I made it out to the State Fairgrounds last night for the Section 5AA semifinals, which had back-to-back games of Maple Grove vs. Centennial and Blaine vs.Osseo. It's a big place so I didn't see everyone there, but to give kind of a feel for the room, I saw a few NHL scouts, one college assistant coach, and a lot of USHL/NAHL hockey scouts/coaches, which is about what you would expect for the players playing there. Maple Grove won the first game 5-3, while Blaine won the second 4-2. Maple Grove and Blaine will play for a trip to the state tournament this Friday at the Fairgrounds.
Maple Grove vs. Centennial
This was a perfect example of the way a game can take a 180-degree turn with one single play. Centennial came out strong and looked to be headed for a big upset. The Cougars were leading 3-1 late in the third period and appeared to have scored a goal to put them up 4-1, a lead that at the time, felt pretty insurmountable. The teams and the officials made their way to center ice for the next faceoff before one of Maple Grove's captains caught the ear of one of the officials. Then the other official came into the discussion, followed by a few more Maple Grove players. Finally, one of the officials skated down to the goal judge at that end of the ice, and after a brief conversation with the goal judge, waved the goal off, saying that the net had been knocked off prior to the puck going in.
I was at the other end of the ice, so I can't say much about the play, other than that it wasn't so blatant that I had any clue why the goal would be waved off, until it was announced. Though I can say that on Maple Grove's first goal, the Centennial goalie accidentally kicked the post off slightly while trying to slide across his crease just before the puck went into the net. It was a minor technicality and didn't affect the play at all, but it seems like the disallowed Centennial was the same type of deal. I guess credit to the Maple Grove kids for being alert enough to bring up.
Anyway, once the goal was waved off, even though Centennial still had a two-goal lead, it actually felt like it was Maple Grove's game to lose. The Crimson earned a power play on the next shift, which they converted, and Maple Grove tied the game with 30 seconds left in the period. The third period wasn't dominated by Maple Grove, but the Crimson did take the lead early on, and held on for a 5-3 win.
For the first 60% of the game, Centennial played the type of game that has beaten them so many times in the section tournament in recent years. They were less skilled, but played a more physical, tougher game led by their senior class. Maple Grove had the more skilled team, but they're also a team that relies heavily on their junior class, and for the first part of the game, they played with the urgency of a team that felt like they would get another shot next year, rather than the desperation you need in a do-or-die playoff game like that.
After the disallowed goal, Maple Grove's second line with Alex Mason and Spenser Bell really came to life, which I think is the key for Maple Grove. When they are playing well, they are one of the best second lines in the state and make the Crimson really difficult to match up with. If they can replicate the way they played in the final 20 minutes of the game, they've got a great shot at making it to the state tournament.
Blaine vs. Osseo
This game was all about Osseo star Tim Bonner, and how Blaine was able to match up against him. Surprisingly, Blaine chose to match up against Bonner's line with the line of Tyler Cline, Jesse Norling, and Dylan Lambert, a freshman, sophomore, and junior, respectively, which is a lot of responsibility to put on that kind of youth. This match-up allowed Blaine to play their top line, with both Brodzinski brothers, against Osseo's second line, which was a great match-up for Blaine.
This paid big dividends for Blaine almost immediately, when Michael Brodzinski tipped in a goal on the second shift of the game. Bonner did break free for a goal at the start of the second period, and generated quite a few chances just because he's an excellent player, but for the most part, it worked well for Blaine. One shift after Bonner's line tied the game at 2 with about 7 minutes left, Jonny Brodzinski was able to score a pretty big-time goal against Osseo's second line. Blaine was able to hold onto that lead and add an empty-netter with under 20 seconds left.
Bonner put on a pretty fun show all night long. He's a tremendous skater, and has pretty good hands. He'll play junior hockey somewhere, though he'll need to add a lot of strength to handle the increase of physicality of junior hockey. I've also thought Osseo defenseman Aaron Dolby was one of the more underrated juniors in the state, and I think he really raised his stock last night. He had at least three absolute highlight reel hits, and was pretty good on defense all night.
For Blaine, I think it really says something that the Bengals had enough faith in freshman Tyler Cline to match him up against Bonner most of the night. Jonny Brodzinski had a goal and an assist, but wasn't overly dominating otherwise. His skating still has a ways to go, but he has a great shot. There are no nets behind the glass at the Coliseum, so it was interesting watching the shots that went out of play. Most of the shots tipped out of play didn't even make it out of the horse arena, but Brodzinski had a one-timer get tipped out of play that almost hit the back wall of the arena, which is quite a shot.
Maple Grove is the more talented team, and should probably be the favorite heading into Friday, but I still feel like there is something special about Blaine when they are at the Coliseum. Last night was another classic example, where they were in a tight spot, but there was no panic because when it comes down to crunch-time, they're always the team that makes the big play.