It know millions of Americans get pumped up for 'March Madness' that is the Men's NCAA Basketball tournament. Its the place where people invented stupid words like 'bracketology' and just about any workplace offered a pick 'em pool where you may have a $10-$20 buy in. Yet in Minnesota they have their own version of March Madness in the form of the State Tournaments; but one tournament trumps them all. That is the Boys State Hockey Tournament. No High School State Tournament in Minnesota quite has the energy and momentum the Boys Hockey Tournament does. I think a big reason the Boys State Hockey Tournament captures the imagination is the understanding that there will be future NHL players performing there. The list of names of players that once played in the State Tournament are a virtual who's who of Minnesota hockey. Just to name a few of these tournament attendees who made it to the NHL with varying degrees of success were Phil Housely, Scott Bjugstad, Neal Broten, T.J. Oshie, Henry Boucha, Jon Casey, Blake Wheeler, Paul Martin, Erik Johnson, John Pohl, Matt Hendricks as well as former and current Wild players such as Darby Hendrickson, Nate Prosser, Mark Parrish, Tom Gilbert and Matt Cullen. Yet I'd say the biggest draw of it all is the intensity of the games. Hockey is the best sport ever created by civilization; for its speed, skill, energy and unpredictability. Many fans go to the games with their own schools already eliminated from play simply because they want to enjoy perhaps the best high school hockey in the world.
Who will be the 2012 State Champions?
It is almost uncanny, you can have players that have won the Stanley Cup or NCAA National Title, won a gold medal in the Olympics but when asked their greatest hockey moment they will say it was winning or even participating in the Minnesota State High School Tournament. Some NHL purists scoff at players glorifying a high school accomplishment but what often is stated as the reason for holding the Tourney in such high regard is the fact its a culminating accomplishment from your fellow hockey friends you grew up with your whole lives. It was the big payoff for most of these players after many weekends spent going to hockey tournaments and practices together. In most cases, when a player's senior year ends that will be the last time they play hockey with those friends they've had most of their lives and while just two teams get to finish as State Champions, all of the seniors know a huge stage in their hockey career is at an end. Any hockey player who has been there can relate to that. The Tournament begins at 11AM on Wednesday. So without further adieu here is the 2012 Minnesota Boys State Hockey Tournament Preview!
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You can check out the brackets for Class A and for Class AA here.
#1 Hermantown Hawks (25-0-0) vs. #8 Rochester Lourdes Eagles (17-8-0) ~ The Hermantown Hawks are the last undefeated team left in the state, and they are looking to finish the season with a perfect record. Head Coach Bruce Plante's squad is as strong as ever. The Hawks have a deadly combination of explosive offense and stifling defense that overwhelmed every team it has faced thus far. Led by senior stud Jared Thomas (24 goals, 68 points) and Andrew Mattson (13 goals, 36 points) as well as talented junior Chris Benson (18 goals, 34 points) some may be fooled into thinking the Hawks are a one-trick pony where if you stop Thomas you stop Hermantown. Its not quite that easy; as the Hawks roll 4 very solid lines and even if you manage to slow Thomas down Hermantown has more than enough firepower to get the job done. Facing the lethal and experienced Hawks are Section 1A powerhouse Rochester Lourdes. The Eagles are an independent and play a tough schedule which includes games against many teams in the metro area. Rochester Lourdes also has lots of firepower, where juniors Jason Samuelson (25 goals, 55 points) and Alex Funk (27 goals, 54 points) lead the way while senior Landon Farrell (14 goals, 43 points) is the set up man for a very potent top line. Yet the Eagles will have to score early and often if it wants to stand a chance since Hermantown has a clear advantage between the pipes. Hermantown senior Matt Mensinger has a perfect 19-0 record, a stingy 1.47 goals against average and gaudy .934% save percentage compared to Lourdes' senior puck stopper Jesse Neumann's 8-6 record, more mundane 2.95 goals against and pedestrian .862% save percentage. Prediction: I think this one could get ugly, as Hermantown not only stifles the Eagles but their superior depth overwhelms Lourdes' defensively, 6-0 Hawks.
