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There is no argument: The most exciting day of sports viewing in the Duluth area all year is “Semifinal Saturday,” and it’s coming up this weekend at AMSOIL Arena.
The arrangement is perfect, with both the Section 7 A and AA tournaments having reached their semifinals. The eight teams that survived Tuesday quarterfinals all earned their way to AMSOIL. and if a hockey fan can’t get fired up about that day, they need a thorough checkup.
The Class AA large schools take the ice first, with No. 1 seed Andover facing perennial threat Elk River in the 12 noon opener. Following that one, long-time rivals Duluth East, the No. 2 seed, faces Cloquet-Esko-Carlton at 2. The fact that those two winners will advance to next Thursday’s section final doesn’t matter.
Someone asked East winger Ricky Lyle about the thought of facing Andover in a repeat of last year’s section final and he cut the question off. “We’ve got to only think about the ’Jacks,” Lyle said, meaning the Cloquet Lumberjacks. “We played them twice and they were both really tough games, so we know this will be another one.”
That’s how big Semifinal Saturday is.
On Saturday night, the hotly competitive Class 7A teams take over AMSOIL, with Hermantown, the top seed and heavy favorite at 21-3-2, facing Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl (10-15-1) at 6 p.m., followed by what should be a classic between Denfeld and Greenway of Coleraine at 8. Hermantown blew out Hibbing-Chisholm 13-0, outshooting the Bluejackets 63-11; Greenway whipped North Shore 7-1, and Denfeld thrashed Ely 9-0, but Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl had to work overtime — three overtimes — before Zach Kilen scored at 3:15 of the third OT to beat Eveleth-Gilbert 5-4.
Denfeld takes an impressive 14-8-3 record in coach Dale Jago’s second season into Saturday’s battle with a Greenway team that sputtered mightily through half the season and is only 12-13 for the season, but still has a nucleus of big scorers.
In Tuesday’s Class AA competition in Section 7, Andover (22-2-1) flexed its explosive offense by pounding St. Francis 11-0, and will face Elk River, which rose from a shaky season to sting Forest Lake’s higher-seeded Rangers 5-2 in Forest Lake, and is 10-14-1 going into the semifinals. The 2 p.m. game sends Cloquet-Esko-Carlton (14-11-1), which defeated Grand Rapids 4-1 Tuesday in Cloquet, behind the scoring touch of Landon Langenbrunner, into another shot at Duluth East (16-6-2), the Lumberjacks favorite foe this year or any year.
East, which went through a stretch struggling to score, has found a unique method of breaking loose, and that was when they found school cancellations and blizzards wiping out three games in the last two weeks. That prompted the frustrated Greyhounds to take it out in a 10-0 romp over a good Superior outfit, leading into Tuesday’s quarterfinal 7-0 victory over a rebuilding but outgunned Marshall, which ends 6-19-1 after being outshot 49-8 by the Greyhounds.
Lyle led the charge for the Greyhounds, scoring the first three goals of the game before Frederick Hunter-Paine and Ryder Donovan made it 5-0, and then Lyle scored on a perfect 2-on-1 feed by Logan Anderson, and Brendan Baker finished the running-time rampage.
Donovan, the 6-foot-4 senior centerman who should have a run at Mr. Hockey, fired a one-timer on a power-play set-up and put it into the roof of the net from wide to the left.
But it was Lyle who set the tempo from the outset. “I was really fired up,” Lyle said. “We all want to play 25 games, and when we got a couple games canceled it was frustrating. We’ve got to keep it rolling now, and it doesn’t matter who scores as long as somebody does.”
Lyle, a quick triggerman, has 16 goals this season, and amazingly has not been seriously contacted by any major colleges. He said he expects to try out for a USHL team or play in the North American junior league.
Donovan, who withdrew his commitment to North Dakota at midseason, has just announced that he’s signed a tender to play hockey at the University of Wisconsin. But all that future stuff is for the future. For now, everybody on all eight remaining Section 7 teams have only one focus: Semifinal Saturday.
Fortunately, the food is improved at the palatial rink by the harbor, and a word of advice — the bratwursts and Polish sausages are good, but try the $5 all-beef hot dog. It’ll help you get through the long day, which starts at High Noon and should end sometime around 10 p.m.