Thursday, March 18, 2010

Another Way to Look at PeeWee A Hockey - March 18

By frederick61

The past six months, five nights a week, has seen the development of over 100 PeeWee A teams. The past month has seen those teams whittled down to eight teams that will play in the 45th Annual Minnesota Hockey PeeWee A Tournament.

These eight teams, representing four of Minnesota Hockey’s 12 districts, descend on Faribault Community Arena (a 30-minute drive down Interstate 35 from the cities) this Friday. The best PeeWee teams in the state have emerged from Districts 2, 3, 6 and 10. They meet to decide who’s #1.

The favorite is Edina (56-6-1). The Hornets’ combination of quick passing, fast skating and suffocating transitional play has put them in the cat bird’s seat. Their ability to score and score in bunches has made fits for teams all year, turning close games into comfortable leads that tear the heart out of opponents. Teams fighting hard for a period only end up staring at a scoreboard trailing by three goals, which can be disheartening for anybody; adding the “rep” of the green and white uniforms makes it seem down right impossible to most teams.

The Hornets D6 seed to the regional was never in doubt. They won a tough D6 regular season title and beat Eastview 9-0 and Burnsville 5-4 in the playoffs to lock up a seed early. But then they struggled to nail down the D6 No. 1 seed, losing to Burnsville 5-4 and beating the Blaze (playing their fourth straight game) 5-3. They rolled in the East Regional, beating a young Farmington team 7-0, St. Paul Highland Central 10-1 and Eden Prairie 4-0 in divisional play and beat Burnsville again 5-2 for the No. 2 East seed.

In the first quarterfinal on Friday, the Hornets face off against a familiar and yet unfamiliar opponent, White Bear Lake (29-9-4). At first glance, this game is a mismatch until you realize that these two teams have 10 state titles (six for Edina – most all time, four for White Bear – tied for second all time). In 44 years of crowning a state champion at the PeeWee A level, 25 percent of the time it has been given to one of these two teams.

Like Edina, the Bears won the D2 regular season title and the first two games of the D2 playoffs, beating Tartan 8-3 and Mahtomedi 7-0 to gain a seed, but the Bears lost the No. 1 seed to Stillwater in the championship game 3-2 and came back to beat Roseville 9-3 to take the No. 2 D2 seed to the North Region. In the regional, the Bears beat Duluth East 6-2, the Duluth Lakers 4-0 and Hibbing 7-1 to win their division. On Sunday, they beat a tough Roseville team 1-0 to take the North No. 1 seed.

Oddly enough, these two teams usually know each other well, but have not played this year. They played in each other’s tourney during the season and never met. Now, it comes down to one game. With White Bear’s longtime head coach handing the reins over to his assistants at year’s end, how will this year’s swan song end?

Playing a patient, methodical game against Edina is key for the Bears; taking too many chances will have you staring at that green and white deficit. The Bears need a solid, controlled goaltending performance and need to bury their chances on the power play to win. The Hornets need to play their game. Edina should win.

The second quarterfinal game pits the D3 and D10 champions in what is sure to be the marquee match of Friday’s games. Newcomer Andover (40-9-1) is playing some of their best hockey at the right time in winning the district and regional tournaments without a loss. The Huskies beat Centennial 5-1, Champlin Park 4-0 and Elk River 3-1 to take the D10 No. 1 seed to the West Regional at the East Grand Forks Civic Center. In divisional play they beat Brainerd 7-3, East Grand Forks 7-3 and Alexandria 6-3; on Sunday they beat Moorhead 4-2 for the West No. 2 seed. The Huskies are doing it on both ends of the ice and playing well top to bottom.

On the flip side is Wayzata (41-5-2), who has been equally impressive in winning their district and regional tourneys without a loss. But while the Huskies have been tested on both ends of the ice, the Trojans have been putting on a show, scoring in bunches and celebrating each goal. They won the D3 regular season on the last game of the schedule by tying Osseo/Maple Grove 2-2. In the D3 playoffs, the Trojans beat Orono 6-3 and OMG 6-1 to take the D3 No. 1 seed to the South Regional. At the regional, the Trojans swept through the opposition, beating Hutchinson 9-2, New Prague 6-0, St. Peter 12-1 and St. Michael/Albertville 10-2 to take the No. 1 South seed.