#2 St. Thomas Academy Cadets (20-5-0) vs. #7 Little Falls Flyers (16-9-0) ~ In class A, its often a battle between private vs. public schools where half of the participants are from parochial schools. St. Thomas Academy has been one of the best Class A programs the last decade, and with Co-Head Coaches Greg and Tom Vanelli at the helm the Cadets play one of the toughest schedules in the state of any Class A team. The Cadets do not have the kinds of players that put up ridiculous offensive totals but they have a very deep team with four balanced scoring lines; any opponent they face must pick their poison because St. Thomas Academy has enough to even make a cobra squeamish. St. Thomas Academy is led up front by senior Peter Krieger (14 goals, 39 points) and junior Alex Johnson (19 goals, 39 points) but they get a lot of support from one of best offensive defensemen in the state in senior Eric Schurhamer (13 goals, 38 points). The Cadets are facing the Flyers who have been finding their way to the state tournament more frequently over the past 6-7 years. The Flyers are led by a potent top line of senior Joey Hanowski (22 goals, 43 points), juniors Ben Newman (19 goals, 40 points), and Luke Majerle (12 goals, 40 points). The stage is also set for a pretty good goaltending duel as the Flyers junior goalie Mike Stumpf (16-9-0, 2.18GAA .910%) is very solid, but junior David Zevnik (11-4-1, 1.94GAA .901%SP) is no slouch either. Prediction: I think this one could end up being closer than expected, but I still see the Cadets prevailing in a 3-2 nailbiter.
#3 Breck Mustangs (21-3-1) vs. #6 Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers (18-7-0) ~ This is a battle of two powerful private schools; but one with a metro area pedigree and another one tested against some of the best programs in the Iron Range. The Mustangs feature three of the best scorers in the state in seniors Conor Andrle (23 goals, 68 points), the highly touted Grant Opperman (27 goals, 67 points) and junior Thomas Lindstrom (29 goals, 60 points). Meanwhile the Hilltoppers have one of the best pure goal scorers in the state in senior Judd Peterson (41 goals, 74 points) as well as Kris McKenzie (22 goals, 41 points) and senior defenseman Jake Bushey (6 goals, 31 points). Goaltending is what makes both of these clubs beatable, but it also sets the stage for a game that could bring out some true wide-open firewagon hockey. Breck's senior puckstopper Jack Kenney (16-3-1, 2.54GAA .903%SP) and the Hilltoppers' senior Christian Coffman (9-5-0, 2.13GAA .921%SP) will somehow try to be the guy that stops one more puck than the guy in the opposite crease. Prediction: Breck's more balanced attack will overpower the Hilltoppers in a wild 7-4 game.
#4 Thief River Falls Prowlers (19-4-2) vs. #5 New Ulm Eagles (14-11-0) ~ Some would argue this was a fortunate draw for both clubs; two programs hoping to avoid being blasted in the 1st round by more powerful clubs and this makes for an interesting #4 vs. #5 match up. The Prowlers have a senior laden but balanced squad that like St. Thomas Academy wears you down in waves. Thief River Falls is led up front by the senior trio of Riley Soderstrom (22 goals, 44 points), Evan Ose (14 goals, 33 points) and Austin Odberg (14 goals, 29 points). Their opponents are also hoping to turn their fortunate draw into a chance to advance beyond the 1st round. New Ulm tried to strengthen their schedule to make them a little more tested for the state tournament and soon will find out if that strategy is successful. Up front the Eagles feature a strong group of seniors in Brady Peterson (37 goals, 61 points), Dylan Schreckenberg (17 goals, 46 points) and supported by offensive defenseman Jeff Banal (12 goals, 46 points). The Eagles will have to hope Brach Kraus (8-3-0, 2.08GAA .900%SP) can hold off the Prowlers, while I have little doubt Jon Narverud (15-1-1, 1.88GAA .908%SP) will be keeping close tabs on Peterson whenever he's out on the ice. Prediction: I think this will be a good competitive hockey game but I think Thief River Falls comes into this game a little better prepared and they prevail 5-2.
Class A Tournament Prediction: I think Hermantown and St. Paul Academy will meet yet again in the State Finals but the Hawks will prevail 4-2. Jared Thomas will be a force every time he's on the ice and will cement himself as one of the Tourney's better performers.
#1 Duluth East Greyhounds (24-1-0) vs. #8 Lakeville South Cougars (17-8-0) ~ Duluth East has sat atop the High School Hockey rankings virtually the whole season. With a lone loss to Minnetonka (who was eliminated in the section finals by Benilde-St.Margaret's) the Greyhounds have used great scoring depth and strong defense to dominate their opponents. The Greyhounds are deadly up front led by seniors Jake Randolph (32 goals, 66 points), Dom Toninato (27 goals, 61 points) and junior Ryan Lundgren (13 goals, 47 points) give Duluth East plenty of offense and they have other weapons they can turn to as well. The Cougars feature one of the most dangerous scorers in the tournament in Golden Gopher recruit, senior Justin Kloos (34 goals, 81 points) but he isn't alone as fellow seniors Alex Harvey (28 goals, 60 points) and Joe Freemark (10 goals, 34 points) give Lakeville South the ability to pile up goals in a hurry. Between the pipes the Greyhounds will lean on junior Dylan Parker (13-0, 1.23GAA, .930%SP) while the Cougars' senior goalie Hunter Ziniel (12-6, 2.58GAA, .891%SP) will have to withstand a likely siege by Duluth East. Prediction: I do not think the Cougars are good enough defensively to withstand Duluth East's balanced and potent attack. Justin Kloos will find himself contained and if he's neutralized I do not see enough firepower for Lakeville South to really compete. I think this one will be a decisive 6-1 victory for the Greyhounds.
