Written By Andrew Fondrick (ZoneCoverage.com)
There is just something different about playoff hockey. The passes are crisper. The hits seem harder. Goal celebrations can bring thousands to their feet in defining rejoice, or silence the most hostile environments.
Two weeks ago, the Girls State High School Tournament kicked off the 2019 Minnesota High School Hockey Tournament season. In the 25th anniversary of the Girls’ Tournament, Edina and Breck repeated as Class AA and A Champions, respectively. Now it’s the boys’ turn to take the ice with two state championships on the line.
In its 75th year, the Boys’ State High School Tournament has grown into something unlike any other high school playoff in the nation. The record for tournament attendance was set in 2015 when 135,618 fans purchased tickets to watch games at both Xcel Energy Center and 3M Arena at Mariucci. Most years will see at least 100,000 fans between the two arenas, not to mention thousands of viewers watching the games on TV or streaming them online.
Communities come together cheering for their team, or maybe against a common rival. But no matter the reasoning, the State High School Hockey Tournament brings fans together to watch a great game in its purest form.
So, with all the attention over on the State of Hockey this week, here are just a few of the many storylines to follow over the course of the week.
For the second straight year, the Boys’ State Hockey Tournament will crown a new champion in both the Class A and Class AA brackets. The Delano Tigers defeated the 2018 Class A Champion Orono Spartans in the Section 2A Final, eliminating their chance of a repeat. Minnetonka also fell short of defending their state title after falling to Holy Family in the Section 2AA Semi-Final.
With neither of last year’s defending champions in the remaining field, the tournament will have “new favorites” battling to hoist hardware in 2019.
No stranger to playing at The X, the Edina Hornets find themselves as the top seed in Class AA. The Hornets head into the tournament with a record of 23-2-1, including being 7-0 against the rest of the tournament field (3-0 vs Eden Prairie). Edina’s scoring is led by two 2019 Mr. Hockey Finalists, Jett Jungels (committed to Northern Michigan University) and Mason Nevers, (committed to the University of Minnesota) tallying 54 and 49 regular season points, respectively. Add in 52 points from fellow senior Liam Malmquist, and the Hornets can strike with a ton of fire power. Not to mention they are riding the confidence of an 11-game winning streak.
The Mahtomedi Zephyrs earned the number one seed in Class A. The Zephyrs scoring is a more balanced approach with only seven points separating their top seven point contributors. Mahtomedi holds a 2-2 record against other tournament teams, with their only two losses to Class AA St. Thomas Academy in conference play.
Zephyrs’ goalie Ben Dardis is just a freshman, but he leads the team in wins (12), goals against average (1.55) and save percentage (.930) in the regular season and playoffs combined. The 5-foot-6, 140-pounder got two wins in the section playoffs, stopping 43 of 44 shots. If you want to take a look at a potential high school star for years to come, Dardis could be fun to follow.
It’s hard to not include the two seeds in the conversation if we are talking about favorites who could celebrate in front of their student sections on Saturday at Xcel Energy Center.
The Blaine Bengals are back in the state tournament for the first time since 2015, but they could look to make some noise coming in at 22-2-2, having not lost since Dec. 22. Mr. Hockey Finalist Bryce Brodzinski (University of Minnesota commit) is enjoying a fantastic senior season, finishing second in scoring in the state during the regular season with 76 points, including 32 goals. And yes, Bryce is the fourth Brodzinski brother to play for either Coach Bob Motzko or for the U of M, but he is the first to have a chance to do both now that Motzko is behind the bench at Minnesota, one year removed from leaving St. Cloud State.
Brodzinski isn’t the only Bengal who can provide fireworks in the offensive zone. Teammate Carsen Richels finished the regular season fourth in the state with 35 goals and 34 assists. Plus, with senior goaltender Joe Daninger currently holding a 1.48 GAA, Blaine has plenty of strength on both ends of the ice.
St. Cloud Cathedral is the two seed in Class A and could push Mahtomedi as the favorite in the bracket. While the Zephyrs won the only matchup between the two teams during the regular season, the Crusaders have two scorers in Blake Perbix and Jack Smith who can put up large numbers. In his fourth year manning the Cathedral bench, head coach Derrick Brown will have his squad ready for the big stage.
An Underdog in the Pack?
No. 5 Duluth East takes on No. 4 St. Thomas Academy in a first-round matchup, where the winner may have the best chance of any to make a “surprise run” outside of the top three seeds. Duluth East Coach Mike Randolph always has the Greyhounds playing their best hockey come playoff time, and this year Mr. Hockey Finalist Ryder Donovan (Wisconsin commit) leads the charge. A potential semi-final matchup against the Hornets would be a repeat showdown from a year ago. But for them to play Cinderella, they will have to go through another well-oiled machine in the St. Thomas Academy Cadets.
In their final season behind the bench, Greg and Tom Vannelli are looking to make one final push for their first Class AA title after winning five Class A titles from 2006 to 2013. Riding solid goaltending and good team defense, the Cadets will look to write a storybook ending to the Vannellis’ journey.
In Class A, watch for the Greenway Raiders to be the sleeper to make a run in their first trip to The X since 2001. Sporting just a 12-13 regular season record, the Raiders played a difficult regular season schedule that featured five teams in the state tournament between A and AA, plus last year’s champion Orono. Hockey fans statewide got to see Greenway on the big stage in a loss to host team Bemidji in the frigid outdoor 2019 Hockey Day conditions.
After taking top seed Hermantown to double overtime for the second straight year in the section finals, Greenway finally dethroned the longtime Section 7A king. Donte Lawson is a dynamic senior who can lead the Raiders deep on a run alongside junior Ben Trombly (SCSU commit) and senior Nikolai Rajala. Watch out if this trio gets hot.
Eden Prairie is another team Coach Motzko and the Gophers faithful will watch closely this weekend, as their roster features three future members of the Maroon and Gold. Eagles senior forward Jack Jensen is enjoyed a strong year, putting up 34 goals and 25 assists. Jensen, another Mr. Hockey Finalist, led the Eagles in points this season playing with two brothers Minnesota hockey fans will recognize, junior John Mittelstadt and sophomore Luke Mittelstadt, younger brothers of former Gophers star and current Buffalo Sabre Casey Mittelstadt.
The North Branch Vikings are making their first ever trip to the state tournament. To make an even more incredible story, the Vikings don’t have a home rink of their own. They play their home games at the Chisago Lakes Ice Arena, home of the team they defeated in their section finals matchup to earn a trip to The X. Minnesota River will also be making their first trip to the State Tournament after knocking off Luverne.
With all the great storylines to follow, one thing is for certain: There will be no shortage of highlight-reel goals, game-changing saves or student section cheers (and jeers) at what promises to be another great edition of the Minnesota State Hockey Tournament.