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Semifinal Upsets Create Interesting Championship Match-Ups in MN HS

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Saturday was beginning of, for my money, what is the best week of hockey maybe anywhere. Most of the sections in Minnesota high school hockey played their semifinal round on Saturday with the section championship games coming up this week. The state tournament may get more hype, but that's hockey for people who watch high school hockey one weekend per year. The section tournaments, with the local crowds and long-standing rivalries, is hockey for people that watch high school hockey all season.

Generally, the semifinal round of the section tournaments doesn't produce many upsets. There are usually a lot of close calls, and the occasional big surprise, but for the most part, it's mostly a set-up for the big championship games the following week. Not the case this year. No team really established itself as a dominant force during the regular season, and the increased parity this year led to a number of top-ranked teams falling prior to the section finals. In Class AA, teams ranked #1, #3, #4, #5, #11, #12, and #15 all went down, and the third-ranked team in Class A also fell.

The biggest upset may have been in Section 6AA, where  fourth seed Cretin-Derham Hall knocked off the state's top overall team Benilde-St. Margaret's 4-3 in overtime. The Red Knights came into the playoffs with a 24-0-1 record, but may have been as vulnerable as a #1 team could be. Despite not taking a loss during the regular season, the Red Knights were hardly blowing out quality teams. They had a lot of one-goal victories, and it was likely only a matter of time before their luck ran out. To compound matters, their top player, senior Mr. Hockey finalist Cade Gleekel was injured at the end of the regular season with a separated shoulder. Gleekel tried to play on Saturday, but only managed one shift.

It was still a shock to see a middling Cretin-Derham Hall squad take them down though. The Raiders were 14-11-0 in the regular season with nothing even resembling a quality win. There was a lot of sympathy for CDH when it was announced last spring that they would be moving from Section 3AA into arguably the state's toughest section in 6AA. Instead, they'll be playing at Mariucci for the section title in their first year next Wednesday.

Their opponent will be Wayzata, who defeated Edina. That wasn't actually an upset since Wayzata was the two-seed while Edina was seeded third, but Wayzata's victory means this will be the first state tournament since 2006 that doesn't feature the Hornets(The first tournament in the streak featured the sophomore trio of Budish, Everson, Gaarder). This year's Edina team wasn't quite as talented as years past, but they still had quite a bit of talent. The bigger problem was that they never seemed to add up to more than the sum of their parts this year.

Section 2AA saw teams ranked third and fourth in the state fall on Saturday. #4 Holy Family losing to sixth-ranked Eden Prairie wasn't exactly a shocker. The Eagles were my preseason pick to win the state title, and I'm sticking with them, especially after the carnage elsewhere in the state. My theory in high school hockey is always bet on the best player on the ice because they're the ones that come up big in big spots. And that's exactly what Eden Prairie's Casey Mittelstadt did on Saturday, scoring two goals and assisting on the game-winner in a 4-2(ENG) win over Holy Family.

Their opponent Wednesday night at Mariucci was a bit of a surprise though. 17th-ranked Prior Lake upset #3 overall Minnetonka. The Skippers have a lot of young talent, and are loaded at the Bantam level, so they should be back. It's interesting to see Prior Lake finally break through. Talent really hasn't been the issue for them. They're loaded with talent in the '98 birth year with players like Matt Denman, Connor Clemons, Kevin Fellows, Chase Gackle, and goalie Drew Scites. But for whatever reason, they've never quite performed up to the level of all the talent they have. In their final shot, they seem to have put it together. I still like Eden Prairie on Wednesday night, but Prior Lake being here is no fluke and I wouldn't be shocked if they found a way to make the state tournament.

The Section 5AA semifinals at the Champlin Ice Forum featured not one, but two surprising upsets. Many people had already penciled in round three of the big rivalry between top seed Blaine and second seed Centennial. Instead, neither team is going to be playing at Aldrich Arena on Thursday.

