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Hermantown’s Wyatt Carlson scored a hat trick in the 8-1 romp against Denfeld goalie Connor Doyle. Photo by John Gilbert.
Everywhere you looked on Christmas weekend, NFL teams were playing in big games that required big plays to succeed.
We were all consumed by the Vikings pulling out a 27-24 thriller against the New York Giants, but right after that you could watch Cincinnati slip past New England 22-18, and the classic Dallas 40-34 victory against Philadelphia.
On Sunday, Green Bay clicked into focus to beat Miami 26-20, and Tampa bay beat Arizona 18-16 in overtime.
With only two weeks to go until playoffs, the NFL has never looked more scrambled, or more exciting, for more teams who think they have a chance to go all the way to the Super Bowl.
My humble prediction is that the ultimate Super Bowl champion will come from among those teams – plus three powers that didn’t need nail-biting finishes, in Kansas City, Buffalo and San Francisco.
Versed, the Vikings are in that picture, along with Cincinnati, Dallas, Philadelphia, Kansas City, San Francisco. Two hopefuls – Green Bay and Tampa Bay – may wind up on the outside looking in, but both of them meet the qualifications for success if they get close enough, which means a lot rides on Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and Tampa Bay’s Tom Brady.
Both pulled late rabbits out of their hats to gain victories last Sunday.
This Sunday, the Vikings go to Green Bay, where the Packers would love nothing better than for Rodgers and Co. to throw a wrench into Kirk Cousins and the Vikings, who climbed to an almost incomprehensible 12-3 on the strength of Greg Joseph’s personal and team record 61-yard field goal as time expired.
Another team I’ve liked all season is Miami, but the hard-hitting Packers slammed quarterback Tua Tagovailoa to the turf where the back of his helmet struck with whiplash force.
Afterward, we learned the brilliant left-handed gun suffered a concussion and is not only out for this week and perhaps the next game, but if his brain was a little fuzzy, it also could have been a prime reason he threw three interceptions in the fourth quarter to fuel Green Bay’s finish.
The sure tip is that any time you get near a TV set when an NFL game is being played, tune in. We may all be partial to the Vikings, but every game seems to guarantee high drama.
We’re seeing something of a variation on the high drama front in area high school hockey.
We had a pretty good idea that Hermantown would have a powerhouse, and the Hawks have not disappointed. With departed brothers Zam and Max Plante home from Chicago for Christmas break, they dropped in at Essentia-Heritage Center for a doubleheader to see their hometown Hawks take on Denfeld in a rematch of their Section 7 Class A championship game of last March.
Hopefully they also came early to watch defending Class AA state champion Andover take on Duluth East. That game, in fact, provided the biggest upset in the first half of the high school season.
Andover has plenty of firepower returning, including the Huskies explosive first line. All three members had gone to play junior games in the fall but returned to play for the Huskies.
The Greyhounds, who suffered through an 8-18-1 season in new coach Steve Pitoscia’s debut a year ago, didn’t show much hope by starting their first three and four of their first five games this season. The losses were no disgraces, but more the logical result of trying to rebuild against the typically rugged schedule always generated by forcer coach Mike Randolph.
White Bear Lake, St. Thomas Academy and Grand Rapids inflicted their first three losses – including 4-1 at St. Thomas Academy where Randolph is coaching now.
But after a first victory at Bemidji and a 4-1 loss to Wayzata was followed by an outburst of strong play, resulting in victories against Forest Lake, Coon Rapids, leading up to a crushing 8-2 loss to Eden Prairie.
Now Andover shows up to play East at Heritage in the first game of a doubleheader last week. Thomas Gunderson gave East a 1-0 lead in the first period, and before Andover could find any offensive rhythm, Wyatt Peterson, Noah Teng and Cole Christian pumped in second-period goals for the Greyhounds and a 4-0 lead.
Ben Doll scored on a power-ply wraparound to break Kole Kronstadt’s shutout in the third period, but Teng got his second goal and East had a 5-1 triumph.
“We’re getting better,” said Pitoscia. “We’re cutting down on the mistakes we used to make, so we’re improving.”
Andover coach Mark Manney said, “I’m just going to watch and see if we get it into focus. That’s about the fifth game we came out flat, and we never got it together against East. They’ve got some good speed and skill, and you can’t play the way we did and hope to beat them.”
That made the second game a bit anti-climatic. Hermantown blitzed Denfeld 8-1, getting six goals from what coach Pat Andrews calls his “Blue Line.”
Josh Kauppinen scored the only goal of a tough first period, then he scored short-handed at 2:00 of the second for the Hawks before his brother, Matthew Kauppinen, scored to make it 3-0.
Somehow, Andrews has gotten a rink-rat mentality across to the minds of all his players, and they attack with an eagerness that makes them all celebrate for whoever makes the play or scores the goal.
East, meanwhile, took its surprising win against Andover and went off to Mars-Lakeview Arena to face old rival Marshall.
The Hilltoppers are a little thin this season, and the Greyhounds weren’t about to lighten up against them. Defenseman Grant Winkler rifled a screened shot past Marshall goaltender Sam Pollard fro the left point, Luke Sose scored from a scramble at the crease, Thomas Gunderson scored on a line rush midway through the opening period, and Winkler drilled his second screened shot form the left point with 2 seconds left for a 4-0 cushion.
The Hounds outshot Marshall 24-7 in the first period, and 18-6 in the second when Pollard allowed only one goal, with Thomas Gunderson in the slot, making it 5-0 at the second intermission. The tempo picked up again in the third after Wyatt Peterson scored at 0:08, and Aidan Spanningsby connected for the blue line corps to finish a 7-0 rout. East had 55-15 edge in shots, and Drew Raukar got the shutout.
I asked Pitoscia about the new red jerseys worn by the Hounds, and if they might pull an Oregon football trick and wear different jerseys every game. “No,” he said, “I had a steady stream of alumni come up to me and ask why all the other East teams wear school colors (red and grey), but we wear black. So we got new jerseys.”
It took a few games, but going 5-2 after their shaky start means this year’s Greyhounds might be back in the 7AA title chase.
This weekend? Don’t overlook the college bowl games, even though there are too many to keep our attention riveted, But among the more interesting ones are Thursday’s Gophers vs. Syracuse in the Pinstripe Bowl, the same day Texas plays Washington and Florida State faces Oklahoma.
On Friday, Clemson meets Tennessee. On Saturday, the big NCAA national championship semifinals will be conducted, with No. 1 Georgia facing No. 4 Ohio State, and No. 2 Michigan taking on No. 3 Texas Christian.
I would say Georgia and Michigan are the two favorites, but it would be great for college football is Ohio State and TCU made it to the final.