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ST. PAUL, MN. --- It’s been a long, long year for Duluth East to return to Xcel Energy Center with the main objective being to go one notch beyond last year -- when the Greyhounds lost an excruciating triple-overtime game to Eden Prairie in the championship game. Battling a surprising number of injuries, the Hounds have played the toughest schedule in the state, and are primed to prove coach Mike Randolph right, that this is the best team in East’s history.
Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament week couldn’t be a bigger attraction for Duluth-area hockey fans, with East joined by Hermantown and Marshall in reaching the select field that will fight it out for the Class AA and A state championships at St. Paul’s Xcel Energy Center. The stunning thing for Duluth is that Hermantown, the state’s lone undefeated team -- and which also lost in the championship game last year, to St. Thomas Academy -- was ranked No. 1 among smaller Class A schools going into Wednesday’s opening round of the A tournament, while Duluth East, 27-1, has been the No. 1 ranked team among Class AA teams since mid-January.
In the state tournament, the coaches vote to rank the tournament entries, and the top four seeds are placed in the brackets, then a draw is made of the other four to select their opponents. East’s first foe was to be Lakeville South, a team that flexed its scoring muscle to romp through the remainder of the section that reaches from Rochester to Lakeville. For those who find a Reader before Thursday night, the treat of the week is still ahead, with East facing Lakeville South at 6 p.m. followed by what should be a spectacular finale between Edina and Benilde-St. Margaret’s. The afternoon session had Maple Grove against Hill-Murray, and Moorhead testing Eagan.
In Duluth, fans’ hopes ride on the Greyhounds playing up to their potential, staying with the game plan carefully concocted by Randolph, which means creative, free-wheeling offense but also dedicated team defense to springboard that offense. Sometimes, this season, the Hounds have been their worst enemy when a few players get caught up in their eagerness to attack while overlooking defensive responsibility. If they stick to their plan, heed their coach, and hold their poise, the Hounds could bring home the big trophy Saturday night.
If you’re watching in real life, or on television, you will admire East’s entire team. In their 4-1 7AA final victory over Andover, the third defensive set was East’s best. Offensively, Ryan Lundgren’s goal ignited the Hounds, proving once again that any of the East forward lines can sting any foe. Then their big senior line took over, with Dom Toninato scoring twice and Jake Randolph once, while Trevor Olson settled for two assists. Without question, the Toninato-centered line with Randolph and Olson is the most creative and the most fun to watch forward unit in the state. And the state tournament will be the last time the three play together.
“As it gets closer, I think about it,” said Toninato, who will play junior hockey in Fargo next season, and maybe for two seasons, before coming to UMD. “We work well together, and playing together for so long helps, because we feed off each other. We’ll take it one game at a time, but I know that I’m definitely going to miss playing with those two.”
With Hermantown and Marshall both having played already, their fans can only hope that the thrill of reaching the state tournament doesn’t obscure them playing their best. We’ll know, if they’re playing one each in Friday’s 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. semifinals. Going into the tournament, there would be a chance, albeit slim, that the two could face each other in the Saturday noon final. Marshall made it through 7A by beating a hustling Hibbing-Chisholm outfit 2-1 Saturday at AMSOIL Arena, while Hermantown roared through 5A without much difficulty.
Marshall’s game with Hibbing was supposed to be last Wednesday, but the biggest snowstorm of the winter postponed the game to Saturday -- when we had the second-biggest snowstorm of the winter. Marshall won 2-1 in a tight battle, with Cameron McClure scoring the winner by rapping in his own rebound after Luke Pavelich fed him in front out of the right corner. The big story was that Christian Coffman, a senior, made his comeback after missing a month with mononucleosis, and coach Brendan Flaherty made the choice to throw him in for his comeback in the 7AA final.
“He’s a senior, with a 92 save percentage, and I had to make a tough decision,” said Flaherty, “because Caden Flaherty has played well for us. But he’s a junior, and I decided to go with the senior.”
Hair will be a factor for the Toppers. The players dyed their hair blond, after goal-scoring leader Judd Peterson came up with the teamwork idea, but the challenge to the players was whether they could get coach Flaherty -- he of the “Marshall Mullett” -- to go along with it and turn his Prince Valiant-style hairdo golden.