Minnesota high school hockey section tournament brackets have started to be released, and playoff games start as early as Saturday in some sections, which means it's time to take a look at which schools might be making their way to the XCel Energy Center for the 2014 Minnesota State High School Hockey tournament.
Here's a look at all eight section tournaments in the state, and my picks to advance to St. Paul.
The Story: The section representing southern Minnesota has long been the weak link in the tournament field. Justin Kloos and Lakeville South pulled off a huge upset of Duluth East in 2012, and then you have to go back to Rochester Century shocking Hill-Murray in 2007 to find another front draw win for the section. But this year, Section 1AA features a Lakeville North that has legitimately been among the state’s elite, even spending some time at #1 in some polls. Their biggest threat is likely to be Farmington, who is a bit of a wildcard, having put up an excellent record this season, albeit against a weaker schedule.
The Pick: The biggest match-up here might Lakeville North against themselves. The Panthers have a ton of talent, but are still a very young team, and dealing with the pressure and expectations that come along with their lofty ranking. If they manage to play their best, they’re clearly the best team in the section.
The Story: Basically the same story as every other year. Prior Lake and Bloomington Jefferson are decent teams, but nobody else in this section is on the level of favorites of Edina and Burnsville. This year, there’s a bit of an interesting twist to the completely one-sided Edina-Burnsville rivalry in that Burnsville beat Edina this January for the first time since Burnsville head coach Janne Kivihalme took over the program eight years ago.
The Pick: I just don’t see this as the year Burnsville breaks through and wins a section, despite the regular season win. I still feel like if you can get the full attention of this Edina team, there’s nobody in the state that can beat them, and the section tournament will have their full attention.
The Story: All eyes will be on St. Thomas Academy, who will be playing their first Class AA tournament. The school built itself into a hockey power based on the free advertising they got from annual trips to the state tournament beating up on Class A schools, and need look no farther than Holy Angels to see what can happen when a school that built itself as a hockey powerhouse misses a few state tournaments.
Cretin-Derham Hall beat St. Thomas in St. Thomas’ only intrasection game this season, which should earn the Raiders the top seed, but Eagan and defending champ Eastview will also be very dangerous teams in this bracket.
The Pick: I’ll go off the board with this one and take Eastview to defend their section title over Eagan in the final. I’m not a big believer in Cretin-Derham Hall and I really like Eastview’s goaltending to prevail over St. Thomas Academy.
The Story: You can copy and paste this in from any year. Hill-Murray is the favorite, White Bear Lake is the two seed, and nobody else is really close to these two. The biggest story is that should these two meet in the final, it will be the last game ever played at the State Fairgrounds Coliseum, which would be a fitting way for the building to go out.
The Pick: You’ll never go broke betting on Hill-Murray to win these things. But let’s hope Hill and White Bear give us one more classic game as we say goodbye to the Coliseum.
The Story: Blaine was the heavy favorite heading into the season, and for the most part, has played up to expectations, but Maple Grove and Centennial have both been better than expected. Led by a core group of five very talented seniors, this is *the year* for Blaine, if they want to make a run at a state title.
But Blaine ran into a hot goalie in last year’s semifinal that shut them down, and Maple Grove has a goalie capable of the same this year.
The Pick: I don’t think it will be easy, but I see Blaine prevailing over Maple Grove in the section final. Upsets are exciting, but ultimately, people also want to see the best state tournament field, and Blaine is a team with a legitimate shot at winning the whole thing.
The Story: Traditionally one of the state’s deepest section, 6AA is a bit down overall this year, with Benilde-St. Margaret’s, Minnetonka, and even to some extent, Eden Prairie not playing up to expectations. Wayzata has separated themselves as a tier above the rest of the pack. Meanwhile, this is a big year for Holy Family Catholic. The private school that chose to move up to Class AA with a talented group of youngsters a few years ago, now seems ready to compete with the best. The Fire had a few statement wins over the course of the season, but a deep run in the section tournament, and a trip to the state tournament would really solidify them as a hockey power.
The Pick: Wayzata plays a more defense-oriented game than most other big hockey powers, which means they’ll likely have to survive some close games, but they’re a well-coached team with a lot of talent. It would take a few really bad bounces or a very bad day for them to not advance to the tournament.
The Story: 7AA wins this year’s award for deepest section in the state. The top five teams all have a legitimate shot at winning this thing. Forest Lake might be the best team I’ve ever seen go on the road in the first round of sections. Beyond that, sixth seed St. Michael-Albertville is a a few years away from being a major player, and seventh seed Cloquet upset Duluth East, and lost an OT game to Grand Rapids. Quarterfinal match-ups are rarely all that interesting in the sectional tournament, but this group should be an exception.
The Pick: For as good as all these teams are, I actually see things going pretty much according to seeding. On a neutral rink, I think Elk River is the best team in the section, but with the section final being played in Duluth, I’ll take Duluth East to win the section.
The Story: There was some thought before the season started that Brainerd might be able to make their first trip to a state tournament this year, but senior-laden top seed Roseau has been the best team in the section all year. Second seed Moorhead is barely above .500 on the year playing against a difficult schedule.
The Pick: I’m not sure they’ll have the depth to compete with the best in the state, but Roseau has just been a cut above everybody else in their section this year, and I see them making it to the tournament.
That gives us a state tournament field of…
#4 Lakeville North
There are no weak links in this tournament field. If any of the eight teams got hot on the right weekend, they could win three games and take home the title.
Seeding is going to be a tough one. Lakeville North has a win over Hill-Murray, and didn’t lose to any tourney teams(other than a split with Eastview), but also have some losses to teams not in this discussion. I gave Hill-Murray the edge over Edina even though they split, because Hill had the bigger win, and fewer losses on the year. Wayzata has to be below Edina. Lakeville North and Wayzata are probably interchangeable, based on the argument you want to make.
If I were ranking just based on what I’ve seen, I’d probably rank them: #1 Edina #2 Wayzata #3 Hill-Murray #4 Blaine #5 Lakeville North