With some of the section brackets trickling out and a light week for women’s basketball, I thought I’d share my predictions for the AA section tournaments. I am already regretting a few of my picks.
Final: Lakeville North over Lakeville South
It looked like 8AA was going to takeover the title of worst section this year, but 1AA will get to hold onto this title for at least one more year. It had become somewhat of a tradition for Lakeville North to upset Lakeville South on its way to getting blown out by the No. 1 seed, but last year South bucked the trend and went on to upset Duluth East in the quarterfinals. It was a nice story, but North looks like it will have a nice date with Hill-Murray on March 7.
Darkhorse: Rochester Mayo
The Spartans could potentially win 20 games this season, giving them one of the more impressive records in the state, but upon closer examination, those losses came to Eastview, Hibbing, Mankato West and Lakeville North. Not exactly top teams, but if anyone’s going to break the duopoly Lakeville has on the section, it will be Mayo.
Final: Prior Lake over Edina
OK, hear me out here. Most casual hockey fans probably don’t know where Prior Lake is, but its a program on the rise. Prior Lake recently built a beautiful new rink, which deters kids from leaving a traditionally leavable program. With 2012 State Championships for both Peewee A and B, it looked as if the Lakers time was coming soon, but this team appears to have jumped the gun. After a slow start, Prior Lake has solidified itself as the No. 2 seed in a section ruled by Burnsville and Edina the past few years. With the Hornets as beatable as ever, Prior Lake may get to St. Paul ahead of schedule.
Darkhorse: Bloomington Jefferson
While Edina is obviously my second choice for the section, Jefferson fits the bill as the darkhorse. I’m a sucker for traditional programs, so seeing the baby blue back at State would be a thing of beauty. There is some substance to this team as well, though, as they’ve beaten Eden Prairie and played a lot of good teams close.
Final: Eagan over Cretin-Derham Hall
Eagan seems to lose to better teams pretty consistently, but luckily for them, no team in the section can really claim to be better than them. The Wildcats seem to beat team’s they should, with exception to a 4-2 loss to Eastview, who seems to be streaking recently.
In hockey, a hot goaltender is the ultimate equalizer in a playoff setting. Eastview’s Zachary Driscoll has a ludicrous .947 save percentage and has proved he can steal a game for the Lightning when they need him to. On Jan. 12, Driscoll made 64 saves in Eastview’s 4-2 win over Eagan.
Final: Hill-Murray over Tartan
Of all the sections, I am most confident in my 4AA winner. Hill-Murray has been the best team just about all season. They’re only hiccups have come to powerhouses Wayzata and St. Thomas, both on the road. The one thing I will say about this section is that it is somewhat unpredictable. In 2011, Hill-Murray finished the regular season atop the polls, but fell in a 3 OT thriller to White Bear Lake. Last season, the Pioneers seemed as beatable as ever, but rolled through the playoffs, finishing second at State.
Darkhorse: White Bear Lake
Jake Wahlin is the real deal, but other than that, this pick is mostly based on the aforementioned last time Hill-Murray went in as the top team. Weird stuff can happen at the Coliseum, especially when 4AA get’s the late game, as is the case this year.
Final: Blaine over Centennial
Last year, Maple Grove ended Blaine’s six-year State Tournament streak in embarrassing fashion. The Crimson won 15-1, although the game was over in the first five minutes. This year though, Maple Grove has suffered embarrassment along with early departures, giving a surprisingly strong Blaine team a chance to make it back to St. Paul. The Bear’s Tyler Cline isn’t big, but the junior forward finds ways to score, netting 23 goals in just 22 games so far this season.
Picking the likely No. 2 seed isn’t exactly going out on a limb, but the Cougars are really the only other team with any chance at winning this thing. Although Blaine just beat them 8-3, quality wins over teams like Moorhead and Duluth East show what this team can do.
Final: Benilde-St. Margaret’s over Minnetonka
I’m not a homer, I swear. I understand that no team has repeated in this section since its current alignment came to fruition. I understand that Minnetonka is surging. I understand BSM’s defensive struggles. I just legitimately think Minnetonka cannot beat BSM at Mariucci. I think it’s psychological, as BSM has upset Tonka the last two times the two have played in Minneapolis. I think it’s strategical, as the Red Knights are too quick to be stopped when given an extra 15 feet of ice. I think if they play Jimmy Schuldt on the right side against BSM’s top line, it could help if he gets a chip on Dan Labosky early in the rush. If he can’t get contact early in the rush, Labosky is either going to beat him wide, or pull Schuldt (or Vannelli, John Schuldt, Lindberg or whoever else is back there) out wide, leaving the center of the ice wide open for two of the state’s best snipers, T.J. Moore and Grant Besse. I also think Besse, Moore and Labosky are a lot better in the defensive zone than most give them credit for, and last season showed BSM can clamp down on defense when it needs to. I think those two things combined may be enough to shut down a sizzling Connor Thie. If BSM goalie Andrew Sprang can play like he has the past few games, I think BSM will be hard to beat down the stretch.
Darkhorse: Eden Prairie
Despite a .500 record Eden Prairie’s roster is laden with talent and is surging at the right time. Its win over Wayzata and its close game against Benilde-St. Margaret’s showed just how good it can be when they get things straightened out. I think BSM’s hopes for a repeat rest more on its likely semifinal game with Eden Prairie than a potential section final against Minnetonka.
Final: Duluth East over Grand Rapids
Grand Rapids brought back an NHL draft pick at defense and Cloquet’s top line was supposed to rival BSM’s. Combine that with Duluth East’s early season struggles and it looked as though East’s four-year State Tournament run could come to an end this year. But the Greyhounds turned it around after the Schwan’s Cup, suffering just one loss in 2013, a slip-up against crosstown-rival Duluth Denfeld. During that run East has beaten 6AA powerhouses Eden Prairie and Minnetonka. The way East is playing right now, it could be a big threat at State.
As I said before, it looked as though it might be time for Cloquet to might make it back down to St. Paul. Those expectations faded as the Lumberjacks struggled to gather quality wins. But the two ties with Grand Rapids and a 3-2 loss to East lead me to believe that Cloquet might be tough to take down in a close section game, especially with the flukey nature of continuous overtime.
Final: Brainerd over Moorhead
This result stems mostly from my boredom with Moorhead. In the mid-to-late 2000s 8AA was relevant. Roseau won in 2007, only to return to St. Paul undefeated the next season, losing to Hill-Murray in one of the biggest shockers in tournament history. Moorhead made it all the way to Saturday night in 2009, only to pull a Moorhead and lose to Eden Prairie. Moorhead has represented the northwest part of the state the past two seasons without making much noise. I enjoyed watching Michael Bitzer, but now that he and coach Dave Morinville are gone, I’m ready to see a fresh face out of 8AA.
The Rams appear to be a year away still. Their two 50-point scorers, Zach Yon and Alex Strand, are just juniors, as is goaltender Ryan Anderson. That said, if those scorers get going over the next two weeks, they could end up in St. Paul ahead of schedule.