#2 Maple Grove Crimson (21-2-2) vs. #7 Hill-Murray Pioneers (19-6-0) ~ Maple Grove has been waiting for this moment for quite a while; after years of being good but not quite good enough to advance to state they have assembled a team they believe has a good shot at coming home with a state title. Maple Grove may not appear to be as explosive as other teams in this tournament but all anyone has to look at is the 15-1 thrashing they gave Blaine in the section final. The Crimson's attack is led by seniors Dylan Steman (21 goals, 55 points), Tony Paulson (21 goals, 46 points) and junior Jordan Gross (15 goals, 39 points). Opposing the Crimson is a traditional powerhouse that has made a home of the State Tournament in the Hill-Murray Pioneers. Head Coach Bill Lechner has an experienced team but are fairly young as well. Juniors Jake Guentzel (21 goals, 67 points), Zach LaValle (25 goals, 56 points) and highly touted senior Charlie Sampair (27 goals, 43 points) give the Pioneers plenty of punch to beat any team. The Crimson are noted for their strong defensive play and Maple Grove has a strong goaltender as its lynch-pin as senior Kyle Koop (21-2-2, 1.96GAA .919%SP) is their workhorse while Hill-Murray junior John Dugas (13-5-1, 2.46GAA .901%SP) will have his work cut out for him. Prediction: I think this will be the tournaments' first big upset as Hill-Murray's experience will overwhelm the Crimson who have plenty of enthusiasm but those first game jitters will give the Pioneers some cheap early goals. Hill-Murray prevails 4-3 in a close one.
#3 Eagan Wildcats (21-3-1) vs. #6 Moorhead Spuds (18-6-0) ~ I have been watching this group of Eagan players since they were sophomores and it was obvious they were full of potential. The Wildcats are incredibly deep both up front and on its blueline where senior forwards Michael Zajac (21 goals, 47 points), Nick Kuchera (15 goals, 47 points) and Will Merchant (23 goals, 45 points) lead a group of good-sized and speedy forwards that allow Eagan to attack in waves. The Spuds play a conservative game and will no doubt try to keep the game a low-scoring affair. Moorhead's Tony Uglem (21 goals, 32 points), Nicholas Uglem (11 goals, 27 points) and Thomas Carey (7 goals, 27 points) will have their work cut out for them going against a formidable Wildcats' defense. Yet the Spuds x-factor is big-bodied (and athletic) senior goaltender Michael Bitzer (18-6, 2.02GAA, .927) who is one of the best at his position in the state while the Wildcats will look to senior Christian Butler (12-3-1, 1.94GAA, .900%SP) to stop anything Eagan's defense allows to slip past them. Prediction: The Spuds' defensive style will force Eagan to work for it, but even as good as Bitzer is I think the Wildcats have way too much firepower. The Wildcats win this one 5-1.
#4 Edina Hornets (20-5-0) vs. #5 Benilde-St. Margaret's (19-6-0) ~ This could be the best match up in the quarterfinals of the entire tournament as a very young and dynamic Edina squad faces what will likely be the tournament darling in Benilde-St. Margaret's. The Hornets have the youngest squad in the tournament, as they are led by sophomore Connor Hurley (22 goals, 48 points), freshman Dylan Malmquist (23 goals, 44 points) and junior Andy Jordahl (6 goals, 26 points). Meanwhile the Red Knights have a formidable offense with juniors Grant Besse (40 goals, 75 points), T.J. Moore (27 goals, 59 points) and senior Christian Horn (22 goals, 58 points). Between the pipes Benilde's Anders Jecha (11-3, 2.24GAA, .896%SP) will be dueling Edina's junior puck stopper Willie Benjamin (15-5, 2.26GAA, .917%SP) in what could be a bit of a track meet on ice. Prediction: I think Benilde-St. Margaret's will knock off the younger and less experienced Hornets in drama-filled 5-4 game.
Class AA Tournament Prediction: I think Eagan will prevail in very close championship against Duluth East. I think many experts have underrated the superior quality of the Wildcats defense and I think that will be the x-factor in Eagan's success as they beat the Greyhounds 5-3 in the final.
I know I could very well be wrong with any of my predictions, so I challenge you to share your tournament predictions. Tell me why you think you made a better prediction than me. After all that's part of the fun of the Tourney!