Minnesota high school hockey section seedings began being announced this afternoon, and with the regular season ending on Thursday, section playoff games and the road to the XCel Energy Center begin as early as this Saturday in some sections.
So who is likely to be playing in the state tournament this year? We'll start things off by previewing the state's smaller class, single A. Here's a look at each of the eight sections, and some of the favorites to advance to St. Paul.
The Story: Rochester Lourdes has owned this section, making it to the state tournament each of the past five seasons. But some big losses to graduation, a tough schedule, and a string of injuries have left Lourdes below-.500 and not much of a threat to continue their streak of appearances in St. Paul. Vying to take their place are Mankato West and New Prague. Mankato West has rolled through the competition in southern Minnesota this year, with just two losses on the season. One was an OT loss to Notre Dame Academy, one of the top teams in Wisconsin HS hockey, and one was a one-goal loss at home to section-mate New Prague.
The Pick: This section should come down to the final between New Prague and Mankato West and that game should be a true toss-up. I’ll take New Prague in a close one, possibly overtime, but either way, we all win having a public school represent southeast Minnesota rather than an all-star team from the state’s third largest city.
The Story: There’s some nice stories in this section, like the combined Minneapolis program that appears to be headed in the right direction with their participation numbers improving, or Bloomington Kennedy, who upset crosstown rival Bloomington Jefferson this year, for the first time in over a decade. Not that it matters much, because everyone will get slaughtered by Breck.
The Pick: The Mustangs will likely have one game in sections be way closer than it should be. But in the end, they’ll likely get their three free two-hour advertisements on TV for their school when they play at the state tournament, which if we’re being honest, is the only reason Breck plays in Class A.
The Story: This section has been far and away the weakest in the state since it was created. There is some hope this year though, with the state’s only remaining undefeated team in Luverne. The Cardinals have destroyed nearly everyone they’ve played, though haven’t really played anybody outside of southwest Minnesota. They do have a few players, such as sophomore Toby Sengvoxnay and 8th grader Jaxon Nelson that have been impressive outside of high school hockey, however, so their impressive record isn’t just a factor of weak competition.
That doesn’t mean it will be easy, however. The Cardinals were just as heavy a favorite to take last year’s section crown, but were upset by Marshall in the section semifinals, showing that nothing is a given when it comes to dealing with high schoolers.
The Pick: I can’t see another upset happening this year. Luverne just has too much talent to let the same thing happen two years in a row, and it would be a real shame if the rest of the state didn’t get an opportunity to see them at the state tournament.
The Story: With St. Thomas Academy finally making the move up to Class AA, that has left this section wide open for….probably another private school to take their place in the Class A tourney. Totino-Grace is the favorite on paper, though Mahtomedi upset them in a one-goal win earlier this year. The rest of the section is made up of private schools that are growing stronger, but still not quite strong enough to make noise, and St. Paul-area public schools barely hanging on to their programs. It would be a big surprise if the final didn’t come down to Totino-Grace and Mahtomedi
The Pick: Mahtomedi has the regular season victory, and has traditionally punched above their weight in the section tournament, being the only school to interrupt St. Thomas Academy’s run of state tournament appearances. But the section tournament brings out everyone’s best effort, and with their edge in talent, I think Totino-Grace’s best is better than Mahtomedi’s best.
The Story: Hermantown and St. Cloud, who dominated over this section for years, were both moved out of the section this past year, meaning we’ll see a relatively new face at the state tournament this year, and making this section a bit tough to predict. Spring Lake Park was the preseason favorite, though has really struggled this year--albeit while missing top senior Pete Sienko for most of the year with a wrist injury that should heal in time for the playoffs. Chisago Lakes has had the best season, beating pretty much everyone in the section. Princeton is always a pesky team. This is a really wide open section, and it will be fun to see some new blood earn a trip to St. Paul.
The Pick: Chisago Lakes is the safe pick, but I’ll go out on a limb and pick Princeton. Chisago beat them twice this season, but only be a single-goal last time they met in Princeton, and I think the Tigers have a solid shot at pulling off the upset on neutral ice.
The Story: This year, St. Cloud Cathedral moves into the section, but some key offseason departures to junior hockey hurt the Crusaders, making this section a true four-horse race between Cathedral, Alexandria, Sauk Rapids-Rice, and defending section champ St. Cloud Apollo. Trying to compare results between the four just creates an infinte loop. Regardless, expect to see these four in the semifinals with any one of them having a legitimate chance at winning.
The Pick: This is a tough one. Usually, when in-season results don’t provide much of a clue, I hedge towards the team that has experience winning section championships, but both St. Cloud Apollo and St. Cloud Cathedral have won section tournaments, and while nobody on Alexandria’s current roster has been to the state tourney, this year’s senior class were freshmen the last time the Cardinals won the section.
The Story: Perennial state tourney participant Hermantown moves into this section, and with many of the Iron Range teams a bit down this year, it looks like their biggest competition will be Duluth Marshall. There’s always been a bit of a frosty relationship between Hermantown and Marshall--the two teams didn’t play in the regular season for a number of years despite their proximity and status as two of Class A’s top programs--which should add a little extra excitement to this section final.
The Pick: Hermantown beat Marshall 6-2 at Marshall in their only regular season meeting, and while I don’t think it will be that easy this time around for Hermantown, the Hawks just have too much talent, and always play their best hockey come playoff time.
The Story: Defending section champ East Grand Forks returned a good chunk of their team from last year, and pulled off an upset of Blaine on the road earlier this year who, at the time, was the #1 ranked team in Class AA. But their road out of the section won’t be easy this year. Warroad has one of the best top lines in the state, while Thief River Falls has an excellent senior goalie capabe of stealing a game.
The Pick: I think the section final comes down to a match-up of EGF’s two senior defensemen, Eddie Eades and Colton Poolman, against Warroad’s incredible top line of Kyle Sylvester, Jared Bethune, and Kobe Roth. I’ll take East Grand Forks to escape.
That would make the state tournament field look like...
#1 East Grand Forks
#5 New Prague
Seeding could be a bit complicated here. East Grand Forks has the fewest losses, and biggest wins of the group, but complicating matters is the fact that Breck put EGF into running time earlier this year with a 6-0 victory that wasn’t even that close. But having seen that game live, I’m inclined to throw that result out, as EGF was completely out of gas after playing an emotional game the night before against Blaine, then having to come back the next afternoon and play at Breck.
Assuming no other upsets, the rest seem pretty simple. Luverne has a great record, but doesn’t have anything resembling a quality win that would merit a seed, unless some major upsets happen elsewhere in the state.