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The 75th state high school hockey tournament will, as usual, provide a lengthy list of memorable games, filled with spectacular plays, as the teenage warriors once again prove why Minnesota schoolboy hockey is the most advanced form of high school athletes. But another trend is that this week’s tournament will be hard-pressed to be any more exciting than the superb drama produced in the Section 7A and 7AA championship games last week.
If it seems like business as usual for Duluth East to carry Northland hopes into the AA tournament when it begins Thursday, maybe it is. The Greyhounds had made it to seven straight tournaments before falling short in 2016 and 2017, but they were back last year, making it all the way to the championship game before losing to Minnetonka. This week, the ’Hounds are back at Xcel Energy Center and open against a powerful St. Thomas Academy team in the 9 p.m. finale of the first round.
The Cadets have the extra incentive of winning for their coaches, brothers Tom and Greg Vannelli, who have announced they are stepping down after this season, having led them out of a dominant position in Class A and into the elite level of AA.
But East’s venture this year is considered something of an upset, because the Greyhounds had to get past highly regarded Andover in the Section 7AA final last Thursday, and they did it by the slim margin of Ryder Donovan’s goal at 0:36 of overtime.
And that game had nothing on the 7A final, last Wednesday, when Donte Lawson of Greenwayh/Nashwauk-Keewatin swatted a rebound out of the air and into the Hermantown goal at 3:11 of overtime, ending the Hawks bid to make it to their 10th consecutive state tournament. Hermantown had been ranked No. 1 in Class A virtually all season, and had beaten Greenwah during the season, but ran into an inspired Raiders outfit that never seemed to show the exhaustion of playing only two lines.
This is the 18th time coach Mike Randolph has taken his Greyhounds to the state tournament, winning the big trophy in 1995 and 1998, and finishing second for the sixth time last year.
“People say we’ve been to state so many times but only won twice,” said Randolph. “They don’t realize how hard it is to get there. There are no easy sections, and a team has to beat three good teams to win their section. And once at the state, every one of the eight section winners are good enough to win the state title. You need to have everybody playing their best, and then you need some luck.”
The spotlight, as usual, is on the East offense, where the first line would be a good height match for most basketball teams, with Donovan, at 6-foot-4, centering 6-7 Jonathan JNones, and 6-1 Jacob Jennette, a sophomore keeping up with two seniors. But it’s the second line that has ignited the Greyhounds through the playoffs, with Ricky Lyle and fellow-senior Jack FitzGerald joined by 6-2 junior Logan Anderson. And, Brendan Baker, a 6-2 senior, carries the third line.
But Lyle has been the hottest scorer in the state through playoffs. He scored 8 goals and 5 assists for 13 points in three playoff games, and they weren’t just ordinary goals. Lyle scored the first three goals of the game against Marshall and ended the game with four, then he scored the first goal against Cloquet-Esko-Carlton and added a second on a spectacular shorthanded 2-on-1 rush with Donovan setting him up shorthanded before he fed Donovan for another shorthanded goal on the same penalty kill to blow a 2-1 lead to 4-1 and an eventual 5-2 victory.
In the 7AA championship game, Lyle once again scored the game’s first goal, and, after the potent Andover offense gained a 2-1 lead, Lyle tumbled awkwardly past the net and a loose puck off goalie Ben Fritsinger glanced in off Lyle’s skate as he slid past the net. Lyle and FitzGerald were both at the crease and both swung at a loose puck, but Lyle settled for an assist as his linemate knocked it in. This time, Andover star Charlie Schoen tied it 3-3 with a perfect, high, short-side shot from wide to the left, forcing overtime.
After 27 seconds of overtime, Lyle tried to bolt through the Andover defense, and when the two defenders restrained him, Lyle threw his arms in the air and did a reasonable swan dive. The refs bought it, called the penalty, and at 0:36, Lyle was deep on the right and passed across the goal-mouth, where Donovan one-timed his game-winner past Fritsinger.
Randolph knows his team is on a roll right now, getting some luck as well as the blossoming of a long season of work. “With Ricky Lyle up front and Frederick Hunter Paine on defense, we have two guys who never have to be fired-up to play physically. That’s the way we’ve got to play, but it’s been a hard sell with the rest of the players.
“On defense, I have to say Dylan Mills has done the best coaching job we’ve ever had. Coming in, we had Paine and Carson Cochran, as our only returning defensemen, but Mills has turned EJ Hietala and Jayson Hagen into outstanding defensemen. Hietala is our most improved player, and Hagen had never played. He had never made a Double-A youth team, but he has worked so hard he’s made himself a solid player.”
Then there is goaltending. Randolph played three different goalies through much of the season before settling on Brody Rabold with solid backup in Lukan Hanson, both seniors. “Coming in, he was our fifth goalie, and I told him if he wanted to transfer, or play Junior Gold, I would understand, because he wasn’t going to play for us. But he stayed with it, and he looked pretty good in summer practice. And when we got into the season and I rotated three, he emerged as our most consistent.
“And as exciting as that Andover game was, it wouldn’t have gone to overtime if Brody hadn’t made an unbelievable save on their No. 7 — Luke Krone’s — with three seconds left in the third period.”
Kron corralled a rebound in front of the East goal, and as he quickly flipped a backhander toward the right edge of the goal, defenseman Paine threw himself into the crease behind Rabold to block the coming shot. No need. Rabold’s gloved hand snatched the shot and Kron and the Huskies were stymied.
The balance Randolph refereed to in state tournament play means that the seeding done for both tournaments becomes significant. They seed the top five, to make sure the top two ranked teams end up in opposite brackets, with the idea they might meet in the final, and also to have teams seed 4 and 5 meet in the first round. East, being 4, and St, Thomas Academy No. 5, will play, and if No. 1 Edina wins its first-round game against Moorhead, an East victory would send the Hounds against Edina in Friday night’s second semifinal, in all likelihood.
In Class A, the teams played their quarterfinals on Wednesday, meaning No. 5 Greenway was to play No. 4 Delano in the final night game, while top-seeded Mahtomedi opened the night session against New Ulm. Delano, which beat Greenway early during its injury-plagued start, has a 17-9-2 record while Greenway clearly has the poorest record in the field, at 15-13. If Greenway wins the opener, and faces Mahtomedi in the semifinals, neither Delano nor Mahtomedi will recognize the Raiders who started 5-13 and have since won 10 straight games, streaking into the state tournament.
It would be altogether fitting if both East and Greenway advanced and got to the finals, maybe even winning the two championships, because it’s possible the three best players who are so far uncommitted to any colleges are Greenway’s star center Donte Lawson and East winger Ricky Lyle and defenseman Frederick Hunter Paine. All three are on the lists of various colleges, who are waiting to see the three play junior hockey, but that could all change if they have outstanding state tournaments.