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Get ready, because those of us in Northern Minnesota will be treated to our own, private Hockey Day, a week from Saturday at AMSOIL Arena. That is the date of the Section 7AA tournament semifinals, and every year it tends to be two of the best games of the whole year, at any level.
At High Noon and 2 p.m., if things follow form, we should see Duluth East face Grand Rapids in a renewal of one of Minnesota’s finest rivalries, while in the other Elk River will take on Cloquet-Esko-Carlton.
That is with all due respect to Marshall, which also has a good team and could throw a wrench into anybody’s plans come section time. They’re just kids, you know, and about the time you think you have them measured, the form chart disappears. It happened last Saturday afternoon at Heritage Center, when Duluth East took on Maple Grove in what should have been an emotional high for the Greyhounds, being senior day and all.
Instead, Maple Grove inflicted a painful 6-2 loss on East, one of those games requiring a lengthy post-game lecture from coach Mike Randolph, who never saw a bad game that didn’t provide a teaching moment or two. The assumption, by those who weren’t there, was that East must have played a horrible game. Well-meaning analysts on the radio were saying how atrocious East played, although they obviously weren’t at the game.
“I had guys coming up to me and saying, ‘What happened?’ said Randolph on Tuesday, before East completed its regular season by dropping a 3-0 game at Lakeville South. As an aside or two, Grand Rapids lost 4-1 at Cloquet, and Maple Grove fell short 2-1 at Elk River in other pre-playoff tests.
“I didn’t think we played that bad,” Randolph continued. “Their coach came up to me and said what a strong team we had, and that we had brought out the best in them. We played badly defensively, and we had some awful breakdowns, but we outshot them 42-18.”
This batch of Greyhounds has considerable talent all through the lineup, with balance, depth and teamwork proving a vital substitute for a big scorer. When clicking on all cylinders, they can be the best team in the state. But a bad game, or a bad shift, by only one or two players can make things come apart. It happened in a 6-0 loss to Minnetonka, and it happened against Maple Grove.
The Hounds played a scoreless first period against Maple Grove, with a 14-4 edge in shots. Maple Grove got a breakaway, but goaltender Kirk Meierhoff, one of East’s six seniors, stopped it. At 2:55 of the second period, Garrett Worth got a breakaway pass from Luke LaMaster and made a high-speed deke before putting his shot past Ethan Haider, the ninth-grader who was nothing short of spectacular in the Maple Grove nets.
Just 39 seconds later, if the Hounds relaxed for a shift, Maple Grove’s top line connected. Sam Huff moved the puck ahead to sophomore Trevor Kukkonen, who passed from the left side to Justin Kelley at the goal-mouth for a 1-1 tie. East drew a careless penalty at 6:14, and Maple Grove connected on the power play seven seconds later, when Justin Kelley got the puck from Huff and relayed it to Jack Kelley for a goal and an improbable 2-1 lead. Just 52 seconds later, Tyler Kostelecky carried up the right side and passed to the crease where Jarrett Cammarata directed it past Meierhoff for a 3-1 lead.
A botched breakout attempt by East let Kukkonen come in clean. He fed Kelley, who put his shot up and in at 11:45 to make it 4-1, even though East was dominating play and firing chance after chance at Haider. Finally, on a power play, Ian Mageau set up Worth for a goal to cut the deficit to 4-2 at 14:20. But when Maple Grove was penalized again at 15:27, the East power play backfired.
Mageau, a talented junior who can be a team inspiration when he doesn’t try to do too much, tried to do too much. He came flying out of the East zone on the power play and tried to stickhandle through the first foe he confronted. As the last man back, it was an unwise decision; when that first foe was Kukkonen, the skilled junior, it got worse. Kukkonen raced in the other way and fed Kostelecky for another goal-mouth play and a shorthanded goal that made it 5-2.
Randolph pulled Meierhoff for sophomore Luke Hanson for the third period. East had outshot Maple Grove 14-7 in the second period, and got outscored 5-2. Five goals on seven shots for the period was not good, although Randolph agreed that Meierhoff was the victim of turnovers rather than the problem, as Maple Grove repeatedly got in close for clean chances.
But East couldn’t get untracked, and the only goal of the final period came when Maple Grove’s Jack Kelly scored on yet another goal-mouth play, from Kelley, with 2:50 remaining. A peculiar refusal to cover anyone coming at the Greyhound goal meant East outshot Maple Grove 42-18, yet lost 6-2.
“I changed goaltenders to try to wake us up, but it didn’t work,” Randolph said. “Our defense has been our strength, but it was awful that night, and we had some guys up front who looked like they were trying to make ESPN plays. But there’s nothing we did wrong that we can’t fix.”
The fixing had to start Tuesday night at Lakeville South, because the next time we get to see East play will be next Tuesday night, in the 7AA quarterfinals at Heritage Center. A night of lackluster play from now on will mean an early vacation for the Greyhounds.
Whatever happens, get your tickets early, because there is no guarantee that the state tournament will have any games as intense as the 7AA semifinals.