Greyhounds need to rise from No. 6 seed

John Gilbert

Duluth East goaltender Konrad Kausch stood ready during 5-0 shutout of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton last week. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Duluth East goaltender Konrad Kausch stood ready during 5-0 shutout of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton last week. Photo credit: John Gilbert
Greyhounds 9th-grader Cole Christian scored a goal in the victory over CEC. John Gilbert
Greyhounds 9th-grader Cole Christian scored a goal in the victory over CEC. John Gilbert
Konrad Kausch scrambled to hold off Champlin Park, as Michael Sutherland (23) cleared the rebound, bujt East lost 2-1 with 0:06 left. John Gilbert
Konrad Kausch scrambled to hold off Champlin Park, as Michael Sutherland (23) cleared the rebound, bujt East lost 2-1 with 0:06 left. John Gilbert

There will be no further “getting ready” for the Duluth East Greyhounds hockey team as they head into the Section 7AA hockey playoffs, with only several practice days between the end of their regular season and the start of tournament play. That, of course, is what coach Mike Randolph knows his team needs most of all.

It’s been a rough year for the Hounds, normally Duluth’s premier Class AA high school hockey power, rivaled only by the Class A standard set by Hermantown. Maybe, however, it’s not a bad year to have a bad year, so to speak, because Andover has a truly elite team — possibly the best talent in the state — and is an overwhelming favorite to win the 7AA title. Andover was top-seeded last year, too, but East beat them in a stirring overtime 7AA final, leaving a season-full of gathering motivation in the Andover camp.

Figuring out who might be No. 2 was the section’s biggest chore. Grand Rapids secured the second slot Tuesday night by going on the road to beat Cloquet-Esko-Carlton 3-0 on Carter Clafton’s second straight shutout. That leaves CEC and Forest Lake to fight it out for third and fourth, followed by East, Elk River, Anoka and Marshall.

If it seems strange to talk about East as a middle-of-the-pack team, it’s because of roadblocks that kept popping up in front of an inexperienced crop of players who have had to grow up fast. East has had to ride the surprisingly brilliant goaltending of Konrad Kausch to competitiveness. While Kausch’s play has been so solid that observers are scrambling to try to recall any East netminder who has come out of nowhere to be the team’s stabilizer.

Like most of the players on this year’s team, Kausch has spent his time developing on the junior varsity, having not played until this, his senior year.

“I’ve been very lucky finding a goaltender to take the No. 1 spot every year,” said Randolph. “But from the beginning of this season, it became obvious that we were only going to go as far as Konrad can take us. And he has embraced the challenge.” Goaltender coach Tim Cortes was asked to name the last East goaltender who showed as much ability as Kausch has this year. “None, since I’vebeen here,” Cortes said.

The story of the Greyhounds this season has been that this team could become the first East team in the modern era to fail to finish above 500. Randolph is well aware of it, but also recalls the 2015 team, which had to win the Section 7AA playoffs to reach .500, and that, of course, meant they were in the state tournament.

The Hounds were on the right track, it seemed, playing much better and scoring some goals, when a siege of sickness ran through the team, causing three games to be postponed and rescheduled in the last two weeks. When then came back sufficiently to play, the Hounds were smoked 5-0 by Elk River, a team that has also been trying to return to the level of past power.

A key turning point came against Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, which had beaten the Hounds in an overtime thriller in Cloquet earlier in the season. Kausch was at his best, and East got two goals from Charlie Erickson to beat the Lumberjacks 5-0 — a stunning reversal that showed how much East had improved.

East next came from a goal down to stun a potent Maple Grove outfit 2-1, as Kausch made 44 saves with the Hounds being outshot  45-13. Next came Champlin Park, another outstanding North Suburban Twin Cities program. Champlin Park outshot East 32-16 and Kausch was outstanding, but Champlin Park tied the game in the third period, and won it on a shot from the point, through a screen, that went in with 6 seconds remaining for a 2-1 loss.

“After that game, for therapy I stayed up all night going over all our stats for the season,” said Randolph. “I found that we’ve been shut out five times, and we’ve been held to one goal five more times. And 28 times, the other team has scored in the first five minutes or the last five minutes of a period.

“Our goals per game is 2.59, and our goals-against per game is 3.09. We’ve scored only 37 goals 5-on-5. But we’ve played hard, and this team has come a long way. If we can take care of the first and last five minutes of each period, we can be pretty good. But everything has got to be right on for us to win. Scoring the first goal is huge for us, because when we get behind, we don’t have a lot of guys with experience in chasing a game.”

The final weekend was a microcosm of East’s season. The Greyhounds lost 3-0 at Eagan Monday night, then got it back together Tuesday night, when they went to Superior and Kausch blanked the Spartans 2-0.

“We finished with four games in five days,” said Randolph. “I can’t remember the last time we practiced.”

But now, nearly a week before playoffs begin, leaves time for practice, and no need to stay up all night studying the season stats. East finishes the regular season with a 10-12-2 record, a distinct underdog status, an outstanding goaltender, and…erratic as the team has been, nobody will want to face the Greyhounds at playoff time.