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When it comes to sports events, I pretty much despise clinical analysis, because games are such emotional ventures, with complete lifespans of their own, and the emotional flow of the game can override the physical play in the game.
But there was one pretty inescapable item in last weekend’s state hockey tournament. It appeared that the three best teams in the tournament were Edina, Minnetonka and Duluth East, in however order you wanted to put them. It was tough to seed them, because Minnetonka had beaten Edina 5-2 early in the season, and 5-3 late, but they actually had played a third time, and Edina romped to an 8-2 victory in the game in the middle. Duluth East, meanwhile, had gone into Minnetonka and whipped the Skippers 4-2 when that was a battle of unbeatens.
Edina was 26-2 coming in, Minnetonka 24-2-2, and East 23-2-3. So they weighed the evidence and ranked Minnetonka No. 1, Edina No. 2 and East No. 3.
Analytically, the way it turned out reminded me of a lot of the biggest major tennis meets in the world. When the tennis world was dominated by Novak Djokovic, Rafael Nadel and Roger Federer for about a decade, the majors all seemed to come down to the seedings. Two of them would be in one bracket, and one in the other. Invariably, it seemed an impossible task for either of the two in one bracket to survive the match and then take on the third player, who had a somewhat easier semifinal.
It worked out to be similar in the Class AA hockey tournament. Being No. 1, Minnetonka was in one bracket, while East and Edina collided in the semifinals in the other bracket.
That was to the benefit of all of us, because the East-Edina game was one of the finest hockey games ever held in the tournament, or at any level of hockey in the state of Minnesota. After all three had won by comfortable margins in the first round, with East romping 5-0 over St. Michael-Albertville 5-0 behind Garrett Worth’s hat trick and Parker Kleive’s shutout. Centennial had upset St. Thomas Academy in the fourth game of the first round, and nobody gave East much chance against an Edina team that looked too fast, too explosive and too polished to fail to win the title.
When Evan Shoemaker raced in and beat the Greyhound defense to score at 9:24 of the first period, it appeared Edina was off and running. But barely a minute later, Ryder Donovan rushed at the other end 2-on-2, and spotted Garrett Worth trailing the rush. Donovan fed the slot, and Worth snapped off a 40-foot missile that snared the upper left corner of the net for a 1-1 tie. And less than a minute after that, Ian Mageau took a pass from Worth and raced in at the Edina goal, cutting around the defense on the left and closing in before lifting his shot over goalie Garrett Mackay for a 2-1 East lead.
The pace was unbelievable, with both teams racing up and down the Excel Center ice sheet for great scoring chances, met by superb defensive play and the goaltending of Mackay and East’s Parker Kleive. After a scoreless second period, East was clinging to that 2-1 lead when Frederick Paine carried across the center line and cut loose. Some reports, including Edina coach Curt Giles’s account, said it was a fluttering shot that was like a knuckleball, but in reality it was a good, solid shot that struck Mackay up high, on the blocker or shoulder, and popped straight up.
Mackay looked one way, then the other, and it was obvious he had lost sight of the puck, which, by luck, landed behind him and trickled across the goal line at 9:08 of the third period. I thought he looked up into the arena lights and lost the puck, like an outfielder with a pop fly into the bright baseball stadium lights. The 3-1 lead looked solid, but less than two minutes later Edina charged again, led by the mercurial Sammy Walker, who would win the Mr. Hockey Award the day after the tournament. His line, flanked by Jeff Jungels and Mason Nevers, was the perfect match for East’s top unit of Donovan centering Worth and Mageau. At 10:46, Walker broke in deep, dropped a pass back for Jungels, who shot. Kleive, who had an outstandng tournament, blocked the shot, which rebounded straight out.
Kleive dived out but couldn’t cover it, and Nevers arrived just at the right moment. An East clearing attempt whiffed, and Nevers lifted his shot over Kleive to trim the score to 3-2. The pressure from the huge crowd, which was predominately in East’s favor, was palpable. With 1:46 left, Edina coach Curt Giles pulled Mackay for an extra skater. Moments later, Donovan won a corner faceoff in his own end from Walker, and chipped it ahead to Mageau, who chipped it out of the zone.
