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There were concerns that the three remaining “legitimate” Class AA teams in Section 7 might have trouble holding off the ever-increasing threats to turn 7AA into a Twin Cities Northern Suburb hockey haven. Those concerns, however, picked the perfect day to disappear -- Hockey Day Minnesota.
We knew Duluth East would be tough. The Greyhounds have an excellent core of defensemen and some promising forwards back with state tournament experience, and, as usual, they are playing the toughest schedule in the state.
There was less certainty about Cloquet-Esko-Carlton and Grand Rapids, East’s other two “Northern” Class AA rivals.East had handled Cloquet 5-2, causing Cloquet coach Dave Esse to remark that while his Lumberjacks were better, the three-year rebuilding plan was not yet completed. East was pressed for a 2-1 victory over Grand Rapids, but the ‘Hounds outshot Rapids 33-9.
Since those midseason games, both Grand Rapids and Cloquet have been on a decided upward climb, but it wasn’t until Saturday -- Hockey Day Minnesota -- before it was fully comprehended.
First off, Grand Rapids was host to the annual outdoor games, with Hibbing taking its lumps from a strong Eagan outfit at 10 a.m., then Grand Rapids taking on Benilde St. Margaret’s amid the ice-fishing houses on Lake Pokegama. For those not paying attention, Benilde won two Class A state championships, then coach Ken Pauly led the charge to move his team up to Class AA, where they -- and all private schools? -- belong. Last season, in an emotional tribute to fallen junior varsity prospect Jack Jablonski, who was paralyzed when he was checked in a JV game and fell into the boards, the Red Knights won an upset-filled state Class AA tournament title.
It was chilly Saturday morning when Eagan pounded Hibbing 9-2. It was colder in the early afternoon, with 40 mph winds adding to the festivities. Big, strong, and swift, Benilde jumped ahead 2-0 in the first period. But Avery Peterson scored twice in the second period to lift Grand Rapids into a 2-2 deadlock. It stayed that way through the third, and then, in overtime, Cody Mann broke free for the Thunderhawks, sailed into the wind alone, and as he cut to his backhand, the puck rolled on him just a bit -- and rolled right into the net for a 3-2 victory, and a huge upset in state hockey circles.
While that one was going on, Duluth held its own contribution to Hockey Day. Superior, which had just risen up to sting Hermantown, was obviously at the peak of its game when it took on Duluth East at high noon at AMSOIL Arena in the first game of two in the Perkins Frenzy. The Spartans were high and got higher when Aaron Miller scored when East goaltender Dylan Parker stumbled trying to get lined up to stop him, then Miller set up Aaron Wakefield for a power play goal at 6:31, and Superior led 2-0.
East, which was stung by being upset 5-4 by Denfeld a couple weeks earlier, had found its offense against Apple Valley, when it erupted for nine goals in the second period of a 10-1 rout. “I don’t know where that came from,” said coach Mike Randolph, who had gotten used to squeezing precious few goals from huge quantities of shots.
So, while outshooting Superior 18-4 in the first period, the Greyhounds caught up on power-play goals by Ryan Lundgren and defenseman Meirs Moore before the first period ended. Lundgren’s second goal putshed East ahead midway through the second period, but Tyler Nystrom tied it nine seconds later for Superior. Three goals on six shots caused Randolph to send Cason Sjerven into the nets. Then the ‘Hounds continued their barrage.
Philip Beaulieu, and Moore made it 5-3 after two, still a contest for sure, but Alex Toscano, Jack Kolar, Lundgren, Alex Trapp, and Lundgren again -- that’s four, for him -- boosted the final score to 10-3.
Sometimes, as up on Lake Pokegama, you anticipate a rout and a great game breaks out. Other times, such as at AMSOIL, you anticipate a great game and it turns into a rout.
Next up in the AMSOIL doubleheader, Denfeld set out to avenge its Heritage Classic loss to Cloquet. But the Lumberjacks got an early jump. There were a couple of other unique things about that game. First, how rare is it to have three brothers on a team, when all three are key players? Denfeld has goalie Zach Thompson and his senior twin Alex Thompson, a winger, and sophomore defenseman Nick Thompson; Cloquet has the Michaud brothers -- senior Beau, junior Weston, and sophomore Dylan. Esse had all three on the same line, but has broken them up, balancing the Lumberjack attack. On top of that, the Michaud’s are the nephews of Denfeld coach Kevin Smalley.