In the early semifinal, Anoka jumped out a first period lead on the Cougars and then put the game away by scoring three times during a five-minute power play for checking from behind. Centennial came into the game with the much deeper team, but spending so much time on the penalty kill allowed Anoka to take advantage of having the superior top line.

In the second semifinal, Maple Grove stunned Blaine, ending the high school career of likely Mr. Hockey winner and first round NHL Draft pick Riley Tufte. It's a big disappointment for the many people hoping to get a chance to watch Tufte play in the State Tournament. Leading the way for Maple Grove was 9th grader and Notre Dame commit Trevor Janicke, who led the Crimson with 2-3-5 in the game. When I saw Janicke play with Maple Grove early in the season, he looked like he was really struggling with the pace and physicality of the high school game. He got more comfortable as the season progressed, however, and is now starting to show why he's considered such a special talent. Maple Grove had a lot of tough, close losses during the regular season, but they always looked like a team that you wouldn't want to run into in a playoff setting, and that was the case here.

So it will be third seed Anoka vs. fourth seed Maple Grove for the section title, and the guarantee that a surprise team will be at the state tournament in two weeks. The two teams split their two meetings in the regular season, so this one is a toss-up.

Of course, some sections played to form setting up some really big championship games this coming week. None may be bigger than in Section 7AA where top seed Grand Rapids will take on second seed Duluth East. Grand Rapids is presumably the favorite with the better regular season, and winning the only meeting between the two 4-3 in overtime in Grand Rapids. But throw out the records here. Duluth East may sleepwalk through their regular season and play below their talent level, but they've been bulletproof in the section tournament playing in their home city. For Grand Rapids, a city with more pride in their local team than maybe any in the state, this may be the year for them to make noise at the state level. Add in the big city vs. smaller city dynamic and there's a lot at stake in this one.

Section 1AA's final will also be an interesting one to watch. Lakeville North is the defending state champion and favorite in that section, but they'll have to get past a Farmington squad that has beaten them twice this year. Farmington hasn't been to the State Tournament since moving up to the Class AA level and this year's team, with a strong senior class, looks to be one of their best shots. It's a shame this game will be played down in Rochester. I understand there is some sensitivity to the optics of Section 1AA being taken away from the southern part of state. But if it's two Twin Cities suburbs playing in the final, it makes sense to move the venue to the Twin Cities rather than making everyone drive an hour.

Section 4AA is a bit behind everyone else in schedule. They play their semifinal round on Tuesday and then championship on Friday. Top seed Stillwater came into the playoffs ranked second in the state. After Saturday, they're the only team ranked in the top five still in the field and now the presumptive favorites to take home the state title. That's a big change in dynamic and it will be fascinating to see how they handle that pressure.

Class A rarely produces the same types of upsets, especially in the early rounds that the Class AA level does. The gaps in talent are usually just a bit too big. That wasn't the case this year in Section 6A though, which went five teams deep, and saw a big upset this weekend when fourth seed Little Falls took out top seed St. Cloud Apollo, ranked a consensus third overall in Class A. This will be the third time in four years that the top seed in 6A does not advance to the State Tournament(ironically, the other two upsets were pulled by Apollo), a feat no other Class A section comes close to matching.

I was on hand for Little Falls' upset win, and first of all, what a great atmosphere for high school hockey. The MAC in St. Cloud holds about 2500-3000 people and the building was packed beyond capacity for this game. The effort and intensity of the game was just outstanding too. Little Falls' sophomore goalie stopped 42 of 43 shots, but would have had to stop 70 if not for some great shot-blocking in front of him. The Flyers move on to the section final where they'll second seed St. Cloud Cathedral. Cathedral won the only regular season 3-2, but if Little Falls brings the same defensive intensity on Thursday, they could pull off the upset. It's always nice to see small town public schools representing their section at the State Tournament rather than private schools from larger schools.

In all, Saturday was a great start to my favorite week on the calendar. The championship games this week should be just as good.