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Semifinal Saturday was a long day-full of hockey, and because the favorites all won at AMSOIL Arena to advance to this week’s finals in both Section 7A and 7AA, you could make the case that the stories were as compelling as the hockey.
Powerful Hermantown, top ranked in the state by the simple formula of deploying Double-A talent and depth to dominate Single-A, faced Greenway of Coleraine in the third straight section final — but that was Wednesday night, meaning it was after this was written but before The Reader hit the streets.
Another repeat performance comes up fast in 7AA, where Duluth East will try to repeat the overtime victory it won last year against Andover and reverse the 2-1 overtime loss inflicted by Andover this season, when the teams collide at 7 p.m. Thursday at AMSOIL. East used two shorthanded goals on the same penalty kill to vault to a 5-2 victory over arch-rival Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in Saturday’s semifinals, after Andover hammered Elk River 8-0 in a battle of two Twin Cities suburban powers who had to come up to AMSOIL for the 7AA semifinals. A hard-core Duluth hockey fan said, “Boy, I bet those teams hate to come all the way up here to play.
Wrong. Andover, the No. 1 seed in the section, was held to a scoreless first period despite outshooting Elk River 20-7, then erupted for five goals in the second period and wound up with a 54-14 shot advantage for the 8-0 victory, and somebody posed the same question to Andover coach Mark Manney.
“Are you kidding? We’re excited to come up here — we love to come up here and play,” said Manney. “Our players love it, and we all love the environment and playing in the arena where the college plays. It’s a great trip for us. We love it.”
The Huskies will be back in town this week to take on East at 7 p.m. Thursday between two teams that are skilled, swift and can be overpowering. Andover is led by its top line of junior Luke Kron centering seniors Nick Dainty and Charlie Schoen, a Mr. Hockey finalist. Against the Elks, Kron and Schoen each had two goals and three assists, while Dainty had one goal and three assists, giving that line 14 points, but all four lines scored.
Second-line center Gunnar Thoreson, another junior, had a remarkable third period, speeding through the Elks defense with startling quickness and stickhandling skill. He raced in but shot off the pipe once, and on a later shift he did it again, winding up all alone to score the eighth goal of the barrage. And at the end of the game, Thoreson dashed through the defense one more time, closing in and firing a shot off the crossbar in the final second of the game.
Andover’s goalie who got the shutout was Ben Fritsinger, and the Huskies goalie coach is Al Fritsinger, who used to tend goal for the Gophers. I also recalled one of the first strong Blaine teams had a couple of outstanding forwards, and one was named Bill Thoreson. So I asked Gunnar if his dad played for Blaine a long time ago, and he said yes. Manney overheard us and said, “Here he is right here; he’s my assistant coach.”
Bill Thoreson smiled as we shook hands and he told Manney, “This guy coached me on the first summer team I ever played on, at Roseville Arena.” He recalled the great team we had, with my older son, Jack, and a variety of promising players, particularly Gary Shopek, who was recruited to join the Gophers off that summer team. It was a college league, but I had added some select high school players, including Bill Thoreson — whose son is now proving the value of heredity.
Duluth East will counter with an explosive attack as well, but had a much tougher time getting past arch-rival Cloquet-Esko-Carlton 5-2. The Lumberjacks were playing the game they had to play to spring the upset. East’s inspirational triggerman, Ricky Lyle, fresh from scoring the first three goals and four in all in a 7-0 quarterfinal victory over Marshall, scored in the closing seconds of the first period against the Lumberjacks, and Jonathan Jones made it 2-0 with the rebound of Ryder Donovan’s shot early in the second. But Jon Baker scored for the ‘Jacks less than a minute later, and trailing only 2-1, they got the chance for the equalizer when East was penalized at 7:23 of the middle period.
That’s when Donovan and Lyle stunned the big crowd and the Lumberjacks with a rare outburst on their penalty-killing shift. The puck popped free and the two raced into the Lumberjacks zone 2-on-1. Donovan, a Mr. Hockey finalist who committed to Wisconsin last week, used every bit of his 6-foot-4 height and lengthy reach to push the puck beyond defenseman Mason Langenbrunner on the right side, before snapping a perfect backhand pass across the where Lyle scored just nine seconds into the penalty. At the end of their PK shift, Donovan broke up-ice again, this time on the left side. Lyle went to the bench, and Donovan, admitting he was out of gas, carried to within 45 feet and sent a low, sizzling wrist shot that beat goalie Owen Carlson at 8:07. Two shorthanded goals 37 seconds apart blew the 2-1 lead suddenly to 4-1.
“I’ve never seen anything quite like that,” said Cloquet coach Shea Walters. “We get the power play and instead of swinging the momentum our way, it went south quickly.”
EJ Hietala scored with a 160-footer into an empty net in the final minute, meaning Landon Langenbrunner’s late goal for the Lumberjacks only reduced the final margin to 5-2.
Donovan, who played one of his strongest games under semifinal pressure, said he is looking forward to facing Andover again. “We lost to ‘em 2-1 in overtime at Andover,” said Donovan, who is completing his fifth year on the Greyhounds varsity, “That was the best game we’ve had this year, I thought.”
And that makes Thursday night a potential classic.
The 7A semifinals put Hermantown’s power on display, and also required an inspired performance by a colorful Greenway of Coleraine outfit to end an impressive season by Denfeld, where coach Dale Jago has generated some rejuvenated interest in the program. Greenway broke open a 2-1 game with three unanswered goals in the second period and beat the Hunters 6-2. “We were a little nervous, and gave them too much room,” said Jago, in his second year. “But we’re learning how to win.”
The Raiders are a genuine throwback to the rink-rat Greenway teams of the 1960s, when Bob Gernander coached back-to-back state title teams in 1967 and ’68. After leaving in 1974, he returned to coach Greenway from 1983 through 1990, when his son, Kenny, and standouts like defenseman Kris Miller and center Derek Vekich, won a small-school state title in 1987.
Ken Gernander played four years for the Gophers, then played pro hockey, finishing with the Hartford American League affiliate of the Rangers, where he stayed and coached for 12 years. While there, Micah Gernander was born, and after Kenny stopped coaching, the family moved back to the West Range, and Micah Gernander is now a junior for Greenway, and a teammate of Christian Miller and Mitchell Vekich, also sons of those Raiders of the ‘80s.
Bob Gernander and his wife, Bonnie, who still live in the Coleraine area while Bob continues to scout for the Dallas Stars, had double the reason to watch the 7A final, because while grandson Micah Gernander was wearing No. 17 for Greenway, another of their grandsons is Hermantown’s No. 14, star senior defenseman Darian Gotz, Micah’s cousin. Gotz, who has committed to attend UMD, said he plans to play junior for Cedar Rapids in the USHL next year.
A skilled, tough defenseman, Gotz whistled in a power-play shot from center point to conclude the scoring in the 9-1 rout of Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl in the first 7A semifinal last Saturday. Hermantown outshot a good Blue Devils team 56-14 and blew open a tight 2-1 game with a 5-goal second period. Junior center Blake Biondi and Drew Sams each had two goals and an assist, while Brady Baker and Ethan Lund each had a goal and three assists.
Greenway’s Donte Lawson scored a semifinal hat trick as a tribute to his younger brother, Dominik, who was having kidney surgery while Saturday night’s game was being played. “It’s his third kidney transplant, and he wanted me to play,” said Donte, who left immediately after the game to be with his 13-year-old brother at Minneapolis Children’s Hospital.