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They live and play hockey in completely different spheres, but two of the best players in the state are right here in the Duluth and Hermantown areas. Ryder Donovan and Blake Biondi are both tall, rangy centermen with unlimited upsides, and both are juniors entrusted with trying to advance Duluth’s top two high school hockey teams back to the state tournament.
Donovan plays for Duluth East, and he has been a Greyhounds mainstay since coach Mike Randolph invited him to play varsity hockey as an eighth-grader. Last year he centered Garrett Worth and Ian Mageau on what might have been the best line in Class AA hockey. While the two senior wingers were trying to attract Division I college recruiters, Donovan had accepted an offer to attend the University of North Dakota.
Biondi is the son of Joe Biondi, who once skated for the UMD Bulldogs, and he accepted an early offer to follow his dad and become a Bulldog. He, too, is big and rangy and centered a prominent line for the Hawks last year and helped lead the talent-rich Hermantown outfit to the umpteenth Class A state tournament where the Hawks — and the Greyhounds — both fell short of the championships they sought.
But both are back and well on their way to leading their respective teams toward fast-approach sectional playoffs. There are some interesting traits to observe as you watch either or both of these two brilliant prospects play. Biondi is quick as well as fast, and he makes slick plays every shift. He also, however, can shoot the lights out of the net, and while his team depends on him for big goals, he usually complies.
Donovan is a brilliant passer and playmaker, but the rumbling and grumbling is that he doesn’t score many goals — which is close to saying he “can’t” score goals.
When this season started, the surprising news spread like a California wildfire through the hockey pipeline: Ryder Donovan has “decommitted” to North Dakota. He withdrew his commitment. A college known as a hockey factory, to which almost any and every Minnesota high school hockey player would give anything to attend on a hockey scholarship, and Donovan has requested to be released.
Rumors abounded that the Fighting Hawk were pressuring him to go to play junior hockey, and that the junior team that has his USHL rights was pressuring him too. Donovan put all the rumors to rest last Thursday night after he had gotten two assists as the Greyhounds whipped Grand Rapids 6-3 at Essentia Health Heritage Center.
“I never intended to leave East because high school hockey is the best hockey can be — if we play like this,” Donovan said. OK, so what about the North Dakota deal?
“There was nothing like they were putting pressure on me to leave,” he said, “just like they didn’t put any pressure on me to leave this year, either. And Dubuque, which has met rights in the USHL, has always been really good about whether I come there or not.
“I guess the best answer is that I made the decision to commit when I was going into my sophomore year, and when you make a decision as important as that when you’re 15, it might take a couple years and you might decide it’s not the right fit. I’ve always had it in my mind that I would go and play junior next year.”
It was a tough week for East, which came off a 5-2 loss to undefeated and top-ranked Minnetonka to barely sneak by Denfeld 2-1 in the last minute of overtime, and then came the annual Perkins Frenzy at Heritage, when Hermantown blasted Denfeld 9-1 and East followed by beating Grand Rapids 6-3. East had fired 57 shots at the Denfeld net, and outshot Grand Rapids 56-22, but fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 halfway through the second period.
The East breakthrough came when Brendan Baker scored twice in barely a minute late in the second period, tying the game 3-3 while the Greyhounds were outshooting the Thunderhawks 41-16 by the second intermission. Jacob Jeannette scored his first high school goal at 11:35 of the third to break the tie, and Ricky Lyle added his second goal and then assisted Baker on his hat trick goal to bring the relief of a 6-3 victory. Donovan assisted on goals by Baker and Lyle.
“He’s got NHL written all over him,” said an NHL scout watching Donovan make a deft stop and go move to beat a defenseman coming out of the corner and then fed the slot for a goal. “He’s got the head and the hands and the legs; he’s just got to improve his shooting.”
Donovan shrugs and says, “I’ve always been a pass-first guy. I’d rather set up goals than shoot.”
Knowing young kids compete for who can shoot highest and hardest, I asked Donovan if he didn’t shoot all the time as a Bantam. “I never played Bantam,” he said. “I came right up to varsity when I would have been a first-year Bantam.”
On Saturday, East and Eden Prairie battled to a 1-1 tie at Heritage, while Minnetonka’s still unbeaten and No. 1 ranked Skippers made another trip north to play at Hermantown. Hawks coach Patrick Andrews normally doesn’t start Biondi’s line, going with the Brady Baker centered line with Elliott Peterson and Ethan Lund on the wings. That’s an outstanding line, and the fact that Biondi is coming out next with sophomore Joey Pierce and Justin Thomas on the wings only indicates how strong the Hawks really are.
But the Skippers were in no mood to fiddle around in this classic match of the No.1 Class AA and Class A teams. Grant Docter scored shorthanded at 4:32, and Hunter Newhouse got his first of two at 10:58 for a 2-0 Minnetonka lead in a dominant start. When Newhouse scored again midway through the second period it was 3-0, and it appeared the Hawks were about to be blown out of their own arena. But Hermantown defenseman Sam High shot wide right from the left side, and Blake Biondi was planted in perfect position to deflect it in at 14:45, breaking the ice, so to speak. That goal also inspired the Hawks, who had been dominated like never before until that goal, but started to forecheck and take the play to the talented Skippers the rest of the second period.
The third period started and Biondi got the puck from Pierce and fed Thomas for a deflection goal at 1:15, and suddenly it was 3-2, and the shots, which had been 17-9 Minnetonka, were 17-17 and those beautiful royal blue jerseys were getting a bit tight ink the collar.
As the clock dwindled down into its fine two minutes, Andrews pulled goalie Cole Manahan with 1:22 left. On the ensuing faceoff, Thomas got the puck to Baker, the extra skater, and he charged down the slot at the Minnetonka goal. He got close enough to shoot, but instead passed crisply wide left, and big No. 22 — Biondi — deflected it in at 15:46. The Hawks had outshot Minnetonka 8-2 in the third period, and the game was 3-3.
The third period ended that way, and the teams went flat out for the winning goal. Both had their chances, too, including end to end rushes both ways in the final minute of overtime. But it ended in a 3-3 tie. Hermantown’s depth easily matched Minnetonka’s, and the Hawks may have had the edge in top-end players, most notably Biondi, with his two goals and one assist.
Minnetonka, still unbeaten but no longer unbeaten and untied, takes a 15-0-1 record and will make a return trip Up North to face powerful Andover Saturday morning at Hockey Day Minnsota in Bemidji. The game is scheduled for outside at 9:30 a.m., and to be televised by Fox Sports North, although a forecast calling for 8-below as a high in Bemidji could force the game indoors. Whatever, the Skippers are not likely to forget their close call in Hermantown, where the Hawks wound up outshooting them 24-22.
As for those two great junior prospects, Donovan and Biondi...Let’s say Donovan is the faster skater with quicker moves, but only slightly, while Biondi is clearly the better sniper. Get a chance and watch them play, and just wish for the time we might see them share the same ice at the same time. Do we think Donovan could set up Biondi for about 50 goals in a season? Yes, we do.