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It’s not easy to step into an existing high school hockey program and have everything nicely fall into place at the start of the season. Dale Jago, former UMD defenseman who has been biding his time assisting here and there for a few years before finally getting the chance to coach Denfeld, is a perfect example.
Assessing his talent before last Friday’s season opener against Minnehaha Academy, Jago thought his Hunters would score some goals, and he was worried about his defense preventing them — same as about a hundred other coaches around the state right now.
When the Hunters took the Heritage Center ice, they looked like everything clicked immediately. Jacob Eskola knocked in a rebound at 7:15 of the first period for Denfeld’s first goal of the Jago regime, and the Hunters properly celebrated. Five minutes later, Luke Ellefson scored on a rebound and it was 2-0.
Unfortunately, the second period represented a complete turnaround by both teams. Minnehaha’s Eli Smith scored on a power play, then Zach Roberts scored on another power play and the 2-0 lead had evaporated to 2-2. That’s when the Denfeld defense forgot what it had done in the first period and started alternately getting beat to pucks in their own end, and passing to the red-clad Minnehaha skaters for easy break-ins.
Jack Odegard scored on one such careless outlet for a shorthanded goal, and Minnehaha went on to score five second-period goals and three more in the third to win 8-3.
But if Jago was shocked by the turnaround, he didn’t have much time to worry about it, and he got the Hunters back on the same page one day later for a 5-3 victory over Red Wing and Jago’s first coaching victory.
It had to be a wake-up call for Chris Marinucci, former Hobey Baker winner at UMD, and new coach at Grand Rapids. Tough neighborhood on the West end of the Iron Range. Grand Rapids faced Greenway of Coleraine from 7 miles down the highway Tuesday night, and Greenway stunned Rapids 5-1.
Another new coach was old coach Kevin Smalley, who left Denfeld to take on the challenge at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton. The Lumberjacks got it off to a good start with a 6-1 romp over Mounds View, setting them up to be host to Bloomington Jefferson Friday night.
At Marshall, coach Brendan Flaherty saw Jago go from his trusted assistant to Denfeld, but the Hilltoppers have a wealth of high-end talent this year, and senior wing George Grannis provided some evidence Saturday afternoon. It’s a good idea for Marshall, still relatively new to Class AA, to borrow a page from East coach Mike Randolph’s strategy book and schedule some Class AA foes he might need to face at playoff time.
Cambridge-Isanti came to Mars-Lakeview Arena and fell behind 2-0 in the first period on goals by sophomore defenseman Grif Pichetti and junior wing Carter Sullivan, and when the second period started, so did the George Grannis show. Grannis, a senior wing, had a magical night, scoring shorthanded at 0:08, then scoring shorthanded again at 3:50. Another couple of penalties and, at 8:59, Grannis scored his third consecutive shorthanded goal — a pure hat trick, for a 5-0 lead.
Senior Levi Stauber made it 6-0 midway through the second, as the shot meter showed Marshall with a 35-3 edge in shots. Junior Keelan Golat made it 7-0 just 10 seconds later, and 37 seconds after that Charlie Kleinschmidt scored from the right point, and Grannis connected for his fourth goal of the game at 12:45, completing a surge of four goals in 1:35 for a 7-goal second period and a 9-0 lead. Grannis scored his fifth goal of the game, and assisted on a goal by Nolan Krenzen to wrap up an 11-0 romp, backed by a 63-7 bulge in shots on goal.
Things will get tougher, and soon, for Marshall, but Grannis, after his 5-3 — 8 performance against Minnehaha Academy, is either the top gun in the area right now, or certainly the best penalty killer on the map.
The great comforting thing about high school hockey is that there might be games — big games — on any of six days of the week. This week is an example, with Benilde at Marshall, and Jefferson at Cloquet Friday night, then an action-filled Saturday highlighted by Wayzata playing Duluth East at Heritage at 3 p.m. Next week, Greenway comes to town to face Denfeld Tuesday, and Denfeld plays at Cloquet Thursday, and next week ends with your choice of Saturday 3 p.m. games — Minnetonka at Marshall or Andover facing East at Heritage, both at 3 p.m.
Merciful End For Gophers
We all grew up watching and cheering the University of Minnesota football team year after year, and usually we were well-entertained and sometimes thrilled by the Gophers successes, large and small.
But this year has been a disaster. It was not aided by a collective of media types in the Twin Cities who jumped on every line from new coach P.J. Fleck and tried to outdo their competition with getting in line to row the boat, and to forgive Fleck for this first year, because it wasn’t really Year 1, it was Year 0 — as in zero. That line was a mistake, because it was close to the level of competence shown by his players.
Someone should tell Fleck that the season is now over, and while he may still be stressing that this is his Year Zero, he has now completed one year. The Gophers needed to win six games, to go 6-6, to earn a spot in a bowl game, we were told. Then when that looked doubtful, it was pointed out that a high academic record could elevate a 5-victory team to bowl stature, simply because there might be more bowls than eligible teams.
For some reason, after Year Zero or Year One of his 5-year contract, Fleck was given a one-year extension, meaning he starts his 5-year run anew next fall. But it must be pointed out that the Gophers finished 5-7, but only if you count the three “preseason,” or “exhibition” games against patsies. The hard, cold facts are that the Gophers were 2-7 in Big Ten play. And in their final two games, right after the contract extension, Fleck’s lads lost 39-0 at Northwestern and 31-0 at home against Wisconsin.
That’s being outscored 70-0 in two games, meaning the most cynical among us can finally understand the true meaning of Year Zero for coach Fleck.