The best two weeks of high school hockey in Minnesota, and arguably two of the best weeks of amateur hockey anywhere began on Tuesday night with the beginning of the Minnesota boys high school hockey sectional playoffs.
The spectacle of the state tournament draws in the casual hockey fan, but for those that live and breath the sport, the sectional tournaments, often the last chapter written in a decade-long rivalry for the players involved, is the true peak of the sport.
This year’s sectional tournaments should be great. The theme of the regular season was that there were a lot of very good teams, but no really great team. That means there are legitimately 8-10 teams that could win a state championship, but it’s also not a guarantee that any of those teams even make it to the state tournament.
Here’s a quick look at each of the eight sections in Class AA.
After a one-year break last year thanks to a senior-laden Farmington team, it is once again the two Lakeville schools that will likely be competing for the title. Lakeville North won both games during the regular season, and while Lakeville South might be able to make it a competitive game, it would be quite an upset if Lakeville North wasn’t at the X in two weeks.
This is one of the toughest sections in the state. Only seven teams, but five of them are pretty legit. Eden Prairie is the top seed in the section and comes into the playoffs as the number one team in the state. After a very rough start to their season, they played great down the stretch. Casey Mittelstadt’s decision to come back to high school hockey for his senior season was based on winning a state title and that quest begins now.
Standing in his way is a potential semifinal match-up against wild card Prior Lake, a team that certainly has the talent to pull off an upset of Eden Prairie, but rarely plays up to that talent.
The bottom half of the bracket is tough too. I thought Minnetonka might be more of a threat late in the season as their huge amount of young talent gelled and adjusted to high school hockey, but they certainly haven’t played like it late in the season. Everyone brings their best shot in the playoffs though. Holy Family has been very good all season and have a decent shot at making their first ever state appearance.
This is a really soft section. Second seed Burnsville might be a little better than they were last year when they pulled off an upset of St. Thomas Academy, and the Cadets consistently underperform compared to their talent level in March, but it would still be a huge upset if anybody but STA won the section.
Stillwater comes into the section as the favorite, having spent significant time as the number one team in the state, but this section is a little more competitive than it first appeared. Both Hill-Murray and White Bear Lake don’t have the offensive firepower to go toe-to-toe with Stillwater, but are excellent defensive teams that should be able to keep a game with Stillwater low-scoring, where anything could happen.
The usual cast of Centennial, Maple Grove, and Blaine lead the way. Blaine is way down this year compared to their usual level, and should be a pretty distant third, though they did take a game off Maple Grove earlier in the year.
A section final between Centennial and Maple Grove should be a great battle between two legit top-ten teams.
This section isn’t as deep as it once was. Benilde-St. Margaret’s was way down this year, which means Edina should have an easy route to the finals, and should be heavily favored in a final match-up between either Cretin or Wayzata.
This is the most interesting section in the state. Technically Elk River had the best season, but it’s hard to not say Duluth East is the true #1 seed, considering they get home ice in the semifinal and final and drew the much easier game in the semifinal round.
The biggest seeding controversy in the state was Cloquet getting the third seed ahead of Grand Rapids. Cloquet did beat Grand Rapids late in the year, but this is the first instance I could ever think of where a team was seeded below a team they put into running time earlier in the season. There’s a very narrow, specific argument that could be made in Cloquet’s favor for the third seed, but ultimately, limiting the available information that much only makes it more likely that to produce a bad result, and looking at all the available information, that’s what this seems to be.
But it should make for an interesting section tournament. Like I said, Elk River is the best overall team, but now has to win two coin flip games to make it to the state tournament, and given Duluth East’s past history of playing well this time of year, and some of the advantages they have been given, they’re likely the favorite to win the section.
This section is a bit forgotten about because they don’t have a true top-10 team, but they have five teams that could legitimately make an argument to be included in the 11-20 range of the state rankings, which should make for a very interesting tournament. That played out in Tuesday’s quarterfinal round when third seed Roseau and fourth seed Brainerd were both pushed to double-overtime before prevailing, and second seed St. Michael-Albertville needed a late comeback to escape with a one-goal win.
Moorhead is the favorite, but split their season series with fourth seed Brainerd, and third seed Roseau, so this section might be one of the better bets for an upset.
There’s not as much drama in the sectional rounds of Class A because there isn’t as much depth. There’s really only two major storylines in Class A this year. The first is who will win the Section 2A championship between Delano—a senior-laden public school—or Breck, a Twin Cities private school that succeeds perennially by drawing from some of the largest districts in the state.
The winner of that section more than likely will face off against Class A juggernaut Hermantown in the state championship, with Hermantown the heavy favorite There are rumors that next year will be the year Hermantown finally moves up to Class AA. I still have less of a problem with Hermantown in Class A than any private school in the Twin Cities, but at the same time, wouldn’t mind seeing Hermantown’s program make the jump and try to compete at a higher level.