel to it that whoever scored the next goal would probably win. If Tech scored and gained back the momentum, I thought they would have been able to roll the rest of the night. If St. Cloud scored again, I didn't see Tech being able to score three times to win. Tech's odds looked pretty good when St. Cloud took a 5-minute checking-from-behind major, but as I mentioned, Tech answered back with a check-from-behind about 45 seconds later, meaning a good chunk of the period was played 4-on-4. In kind of an odd choice, Tech had freshmen Jordan Baker serve the five-minute major. I could maybe understand the logic of that if Tech was going to be shorthanded, but four and a half out of the five minutes were going to be played 4-on-4, and Tech voluntarily took one of their fastest, most creative players off the ice. Later that period, Tech did play Baker in a 4-on-4 situation and seemed to do pretty well with him out there.

About midway through the period, St. Cloud extended their lead to two. John Swanson showed an amazing burst of speed to get around a Tech defenseman. He didn't score on the initial shot, but the puck got worked back out to the point, and after Robbie Nolan failed to cover a rebound on the shot from the point, Swanson was able to knock it back in. It kind of makes me wonder how a player as talented as Swanson only has five goals on the season. I know he spent a lot of time playing defense this year because St. Cloud was so weak back there, but it still seems like he should be contributing more offensively.

Things felt pretty comfortable for St. Cloud with a two goal lead. I was interested in seeing how St. Cloud would play in the third period with a lead, since that area has been one of their biggest problems all year. For the most part, I thought they did a decent job of locking things down. They gave up a few rushes, but Tech didn't have the firepower to make them pay for it. St. Cloud's fourth line put together a couple nice shifts, and was rewarded with a goal late in the game. Mary Mjelleli picked up an assist, doubling his season point total.

This was really a make-or-break weekend for Michigan Tech, and unfortunately, I think it may have broken them. A sweep would have moved them ahead of St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Duluth and kept them in the race for home ice. Now they're looking like a good bet for 9th place in the league.

St. Cloud on the other hand, has put themselves in a great position. They're back in position for an NCAA tournament bid, and are tied for 5th place in the WCHA. Their series against Wisconsin this weekend will be huge, especially since points will be tough to come by in the last weekend of the season against North Dakota. The Huskies now become huge fans of Michigan Tech. A good performance by Tech against Mankato would give St. Cloud a great shot at home ice, and St. Cloud needs Michigan Tech to stay in the top 25 in the RPI, or St. Cloud will lose their four wins against Tech in the TUC category of the Pairwise.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Section 8AA High School Preview

The Bracket.

Basically all you need to know is that this is the section with undefeated, top-ranked Roseau.

There are two other pretty decent teams in this section in Moorhead and Brainerd, though one will knock out the other before they reach Roseau. Brainerd lost their only meeting of the year with the Rams 7-0. Moorhead lost twice, 7-2 and 4-0.

That said, I think everyone has Roseau penciled in as the top seed at the state tournament, but I think this section final could be closer than people anticipate. Moorhead certainly won't lie down for the Rams and give them a free pass. Last year, Moorhead beat Roseau twice during the regular season, before the Rams upset them in the sectional final. Still, this Roseau team is on a different level than everyone else in the state, and I would be incredibly shocked if they didn't make it to the state tournament. Growing up in Roseau, those kids are fed a steady diet of the town's hockey history, and they realize they have a chance to write another important chapter, and I don't see them letting that opportunity go by.

Section 7AA High School Preview

The Bracket.

This is traditionally a very deep section, and this year is no exception. The 4/5 match-up between Cloquet and Elk Rapids should be an intense one. Even the 3/6 match-up between Grand Rapids and Forest Lake should be interesting, since Forest Lake beat Grand Rapids early in the season at Grand Rapids. Forest Lake goalie Paul Moberg is capable of stealing a game.

Second seed Anoka should come out of the bottom half of that section. They've a great top line with John O'Neill, Cory Belisle, and Berkley Scott.