This game became one for the nephews. Among others. Karson Kuhlman scored his first of three goals four minutes in to stake Cloquet to a 1-0 lead. Beau Michaud made it 2-0. Denfeld came back, as sparkplug Levi Talarico scored later in the first period, and set up Ried Lemker early in the seocnd for a 2-2 tie. But Kuhlman’s second goal, tallies by Weston Michaud and Dalton Johnson and Kuhlman’s third one made it 6-2 after two. Weston Michaud and Beau Michaud scored in the third, and Cloquet won 8-2.
“We are in shape,” said Cloquet coach Dave Esse. “We’ve played a tough schedule, and when we found other teams were packing it in against our first line, I broke up the three Michauds. We’ve been very competitive, even in our losses -- except against East; that was embarrassing.”
East coach Randolph had found a seat upstairs for the Cloquet game, and was impressed by what he saw. “Cloquet is very good,” said Randolph. “They are very well coached, as usual, and their forwards are very quick, and they have the kind of skill you don’t see much anymore -- they move the puck instinctively, the way the best players used to do when everybody played outside. I would say Cloquet might have the best forwards in the area, with the Michauds, and Kuhlman, and the rest.”
With teams from the Twin Cities improving every year to threaten the “True North” teams, the pressure is on and increasing every year. But this season, all three of those teams -- East, Rapids and Cloquet -- appear up to the challenge.
A big part of Hockey Day was the battle between Minnesota and North Dakota at Mariucci Arena. The game was moved to 5 p.m. Saturday to fit in after the Grand Rapids game and before the Minnesota Wild season and home opener, which was moved back to 8 p.m. to accommodate Fox Sports North.
The Gophers, ranked No. 1 in the nation, went into the series with North Dakota tied with the Team Formerly Known as Fighting Sioux. In the first game, a close battle blew up in the third period and Minnesota won 5-1. North Dakota came back to take a substantial looking 4-2 lead into the final eight minutes in the Hockey Day special. But Minnesota came back to sting North Dakota for a 4-4 tie, taking three out of four points for the weekend.
Meanwhile, in Duluth, the Bulldogs were on the road for a tough series at Colorado College, where they won a close battle Friday but were hammered 5-1 Saturday to snap a five-game winning streak by UMD.
The UMD women, however, keep roaring onward and upward. On Friday night, UMD beat Bemidji State 3-0 as Kayla Black not only recorded a shutout, but got an assist on Jamie Kenyon’s power-play goal. On Saturday, the rematch followed the afternoon’s high school doubleheader, and the Bulldogs spotted the Beavers the first goal then scored four straight, winning 5-2 in front of a single-game record women’s hockey crowd of 4,095, thanks to a promotion that attracted a crowd of youthful players from the Icebreaker tournament going on next door in the DECC arena.
After Bridgette Lacquette got the first UMD goal, Jenna McParland, Pernilla Winberg and Breanna Gillanders scored in the second, and Black held on for the sweep.
The Bulldogs are marching upward in the WCHA standings, with an eight-game unbeaten streak (5-0-3). A key weekend faces the Bulldogs when they play at Ohio State this weekend, because it was Ohio State that spanked UMD in the season-opening series in Duluth, getting the Bulldogs off to a horrible start, and it has taken until this current streak to rise to contention.
UMD is not in the top 10 rankings, yet, but Ohio State is No. 7. The top eight make the national tournament, and if UMD can avenge those opening games this weekend, it could go a long way to restoring the Bulldogs to their rightful spot.
All those media types who aren’t true hockey fans made a lot of claims about how the fans would be stubborn about welcoming the NHL teams back after they’d missed the first half of the season with the lockout. Those of us who have a clue about hockey knew better.
The Minnesota Wild opened Saturday night and newcomer Zach Parise set up Dany Heatley for two power-play goals in a 4-2 victory over the Colorado Avalanche. A crowd of 19,298 was a sellout. They came right back on Sunday and beat the Dallas Stars 1-0 on a shutout by Josh Harding, who has the extra burden of fighting his newly diagnosed multiple sclerosis. And Zach Parise got the goal, one-timing a 35-foot bullet in on a pass from Heatley.
We also know that the Wild won’t go undefeated, because they lost 3-1 to Nashville Tuesday night. Sad, because a 1-0 lead became 1-1, and Niklas Backstrom came out of his net to clear a puck, but cleared it right to a foe who put the winning goal into the open net. Still, a 2-1 start was a great way to get going -- although with the high schools and colleges going strong, the NHL will just fit in, without being the automatic headliner.