Apple Valley travled to Bloomington on Tuesday night to take on the state's top-ranked Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars, and I made it down for the game.
This game was closer than one might have expected it to be. Jefferson definitely controlled the play throughout the first half of the game, but had nothing to show for it. The turning point in the game came with 2:04 left in the second period. Jefferson took two penalties, giving Apple Valley 53 seconds of 5-on-3 time, and a great chance to take the lead. If nothing else, you figured Apple Valley would at least go into third period tied. Instead, right as the first penalty expired, Jefferson cleared the puck, and hit Caleb Herbert, who was coming out of the box, on a breakaway. He buried it and Jefferson went into the break up 1-0. That change of fortune seemed to demoralize Apple Valley and Jefferson dominated the third period. The Jaguars added a second shorthanded goal, on kind of a soft goal on a long wrist shot, and then added a powerplay goal to win the game 3-0.
In all, Jefferson stayed undefeaeted against a dangerous team. The scoreline may not have been overly impressive, but they found a way to win on a night where things didn't necessarily go their way.
Minnesota-Duluth recruit Caleb Herbert stood out as the best player on the ice. When he gets moving, he's got an extra that I don't think anybody in high school hockey can match. He's maybe not the best puck handler, but he was excellent in the offensive corners all night.
Jefferson is also loaded with very good defensemen. Alternate captain Tim LaBombard is a very solid, reliable senior defensemen that logs a good deal of ice time. Juniors Joe Faust and Jeffrey Pauluk are both definitely college hockey prospects. Faust has good size and loves to shoot the puck. It's easy to see how he's racked up so many points. Pauluk is a little smaller, but plays an incredibly smooth game.
What should help Jefferson come tournament time is that they are a very deep team. Aside from a few very talented juniors, everyone else is a strong, experienced senior that can play pretty well.
It's hard to say too much about their goaltending. Senior Casey O'Connor made all the stops he needed to, but Apple Valley only finished with 11 shots on goal, and only one or two were what I would describe as challenging. He leads the state in goals aganist average currently, but only sees about 15 shots per game.
Apple Valley didn't have nearly the depth of Bloomington Jefferson, but had a couple really nice prospects. The leader of their team is senior defenseman Derek Thompson, who probably played at least half the game. He probably has a future in junior hockey next season if he pursues it.
AV also has two of the state's best freshmen in forward AJ Michaelson and defenseman Derek Smith. Smith is a '93 birthdate, while Michaelson is a '94. Michaelson is a small, speedy forward that always seems to be around the puck. He was kept quiet tonight by Jefferson's great defense, but did create a couple of offensive opportunities, and looked like one of AV's biggest offensive threats despite being 2-3 years younger than everyone on the opposing team. Smith was rock solid on the blueline. For being so young, he looked very comfortable out there and didn't make many mistakes.
Apple Valley also has an excellent sophomore goalie in Aaron Gretz. Other than the second goal of the game, which he'd probably like back, Gretz did a great job of holding his team in the game. It's hard to fault him for the breakaway goal to Herbert, or the third goal, which was a rebound on the powerplay, and he made a lot of nice saves.
So where do I see these teams going the rest of the way?
Jefferson has a decent chance of heading into the sectional tournament undefeated, though they still have two really tough games remaining on their schedule against Moorhead and at Eden Prairie. Maybe taking a loss wouldn't be the worst thing for them, to take some of the pressure of an undefeated season off of them.
But on the other hand, I think an undefeated record is the only thing that keeps them seeded first overall in their section ahead of Edina, and I think there is a big advantage to whichever team is seeded first and likely draws Burnsville in the section semifinal rather than Holy Angels.
Can this team win the state tournament? Absolutely I think they could. But they do kind of remind of the Edina team from two years ago--though that Edina team was loaded with talented sophomores, while Jefferson has a talented junior class--in that they're extremely talented, but I think a bit untested against top-notch competition. That Edina team went from being seeded third in the state to first in the last week of the season thanks to some big upsets, and ended losing in the first round of the tournament to an experience Grand Rapids team. I could see Jefferson losing a similar type of game against a hot team.
Of course, the big question will be can they get past Edina in the section tournament? If I had to rank teams on just pure talent, I'd say Edina is clear-cut number one, and Jefferson is probably on par with Centennial. Then again, Centennial beat Edina. It should be a classic game between these two if they meet, that should come down to goaltending and a few breaks either way. I do think it's to Jefferson's advantage that they'd play on bigger ice at Mariucci if they met.
Apple Valley is an interesting team to me. They're probably going to end up seeded third in Section 3AA behind Woodbury and Cretin-Derham Hall, but they may be a very interesting sleeper pick.
Shortly before they gave up the first goal of the game, they hit a goalpost pretty solidly on their best chance of the game. If they go up 1-0, I think it would have been a really interesting third period. They've got good goaltending on some nice players on the blueline. It's easy to see how they would be able to pull off a big upset. Woodbury is by no means invincible. They've got some nice wins, but also soem head-scratching results, particularly against a Forest Lake team that like Apple Valley, has solid goaltending, but not much offensive firepower.