I think Duluth East will be the team to make it to the state tournament, however. The Greyhounds are a well-coached team with an amazing first line that moves the puck about as well as any high school team I've seen. They're pretty solid on defense too, with two big, up-and-coming defenseman in Joe Arbour and Derek Forbort. You can also add that they will have a home-ice advantage playing at the DECC in Duluth.

Section 6AA Preview

The Bracket.

These could be the best two semifinal games in the state. On the top half of the draw, top seed Minnetonka will play a surprising Hopkins team that spent much of the year in the top ten of the state. Goalie Alex Fons should keep Hopkins in the game and make things interesting, but I think Minnetonka will prevail.

On the other half, Benilde-St. Margaret's will play Eden Prairie. I'll take Benilde just because they are a team that relies a little more on seniors, while Eden Prairie's most talented players are a little younger.

In the final, in what will be one of the best games of sectionals, I think Benilde will pull out the win. It's a lot of pressure on a sophomore, but goalie Jacob Meyers has proven that he's capable of stealing big games for Benilde. Minnetonka won their only meeting of the season, and has received way more press, but I think Benilde is flying under the radar as a great team.

Section 5AA High School Preview

The Bracket.

This section is filled with a lot of pretty good teams that maybe aren't as well known as some of the teams in the southern Twin Cities suburbs. Teams like Champlin Park, Osseo, and Maple Grove quietly put together pretty nice seasons, without a lot of big name talent, and they are all capable of making some noise in this section.

All year, however, it has seemed destined that the trip to the state tournament will come down to the winner of a game between Centennial and Blaine. It should be a great game between two intense rivals, but I like Blaine to make it to the state tournament. Centennial has some talented players, though most are still juniors, while Blaine relies on senior talent. I think that extra experience and maturity will give the Bengals the slight edge in the big game.

Section 4AA High School Preview

The Bracket.

Hill-Murray headlines this section as one of the top team's in the state. Nobody else in this section really has had a great year. Roseville is seeded second, but the Raiders really lack depth this year. Third seed White Bear Lake has had kind of an up-and-down year, that included having one of their better players kicked off the team.

I think White Bear will make it to the sectional final, setting up another classic White Bear/Hill sectional final, but I'll take Hill-Murray to win. The Pioneers have had White Bear's number the past few years, and Hill-Murray has won some very big, very close games in recent weeks, and I think that confidence will really help their team.

Section 3AA High School Preview

The Bracket.

A few weeks ago, I came across an old message board thread about how Rosemount had a number of talented players in their hockey system, and there was a good deal of debate about which ones would stay at Rosemount, and which would move to St. Thomas Academy. It ended up being about 50/50 staying vs. leaving. Those that went to St. Thomas have had a great deal of success at the state tournament, while those that stayed in Rosemount haven't. That could change this year, however, as the Irish are the section's top seed.

They'll likely meet a talented Cretin-Derham Hall team in the semifinals that has some excellent players on their team, but have really had a disappointing season.

On the other half of the bracket, Eastview is a potentially dangerous team. Forward Rob Maloney, doesn't get a lot of press, but is a very dangerous player.

Like Section 1AA, I think this section has the potential for a big upset, but I'll play it safe and take Rosemount to earn their trip to St. Paul.

Section 2AA High School Preview

The Bracket.

This is going to be a very fun section. I think the first thing that jumped to everybody looking over the brackets was the potential match-up between Edina and Holy Angels in the semifinals. After years of playing the role of the heavy favorite, Holy Angels gets to come into a game as the underdog to a powerful Edina team. The Stars should give Edina a huge test, but I think Edina will be too strong.

Third seed Bloomington Jefferson has experienced a bit of a renaissance after really struggling last season. I think Burnsville's top line of Barnes/Hendrickson/Perisic will be too much for them, however.