Worth was breaking hard and scooped it up, and put it into the open goal for a 4-2 final.
“It was a really well-played game,” said East coach Mike Randolph. “We have such high respect for Edina and Curt; if you play no-check, racehorse hockey with them, you’re not going to beat Edina.”
It certainly was not no-check, as both teams did some serious hitting, but so intense was the game, and so well-officiated by Jerry McLaughlin and Mike Elam that no penalties were called, despite the incredible pace and drama. Randolph went on to praise the numerous unsung heroes on his team, including defenseman Carson Cochran, who hurtled into the crease on one scramble and sprawled to prevent an Edina goal that was eluding Kleive. “I don’t know how many blocked shots there were in that game, but plah without the puck was a big factor for us tonight.”
The next night, the Greyhounds gave it all they had once again, but all the things that went their way against Edina didn’t work out against Minnetonka, and the Skippers won 5-2, bolstering the lead with an empty net goal in the last two minutes.
East led early, when Ricky Lyle connected with a goal-mouth shot off Austin Jouppi’s second-effort pass from the right got through at 7:11. A marginal tripping call on Will Fisher led to a power-play goal by Bobby Brink — son of former Bemidji and Gopher star Andy Brink, who plucked a rebound free, stepped to his left, and tucked it beyond the reach of Kleive at 12:06. Less than two minutes later, Matt Koethe put on a burst to get around the defense, veering to the net and hoisting his shot into the roof of the net.
The game came down to two crucial plays. A minute into the second period, Donovan, who has fantastic speed, outflanked Minnetonka defenseman Josh Luedtke and closed on the goal. Scrambling to protect his turf, Luedtke delivered a desperate hip check that sent Donovan flying into the crease. He did his best to avoid crashing into goaltender Charlie Glockens, on his knees in the crease, and he did manage to clear him, but cartwheeled over him and landed head first on the left side of the crease as Glockens went down.
The officials blew their whistle, and I wondered if they were going to call Luedtke for checking Donovan into the goalie, but no, they penalized Donovan for goaltender interference at 1:37. Andrew Hicks fired a shot from the right point through a screen of bodies to make it 3-1 on the power play at 3:17.
Jouppi, another of those unsung East standouts, got the Hounds close by galloping in on the right side, cutting to the net, and shooting up and in at 6:28. But at the start of the third period, East caught another unfortunate break that was pivotal. Defenseman Grant Docter shot from the center point, wide to the left, where Joe Molenaar was positioned. He didn’t see the puck coming until the last instant, and it deflected in off his left skate at 2:27.
The officials spent a lengthy time reviewing the play, which clearly showed the puck glancing in off his left skate, and it also showed that Molenaar turned his skate out, creating the perfect angle to deflect it into the net. Technically, he didn’t kick it in, but he clearly directed it in, and the long, hard decision went against the Hounds.
Still, there could be no criticism of the effort. East charged again, over and over, until the final buzzer. Jouppi fired one that looked promising, but it clanked off the crossbar halfway through the period. The heavy hitting got heavier, and so did the chances. Randolph pulled Kleive for an extra skater, and with a minute and a half left, Donovan broke in on the left, cut to the net and lifted his shot — crossbar again.
Koethe sealed it with his empty-net goal with 1:28 remaining, but as time ran out, East made one last bid. Worth, with 47 goals in a superb season, skated in from the left and fired — and again, it hit harmlessly off a pipe.
“We battled and battled and battled, with guys like Worth, Donovan and Jouppi all getting great chances, but we couldn’t get any of them to go in,” said East coach Mike Randolph. “But that’s the way hockey is. We lost to a heck of a hockey team, and we’re not losers, in my mind.”
It was Minnetonka’s first-ever state high school hockey championship, and it was a tournament that made memories for a lifetime. At 25-3-3, that second-place trophy will look better with age, but the sting of working so hard, and coming so close, also will take some time to subside.