Last Saturday, I was able to make it out to a pair of high school games, each with a pair of consensus top-20 teams playing. First, I hit the big north metro rivalry game between Blaine and Centennial at Centennial Arena, followed by a Classic Lake conference match-up between Wayzata and Eden Prairie.
Here's a few thoughts I had on the game.
Centennial vs. Blaine
Having not grown up here, I generally don't have any real rooting interests when it comes to high school hockey. Over my years of covering the sport, there's certain coaches and players that I have a great amount of respect for, and certain coaches that I don't particularly care for, but for the most part, the outcomes of games don't particularly matter to me one way or the other. So I mean the following with all due respect to Maple Grove, who I think might be the second best, if not best team in Section 5AA. On February 28th in the Section 5AA final, on what will be the final night of hockey played at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum, I really, really want to see Blaine vs. Centennial as the lead-in to one last Hill-Murray/White Bear Lake game. Even though some of the Blaine/Centennial section finals haven't lived up to the billing, it's always fun to watch these two rivals go at it. This game was really intense, and really physical. The close score kept a lid on things, otherwise there probably would have been a pretty big fight at the end of the game. It's fun to watch two teams that don't care for each other battle like that.
The game itself wasn't the prettiest. Centennial took a 2-1 lead late in the second period on a shorthanded goal off a really bad Blaine mistake, and held that lead for almost all of the third period until Blaine snuck in a game-tying goal with 22 seconds left. Blaine then scored in overtime to win the game.
Blaine is a lot faster than Centennial, and overall, has more talent. But Blaine really struggled to move the puck effectively against a big, strong Centennial defense that kept things pretty clogged up. Blaine had some pretty significant power play time in this game, but most of it was spent passing just for the sake of passing, rather than passing to set up a better opportunity. Blaine never looked better than the sum of their individual parts, and it was going to take more than an individual effort to beat a strong team defense by Centennial.
Heading into the season, it looked like Blaine would be the favorite in Section 5AA with Centennial and Maple Grove way back. But with just a few weeks left in the season, that gap looks a lot closer than anybody might have thought. It would take a couple breaks and bounces to go Centennial's way for them to repeat as section champs, but I think any one of Blaine, Maple Grove, or Centennial could take the section title.
Wayzata vs. Eden Prairie
I have to say, the pace of this game was much faster than the first one. There's a lot of skill on these two teams. Eden Prairie threw everything they had at Wayzata early, jumping out to a big edge in shots. But as the game wore on, Wayzata rolling through three lines eventually wore down Eden Prairie, who tried to keep their top five skaters on the ice as much as possible..
Even though Eden Prairie put a lot of shots on goal, it's a credit to Wayzata's defense that the Eagles didn't get many high quality opportunities. Wayzata goalie Vaughan Ahrens was steady throughout, making every save he needed to and limiting second chance opportunities. Offensively, Wayzata took advantage of their opportunities, getting a power play goal in the first, a pretty goal in the second period, and then adding on a third goal for insurance by just out-working a tiring Eden Prairie defense.
Eden Prairie has the duo of recently-announced Mr. Hockey finalists Luc Snuggerud and Steve Spinner, who are both committed to Nebraska-Omaha, and both likely NHL Draft picks this summer. Spinner was held pretty quiet all night by a tough Wayzata that really seemed to focus on him. Snuggerud was the best player on the ice all night. He logged a of ice time, and was effective moving the puck all night. As far as the draft board, I moved Snuggerud up a few spots. With Spinner, I'm inclined to throw it out as a bad game, though it is a bit concerning to not see him do more against the type of physical defense he'll see at the next level.
For Wayzata, sophomore Max Zimmer was flying around the ice all night. I've gone back and forth on the top sophomore in the state a number of times over the past year or so, but Zimmer is starting to emerge as the best in the group. Wayzata's other youngster, sophomore forwards Mark Senden and Luke Paterson, and freshman D Hank Sorenson have all shown a lot of growth since the beginning of the high school season. They look a lot more comfortable, and that should make Wayzata all the more dangerous at playoff time. Senior defeneman Chandler Lindstrand did a lot of the work in shutting down Spinner on the evening.
In the bigger picture, I still like Wayzata as one of the best teams in the state. It's been a crazy high school season with a lot of the big name teams losing games here and there, but I still think Wayzata is one of the top teams in the state, rankings be damned. Getting out of their section will be tough, but I don't see them making the big defensive mistakes or allowing soft goals that can sometimes create upsets.
Eden Prairie will be in the mix in Section 6AA along with Holy Family and Benilde-St. Margaret's. Any of the three certainly have the types of dominating top lines that can pull off an upset, but production out of a second or third line is a huge question mark for all three.
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