This section final should be a great game regardless of what combination of the top four teams make it. But I don't think we'll see a major upset here. Edina is just too good not to make it back to St. Paul for another shot at a state title.

Section 1AA High School Preview

The Bracket.

Last year was a banner year for Section 1AA when upstart Rochester Century shocked everybody with a come-from-behind overtime win over Hill-Murray in the first round of last year's playoffs, and when they followed that performance up two days later with another OT win over Burnsville to take third place. It was a great performance from a team that is from traditionally the weakest section in the state.

Unfortunately, this year is much more of a return to reality for the section that covers the southeast part of the state. Lakeville South earned the top seed, despite finishing the year with a losing record. Owatonna has the best record in the section, though most of those wins came against Class A cupcakes in the southern part of the state. They also got hammered by some good Class A teams.

It's a down year for all three Rochester schools in this section. This year was the first time since 1993 that a team from Rochester failed to win the Big 9 conference, and while that means the Section 1A tournament is very competitive, it is bad news for Section 1AA.

It's not safe to count the Rochester schools out, however. Whoever wins the 4/5 match-up between Rochester Century and Rochester Mayo will provide a very stiff test to Lakeville South. Mayo tied South, while Century lost a one-goal game.

The winner of that semifinal game should be the one that advances to the state tournament. I think goalie Hakan Yumusaklar will carry Lakeville South to the win, though in a very close game.

Section 8A High School Preview

The Bracket.

Warroad has dominated this section, and this year is more of the same, with the Warriors as the top seed. It won't be a walk in the park for them, however. They're facing a potential match-up in the semifinals with Thief River Falls. The Prowlers have a goalie in Zane Gothberg that is capable of stealing a game, and will be playing Warroad in their home rink.

On the other side of the bracket, Park Rapids, led by Mr. Hockey candidate Zach Lehrke, has had a great season, though they haven't played much of a schedule.

My head says a lack of big game experience will hurt Park Rapids if they make it to the final against an experienced Warroad team, but I'll still take Park Rapids. Two years ago, Mike Forney led Thief River Falls to an upset victory over Warroad in the sectional final, and I think Lehrke will pull off the same magic for Park Rapids.

Section 7A High School Preview

The bracket.

This could be one of the best sections in all of Class A, with the two best Class A team; Duluth Marshall and International Falls. Third seed Hibbing is also a talented team, but I Falls and Marshall should be meeting in the section final in Duluth.

International Falls should have the most exciting offensive player in the section with Jake Youso, but Duluth Marshall is very strong defensively. Marshall also has a lot more playoff experience, so I'll pick the Hilltoppers.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Section 6A High School Preview

The Bracket.

This section has quickly become Little Falls' section to lose, and the Flyers are becoming a fixture at the state tournament. They're back as the favorites again this year. They'll likely meet St. Cloud Apollo in the semifinals, and Apollo's first year in Class A hasn't brought much more success than they had in Class AA.

On the other side of the bracket, second seed Fergus Falls isn't the most talented team in the state, but very tough to beat, while Alexandria is led by goalie Matt Hemingway, who is capable of stealing a game.

I think Little Falls will be playing their best hockey, and they've got talent that no one in the section can match.

Section 4A High School Preview

The Bracket.

This section should be all about top seed St. Thomas Academy. The Cadets are technically a Class A school in size, but they wouldn't be hurt if they followed Hill-Murray or Benilde and played up in Class AA. They do lose to the occasional Class A team, but usually it is to one of the top Class A teams in the state, like Duluth Marshall.

The Cadets could face a potentially challenging game in the semifinals against fourth seed Totino-Grace, who has a couple talented forwards, but don't have the depth to keep up with St. Thomas over a full game. Whoever comes out of the other semifinal should be a tough challenge in the final as well. Second seed South St. Paul has quietly put together a pretty nice year, including a tie over Hill-Murray. Mahtomedi also has a pretty solid team, and should be looking to avenge a disappointing upset loss last year.

