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Both high school hockey classes have closest tournament in years

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Class AA: Grand Rapids returns to the promised land

The 2017 Class AA hockey tournament had several interesting story lines. Perhaps the biggest of all of them was phenom senior Casey Mittlestadt, who many regards as a top ten pick in the upcoming NHL draft, returning for his senior year and attempting to win a state tournament with the Eden Prairie Eagles.

The Eagles were runners-up to the Wayzata Trojans in last year’s tournament and were looking to avenge that heartbreaking defeat. With five D1 commits on their roster, Eden Prairie was the clear favorite heading into this tournament.

The eventual champion Grand Rapids Thunderhawks, led by a top line spearheaded by Husky commit Micah Miller, were a dark horse coming into the tournament. Although Grand Rapids was not a very deep team, their top line was a forced to be reckoned with. Miller had a whopping 56 points on the season, while linemates Blake McLaughlin and Gavin Hain tallied 48 each. Grand Rapids, coached by former NHL player Trent Klatt, was in search of their first state title since 1980.

The first round of the tournament saw some very exciting games. The Wayzata Trojans, who won the state title last year, made a surprising return to the Tourney, especially considering their paltry 7-17-1 record in the regular season. They matched up against Mittlestadt and the Eagles in a rematch of last year’s title game, and nearly upset the Eagles, keeping the game close until Eden Prairie’s Nicky Leivermann scored the game-winning goal with just over a minute remaining in the contest.

Photo by Bobby Erickson
The calm before the storm: Grand Rapids and Moorhead before the class AA championship game. March 11, 2017.

Grand Rapids themselves were nearly bounced in the first round by Maple Grove. After being down 2-0 early in the game, Grand Rapids stormed back. They went on a torrid stretch, outshooting Maple Grove 20-3, and scoring 5 goals in the process, eventually winning 6-4. The other two games saw private schools Hill-Murray and St. Thomas Academy lose to public schools Lakeville South and Moorhead, much to the delight of the packed crowd at the Xcel Energy Center.

Perhaps the most exciting game of the tournament was the semifinal game between Grand Rapids and Eden Prairie. Eden Prairie opened the scoring just five minutes in with a goal by Ryan Lesko. But, Rapids would not go down quietly. They scored two straight goals to take a one goal lead. After Eden Prairie tied the game late in the second period again, the stage was set for a dramatic third period. With just over nine minutes left, Thunderhawk Connor Stefan potted the eventual game winner with just over nine minutes to go. After surviving a furious late game rally, Grand Rapids found themselves in the championship. They were to face off against the Moorhead Spuds, who made it to the title game after taking down Hill-Murray and Lakeville South.

The Spuds were no match for the Thunderhawks, who scored four goals in the first period and a half, led by Gavin Hain, who had a hat trick. Despite two goals by Moorhead to make things interesting, Grand Rapids kept their foot on the gas pedal, and won the game 6-3, winning the state championship for the first time in 37 years.

As usual, the tournament was incredible this year. Despite the blowout nature of the championship game, it was a tournament packed with close games. Every game in the tournament besides the title was decided by two goals or less, a feat that has not been accomplished in recent memory. The state hockey tournament in Minnesota is only matched by Texas football and Indiana basketball in terms of popularity, and this year, it proved why.

Class A: Guess who’s back, back again

The Hermantown Hawks made the Class A championship game. Since 2010, that has been a constant every single year. Yet, despite the whopping seven straight championship appearances, Hermantown has only been able to claim the title once – last year. Anything short of a championship would be a major disappointment for the Hawks. The only other team to return to the tournament in Class A was St. Cloud Cathedral. Last year, they suffered a 4-2 loss at the hand of St. Paul Academy. They were looking to make a run this year, rather than succumb in the first round for a second straight year.

Surprisingly, the first round’s two closest games took place in the teams with the biggest seed disparities. The number one seed, Hermantown, needed overtime to take down small-town Luverne, which came as a big surprise to many. This led many to believe Hermantown did not have what it took to win a second straight title. The big upset in the first round came courtesy of the seven-seeded Monitcello/Annandale/Maple Lake (MAML) Moose, who took down two-seeded Delano in a shocking upset. In the other two first round contests, both of the worse seeds won as well – five-seeded St. Cloud Cathedral taking down four-seeded East Grand Forks, and six-seeded Northfield taking down three-seeded Mahtomedi.

The second round brought us one of the most exciting games in the tournament, pitting Cathedral against Hermantown. Shockingly, Cathedral jumped out to a whopping 5-2 lead, even though they were being steadily outshot. But, to no one’s surprise, Hermantown stormed back to tie the game. Hermantown’s Ryan Sandelin had a hat trick to power Hermantown back to a deadlocked score. At the end of regulation, Cathedral was being outshot 55-27, yet the game was tied. Cathedral was very lucky to be in that position, and they still had a chance to win the game in overtime. Alas, they were no match for Hermantown in overtime. Cathedral didn’t even register a shot in overtime, while Hermantown had 11, and that 11th shot was a goal by Ryan Sandelin for his fourth of the night.

After MAML took down Northfield, the stage was set for a championship game, but many believed the Moose were no match for the Hawks. Yet, for the second straight game, Hermantown found themselves losing to their lesser opponent while still crushing them in shots. 26 seconds into the third period, the Moose extended their lead and made it 3-1 on a goal by Nick Zwack. Yet again, Hermantown then stormed back. Jesse Jacques and Tyler Watkins potted a goal each to force overtime in the Class A championship game, and set the stage for a dramatic finish.

The first overtime went by without much fanfare. There were a couple chances either way, but nothing huge. Midway through the second overtime, Hermantown scored, and all of the players tossed their equipment off, and begun the celebration.

That’s when the refs skated to the box to take a second look.

When the zebras reviewed the goal, they decided that Hermantown had committed goalie interference, and the game would continue, as the goal would be nullified. It was unlike anything I had ever seen in hockey. The players skated around the ice and gathered their equipment, and play continued. Yet, a couple of minutes later, Hermantown scored again. This time, the players cautiously looked at the referees before celebrating, but there would be no review on this one. Hermantown took home their second consecutive title, capping off an incredible tournament.

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