South St. Paul traveled to Aldrich Arena to take on new and less-improved Hill-Murray team, and I made it down there to check out the action, since both teams have a couple nice college prospects.
Hill won the game 4-2, though they pretty much carried the play. After a scoreless first period, they scored two goal in the second, and one early in the third. The game seemed pretty much over, as SSP hadn't put more than a handful of shots on goal, but the Packers scored a powerplay goal to cut it to 3-1 with about six minutes left, and had a couple chances to cut the lead to one with about two minutes left, but Hill added an empty-netter, and SSP scored their second goal with less than a second left. Hill-Murray hit a couple posts in the second period that would have put the game out of reach earlier, but instead they let SSP stick around until the end, but the Packers couldn't take advantage.
One of the biggest stories in high school hockey this season was Hill-Murray kicking four seniors off the team for a "rules violation" that allegedly involved some illegal substances.I think Hill-Murray head coach Bill Lechner deserves a lot of credit for that, because there is more pressure to win at Hill-Murray than nearly any other school in the state, and losing those four players puts a huge dent in those chances, but it was probably the right thing to do, and sends the right message.
Even before the suspensions, this is a little different Hill-Murray team than in year's past. It's a much smaller, quicker team than your typical Hill-Murray, and thanks to the dismissals, they don't have nearly the depth that they typically have.
Their new first line of Tyler Zepeda, Ben Bahe, and Willie Faust is pretty solid though. Zepeda is legitimately one of the best high school players in the state. Bahe is in the mold of a Zepeda. He's a small, quick player that can move the puck around well. Togehter, Zepeda and Bahe controlled the game while they were out on the ice together. The lack of secondary scoring is going to be a concern when they get down to critical games late in the year though.
Chris Casto is a junior defenseman that teams have followed pretty closely. South St. Paul wasn't putting a ton of pressure on Hill-Murray so he had a fairly quiet night, but was steady when called upon. He made an absolutely beautiful cross-ice pass behind Bahe, off the boards, and onto Bahe's stick for the game's first goal. Not many high school players could do that. Similarly, a pretty quiet night for sophomore D J.D. Cotroneo, who is supposed to be pretty good.
Sophomore goalie Tim Shaugnessy wasn't tested much either. He made two or three nice saves, but nothing spectacular, and the goals he let in were off a tip in front of the net that he had no chance on, and a rebound off a scramble in front of the net.
The sudden vacancies in Hill-Murray's lineup also meant that some younger kids are getting a shot at the varsity level. Sophomore Kevin Becker and 8th grader Zach Lavalle got a little ice time in the third period, and neither looked out of place.
It was a tough night all-around for South St. Paul, against a pretty good team. Sophomore goalie Adam Wilcox is a tall, athletic kid that is pretty talented in goal. He's kind of reminds me of Alex Stalock, who also played at South St. Paul. Like Stalock, he also has the propensity to wander out of his net, sometimes to his detriment. In the first period, he went into the corner for a puck, and ended up losing his stick in a collision with a Hill player, and he got caught out of the net on the first goal of the game, which Bahe put into an empty net.
Senior defenseman Zach Palmquist has drawn a lot of attention from WCHA schools this year. It's pretty obvious to see what teams like about him. He skates pretty well, has some decent skills with the puck, and seems to understand the game pretty well. But I think there are some downsides as well. He's not a particularly big defenseman. He sometimes gets too focused on marking one forward, putting him out of position, and allowing another forward to streak past him, and he had a couple costly turnovers. But he's probably likely to play at least a year of junior hockey after high school, and if he can tighten up some of those spots in his game, he does have the skills to play at the WCHA level.
It wasn't an overly impressive night for the South St. Paul forwards. The forward that stood out the most was senior captain Ryan Miller, who played a nice game. Freshman Austyn Young and sophomore Jesse Poznikowich made a name for themselves by scoring a ton of points as bantams last season, and have gotten off to a fast start in high school hockey. Young has incredibly quick hands, but his skating and lack of strength against more mature players kept him pretty quiet. Poznikowich is a taller, lankier kid that could be very tough once he grows into body a little bit more.
South St. Paul still should have a shot at making some noise in Section 4A and having a shot to the state tournament. They tied St. Thomas Academy two weeks ago, proving they can skate with the best in Class A. The think South St. Paul will end up meeting St. Thomas Academy in the section final for the right to go to the state tournament, and while I think the Packers can give the Cadets a serious run for their money, I think St. Thomas is just a little bit better right now.
As for Hill-Murray, it's looking like they're going to run up against rival White Bear Lake in the section final once again--barring an upset by a dangerous Tartan team. I think the Pioneers match up well against the Bears. Hill-Murray's top line is better than White Bear's top line, but I like White Bear's second line with Birkinbine, Wallin, and Wolter over the next line Hill would throw out there. Hill is much stronger on the blueline, but I would give White Bear the edge in goal. I see it ending up as another classic one goal game in the section final that could go either way.