Section 3A High School Preview

The Bracket.

As expected, this is the state's weakest bracket. It should tell you something that Hutchinson, with a record of 11-12-1 is the section's second seed.

New Ulm is the heavy favorite in this section, led by a trio of great juniors in defenseman Beau Bergau, Cody Kohn, and forward Kyle Reinarts, who moved to New Ulm from Sleepy Eye.

Fourth seed Marshall is led by Tony Krogen, who is among the state's leading scorers. He finished behind only Park Rapids' Zach Lehrke in goal-scoring with 43 goals. Krogen's older brother Cory helped lead Marshall to a shocking upset victory over top-seed Albert Lea two years ago in the section semifinals, but it's unlikely that another miracle upset is in the works. New Ulm destroyed Marshall 9-0 earlier in February.

I'd be pretty surprised if anyone other than New Ulm came out of this section.

Section 2A High School Preview

The bracket.

This year, Blake and Breck get their own section, and thus avoid meeting up with Totino-Grace in sectionals. Not surprisingly, these two teams are the top two teams in the section, with Blake getting the top-seed, but third seed Mound-Westonka should also provide tough competition.

Mound started out the year very strong, but struggled midway through the season while one of their top forwards, Riley Horgan was out. They do have some impressive results, however, including a win over Rochester Lourdes last week.

Breck is a very intriguing team. They are a team loaded with kids that have the potential to be college prospects, but the problem is that they are all extremely young. They've got the talent to beat just about anybody in the state, as they proved when they beat St. Thomas Academy earlier this year, but I don't think the consistency is there yet, and this team might be a year away from truly making it.

I'm going to go with the top seed Blake, even though they lost to Breck on Saturday. The Bears weren't dominant this year, and at times, they struggled to keep the puck out of their net, but they've proven the past two years that they can pull it together when it matters most and make it out of the section.

Saturday, February 16, 2008

Section 5A High School Preview

Here is The Bracket.

This section looks to be a four-horse race between the top four seeds. St. Cloud Cathedral is the top seed in the section, but they have been without one of their best players, Minnesota recruit Nate Schmidt, for nearly a month due to a bout with mono.

The second seed, Sauk Rapids-Rice has been one of the more confusing teams to follow this year. They have some great wins over some good teams, including a 3-2 win over St. Cloud Cathedral, but also have a couple head-scratching losses to some teams out west.

Sauk Rapids will likely meet 3rd seed Duluth Denfeld in the semifinals. Sauk Rapids won their previous meeting this year at home, with a 5-goal third period burst, and with the game being played in Cloquet, closer to home for Denfeld, I think Denfeld will prevail.

Last year's state champ, Hermantown, is the fourth seed. It's been a rough year for the Hawks, after losing some key seniors off last year's team, and losing Drew Leblanc to junior hockey. I think their playoff experience should carry them to the final.

In the end, however, I'll take Denfeld to win the section. Senior Jake Johnson passed on the USHL for one last shot at the state tournament, and I think he'll lead his tema there.

Section 1A High School Preview

The Bracket.

This may be the deepest section in the entire state. Any of the top 5 seeds has a legitimate chance at making it to the state tournament. Usually it's out of the question for a team that plays in the first round to have a chance at winning the section, but 5th seed Red Wing could win four straight games.

Rochester Lourdes had the most impressive resume in the section and earned the number one seed. Mankato West and Alberta Lea avoid what should be a grueling quartfinal between the 4 and 5 seeds, but Albert Lea's game against Northfield and Mankato West's game against Faribault should be tough in their own right.

Mankato West and Albert Lea split during the regular season, with each team winning at home. On a neutral site, I think Albert Lea will prevail, and meet Rochester Lourdes in the final. I'll take Albert Lea to make it to the state tournament. They are one of the best-coached teams in the section, and have pretty good depth. The semifinals and finals have the potential to be some great games.