We’ve made it. Despite a strange, taxing season that had a constant fear of virus shutdown looming over it, it’s Tourney time, and we’ll have full championship brackets featuring some of the best teams in each class. For TV viewers across the state and the lucky few who make it in the arena, it’s time to kick back and watch some hockey. Here are some storylines to watch.
After finishing as runners-up last season, Hermantown returns as Class A's top seed.
Who can handle the heat?
There’s little doubt that Gentry Academy and Hermantown are heavy favorites to reach the Class A title game. Both are, however, something of a mystery: due in part to Covid restrictions, both played very easy schedules. Which one responds better when finally confronted with a potent opponent?
Human interest stories
Class A has a bunch of good stories, even if it’s likely to be dominated by two or three teams who are far ahead of the field. Northern Lakes and Dodge County, two sprawling co-ops, make their first-ever appearances and show the good that Class A hockey can do; it’s a shame we won’t be able to see those communities out in force. Dodge County’s Brody Lamb is one of the state’s most electric talents. After 28 seasons, Little Falls head coach Tony Couture will go out by taking a senior-heavy squad that includes his son to St. Paul, a fitting capstone for a man who built up a small-town program and gave us some great games, including seven Tourney berths. And then there’s Delano, coming in hot and under the radar and still in search of that first-round win.
Vastly diminished fan bases, dressing before entering the arena, a weird Thursday off day, no consolation bracket, the looming threat of exposure or a positive test: this is a very different sort of State Tournament. Does it all affect anyone, and who handles it best?
Dodge County's Brody Lam enters the tournament as the state's leading scorer.
Northern Lakes (18-3, No. 2 seed in 5A playoffs)
First State appearance
Key section wins: 6-3 over No. 1 seed Monticello
The Lightning, a co-op featuring Pequot Lakes, Aitkin, Crosby-Ironton, and Pine River-Backus High Schools, makes its first trip to St. Paul after having by far their best season in school history. Four players lead their productive offense: Caiden Kjelstrom (7), Hunter Nybakken (33), Tyler Seeling (9), and Kyler Couture (23). Erik Larsen (20) provides some points on defense, and goaltender Adler Hoagland (31) put up some gaudy numbers. They’ll need all of that and more to have a chance against Gentry, though a win over Little Falls this season does show they’re capable of some sort of upset.
(2) Gentry Academy (16-0, No. 1 seed in 4A playoffs)
First State appearance
Key section win: 7-3 over No. 5A Mahtomedi
Gentry, a Vadnais Heights-based charter school, has surged to the Tourney in its third year of operation. Despite its newness, Gentry is a veteran team led by senior forwards Damon Furuseth (9) and Nick Sajevic (18); Barrett Hall (15) has also been productive. Junior defensemen Connor Brown (26) and Zach Reim (10) provide offense from the blue line, and this team separates itself from the rest of Class A with its depth and relentless forecheck.
Goaltender Alex Timmons (32) is a Frank Brimsek Award finalist. The Stars have steamrolled everyone in their way so far, but enjoyed a soft schedule in doing so; how do they react when confronted with another elite offense?
Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato (10-8-2, No. 2 seed in 3A playoffs)
State appearances: 5 (last in 2018)
Key section win: 4-3 over 1-seed Hutchinson
The Dragons had an up-and-down regular season but edged past rival Hutchinson to reclaim the 3A throne. Logan Benson (19) is their clear offensive leader, with Jack Hillmann (7) and Mason Schroeder (8) being next in line. Gavin Hanson (22) is their defensive stalwart, and Darby Halonen (30) has been their man in goal all season. They got the most favorable possible draw, but they will still need a superhuman effort to have a shot at the semifinals.
(4) East Grand Forks (13-8, No. 2 seed in 8A playoffs)
State appearances: 13 (3 one-class, 10 in Class A; last in 2019)
State championships: 2 (2014, 2015)
Key section win: 5-4 (2OT) over #3 Warroad
To the extent that the Class A field has a wild card, it’s East Grand Forks: while they’re under the radar compared to high-flying Gentry and Hermantown, they do have some real front-end talent, and they are a bit more battle-tested, as their record shows. Landon Parker (9) and Jaksen Panzer (17) carry the water offensively, and North Dakota recruit Trey Ausmus (2) is among the state’s most dynamic defensemen.
Tanner Lubinski (19) and Brody Schultz (22) help round out their offensive depth, which is better than most Class A teams but may not quite stack up with the likes of a Gentry. On paper, they should cruise through the first round; after that, we’ll see how goaltender Cole Quirk (31) holds up against a more elite offense.
Dodge County (17-3-1, No. 1 seed in 1A playoffs)
First State appearance
Key section win: 4-3 over No. 3 seed Mankato West
A program consisting of Blooming Prairie, Byron, Hayfield, Kasson-Mantorville, Pine Island, Triton, and Zumbrota-Mazeppa High Schools arrives at State for the first time. The Wildcats offer fans one of the best players to come out of southern Minnesota in years in junior Brody Lamb (7). Matt Donovan (14) is his sidekick, and Easton Hammill (25) and Charlie Blaisdell (2) offer them some strength on defense. Goalie Isaac Dale (31) will have his work cut out for him against Hermantown. This team has some losses that keep them from being a top ten Class A squad, but they’ve also beaten Tourney entrant Little Falls and have been stronger than recent 1A winners.
(1) Hermantown (19-1, No. 1 seed in 7A playoffs)
State appearances: 17 (2 in a row)
State championships: 3 (2007, 2016, 2017)
Key section win: 7-1 over No. 10A Duluth Denfeld
The Hawks are back again among the favorites after romping through a Covid-softened schedule. Senior defenseman Joey Pierce (18) is their heavy-hitter and a two-way threat, and he’s supported by a bevy of quality senior forwards, including Aydyn Dowd (6), Ethan Lund (24), Aaron Pionk (11), and Cole Antcliff (14).
If healthy, sophomore wunderkind Zam Plante (27) could be the difference-maker in the pursuit of a title, and fellow tenth-grader Ty Hanson (2) is producing plenty from the blue line already. Now, how does goaltender Garron Opsahl (31) and the Hawk defense hold up when it finally faces a front-line offense?
(5) Delano (14-6-1, No. 2 seed in 2A playoffs)
State appearances: 4 (3 in a row)
Key section win: 5-1 over No. 8A Breck
The Tigers enter the Tourney on a 10-0-1 run after a rough start. The scoring comes by in a balanced fashion, an effort highlighted by leading point-scorer Adam Brown (13) and leading goal-scorer Brad Pinoniemi (8). They also feature a few quality defensemen, such as Colin Pettit (6) and Jack Keranen (3). Thomas Huotari (38) will look to keep the momentum going in goal. Like their first-round opponent, they’re probably a step behind the top three in Class A, but they do have enough to potentially win a quarterfinal for the first time.
(4) Little Falls (13-4-1, No. 2 seed in 6A playoffs)
State appearances: 7 (first since 2012)
Key section win: 2-1 (2OT) over No. 9A Fergus Falls
The Flyers return to State for the first time in nine years and are sending 28-year coach Tony Couture out win a trip to St. Paul. They don’t have the star power of the seeded teams ahead of them and aren’t a prolific offense, but they have a deep, senior-heavy group. Nicholas Stevens (33), Hayden Johnson (19), Matt Filippi (27), and Robby Kuchinski-Helgeson (24) are their leading scorers; the defense is not prolific, but steady.
Little Falls does boast perhaps the strongest goaltender in the Class A field in Dane Couture (35), and any success in the first round, and certainly afterward, will depend on him.