Maple Grove senior forward Tony Paulson could not keep his eyes off the scoreboard after last Friday's Class 2A, Section 5 boys' hockey championship.
Maybe he struggled to believe the 15-1 score. More likely, he was savoring what it meant. His hockey team is the first in the school's 16-year history to reach the state tournament.
Frustration mounted the past two seasons as Blaine defeated Maple Grove in the section championship each time. Most of that frustration disappeared Friday in the blowout of the Bengals.
"I'm so proud of the guys," Paulson said. "It's the best feeling of my life. We felt cheated last year. We still kind of feel cheated for the guys that graduated."
Maple Grove (24-2-2) earned the No. 2 seed in the tournament and plays Hill-Murray (22-6) at 11 a.m. Thursday at the Xcel Energy Center. One of Maple Grove's two losses this season came against No. 1 seed Duluth East. A title-game rematch is possible.
"They have a good chance," said Blaine coach Dave Aus, who saw his Bengals' run of six consecutive state tournaments stopped in the loss. "Physically they are pretty strong."
Maple Grove has flexed its muscle all season. Among the program-best 24 victories were tournament titles at the Wayzata Turkey Trot and St. Louis Park Hockey Holiday Classic. The Crimson also enjoyed success against teams on its side of the state tournament bracket, twice beating both Benilde-St. Margaret's and Edina.
Pacing the Crimson are forward Dylan Steman, who re-set program records for single-season points (65) and assists (38). Paulson stands third in career scoring and Steman, Alex Mason and Spencer Bell are also in the top 10. Junior defenseman Jordan Gross, who committed to Notre Dame, made the Star Tribune All-Metro first team. Goaltender Kyle Koop is the program's first finalist for the Frank Brimsek Award, given to the top senior goalie.
The Crimson's strength, speed and depth overwhelmed opponents down the stretch. The team outscored its past 10 opponents by a combined 77-13, culminating in the rout of Blaine.
Maple Grove pounced as Blaine took a five-minute major for checking from behind just 19 seconds into the game. Steman, Shane Wolden, Paulson and Bell each scored before the game was four minutes old. Paulson said Bell's shorthanded goal later in the period "took the life right out of" the Bengals. Bell finished with four goals and two assists.
A first-intermission lead of 6-0 grew to 13-1 during the second period, at which point many players were congratulating one other on the bench for their victory.
"Those past two years pent up a little bit of emotion in us and it finally came out tonight," Bell said. "We had a lot to prove and I think we did it."
Coach Gary Stefano, who directed Park Center to the state tournament in 1993 -- and lost to Hill-Murray in the quarterfinals -- acknowledged the danger of spending too much emotion on the Blaine game. He said he believed the senior-laden group would refocus. Paulson concurred.
"I think we'll be pretty settled down," Paulson said. "We're all older guys and we know it's not going to be easy. We've got to get back to work."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574