In a potentially very emotional game between Andover and Wayzata, whoever stays aggressive and stays cool has the edge. If the Huskies can continue their play at both ends, there could be a Fourth of July parade of yellow helmets to the box. If the Huskies stumble the Trojans’ “show” will go on, ice rubbing and all. In an upset, the nod here goes to Andover.

That matches Edina and Andover in the semifinals. Andover got the green and white treatment in a 5-1 loss over Thanksgiving, but that seems like years ago at this point. In the White Bear tourney championship game in early February, Edina beat Centennial 5-1. Two weeks later in the D10 playoffs, Andover beat Centennial 5-1. In another tough game, the Hornets return to the championship game.

Stillwater (30-13-4) and Eden Prairie (30-17-5) meet in the first game of the lower bracket. At first glance, neither team stands out, both teams have gone about their season with minimal fanfare and talk. Eden Prairie brings in the game experience of having played the top teams. They have had their ups and downs in regular season and seem to get “up” for teams, rivals. They played a solid, disciplined team game in the East regional, beating Highland 6-1 and Farmington 2-0 before losing to Edina. On Sunday, they beat Rochester 5-0 to take the East No. 1 seed.

The Eagles are one of five teams to beat Edina and they did it twice, 4-1 early in Duluth and 2-1 before Christmas. However, they have been a .500 team since Feb. 1. Can the Eagles duplicate that rivalry game motivation against Stillwater and beyond?
Unlike EP, the Ponies roll into the tourney having won eight of their last 10. A rough patch in the middle of the season had some head scratching losses (St. Paul Saints and Hastings), but the Ponies are playing well right now. Stillwater, after finishing second in D2, rolled through the playoffs, beating North St. Paul 7-3, Roseville and White Bear Lake to take the No. 1 seed to the North Region. After being surprised by Hermantown 3-2 in the opening regional game, the Ponies came back to beat Grand Rapids 7-2 and Roseville 7-1. On Sunday they beat Duluth East 2-1 to take the No. 2 North seed to state.

This game is very evenly matched, but nod here goes to Stillwater. The Ponies have a “true grit” approach to key tourney games this year. Their loss to Hermantown stung and should make them more determined. They win.

Elk River (43-7-1) has been struggling. They finished first in the D10 Blue, beating Andover in the key title game. In the playoffs, the Elks beat Blaine 7-1 and Spring Lake Park 6-2 before losing to Andover. The Elks came back to beat Centennial 3-2 in 3 OTs to take the No. 2 seed. In regional division play, they beat Centennial 8-1, Moorhead 4-2 and Bemidji 8-1.On Sunday, the Elks beat EGF in front their hometown fans 5-4 in a tough game to take the No. 1 West seed.

Some may consider Orono the “we’re just happy to be here” team, emerging from an association that many consider “one of the other” D3 teams. But in addition to having top quality players, the Spartans have been playing well. In their regional pool games, they had to beat a tough Osseo/Maple Grove team for the third time in a row and then followed that up by beating STMA in OT in the last division game (the we-don’t-have-to-play-Wayzata-to-get-to-state) for the No. 1 seed.

The downside for the Spartans is they draw a tough Elk River team that has rebounded from losing the D10 playoffs to make a run at state. They are a team that can come at you in waves. If Orono’s defense takes too many chances, the Elks will make them pay for it in their strong transition game. Orono can frustrate any team, especially in a tight game, but the depth and experience of Elk River gives them the edge.

That sets up a game between Elk River and Stillwater in the second semifinal. In another very physical game, the Elks win.

After defeating Apple Valley in the state high school semifinals this year, in a post-game interview, an Edina forward came to this conclusion, “You don’t need superstars to win a state title and we are out to prove that.” It was in response to a question about Edina’s failed attempt the previous year, loaded with Division I talent, to get out of the state quarterfinals and now facing another Division I loaded team, Minnetonka, in this year’s final.

The PeeWee Hornets beat the Elks 5-0 and 4-1 after losing an early season game 7-4. It’s too early to look at Edina’s PeeWee A team this year and think in terms of Division I talent, but ironically, a Hornet is telling teams in this tourney how to beat the PeeWee Hornets. The Elks have a balanced team which makes beating that green and white seem more and more possible if the Elks are “out to prove that.”

Still, the old zinc penny remains in the pocket; the hockey ghosts don’t say a thing. Where is an Ikola when you need him? Hornets win. What a season.

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