Familiarity reigns this week as the boys’ hockey section playoffs reaches its zenith. Championship games in both classes begin Wednesday and conclude Friday, each with a trip to the state tournament at stake.
Many of these key games are rematches of last season’s finals, the teams’ second or third meeting of the season — or both. Add a little bad blood to the games, played before loud, partisan crowds, and you get a state tournament-worthy atmosphere.
The “extra juice” as Duluth East coach Mike Randolph calls it. Benilde-St. Margaret’s coach Ken Pauly said, “I see the state tournament as a reward. Sections are where all the pressure is.”
Pauly’s 10th-ranked Red Knights, in their first Class 2A section final since 2014, face No. 1 Edina at 8 p.m. Wednesday in the second of two games played at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
The favored Hornets defeated the Red Knights 5-2 earlier this season. A well-wisher told Pauly that playing the Section 6 final on a larger, Olympic-sized ice sheet would be an advantage for his stable of fleet skaters.
“I said to him, ‘Have you seen Edina? They’re pretty fast, too,’ ” Pauly said.
Forwards Jett Jungels and Mason Nevers, both Mr. Hockey finalists, pace Edina’s attack.
The first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader features another Mr. Hockey finalist, Jack Jensen, leading No. 9 Eden Prairie against unranked Holy Family of Victoria. The underdog Fire reached its third-consecutive final by stunning defending champion Minnetonka in overtime. The final step is securing the program’s first state tournament appearance.
Eden Prairie coach Lee Smith has guided his Eagles’ to their fifth section final game in six seasons and considers it “a special night. When you get there, you know it’s game on.”
Thursday’s games are highlighted by three games featuring four teams ranked within the top six.
No. 5 St. Thomas Academy, quietly the state’s hottest team with 17 consecutive victories, faces No. 17 Eagan at 7 p.m. at Braemar Arena in Edina for the Section 3 crown. Dropping the puck at the same time across town at Aldrich Arena in Maplewood will be No. 3 Blaine, led by Mr. Hockey finalist Bryce Brodzinski, and No. 6 Maple Grove. The Northwest Suburban Conference foes split their two regular season games and now vie for the Section 5 title.
Perhaps the evening’s biggest game is a Section 7 rematch pitting No. 4 Andover and No. 12 Duluth East. It’s a good ol’ north vs. south game providing more juice than an orange grove.
The favored Huskies travel to Amsoil Arena in Duluth hoping to claim their first state tournament appearance in program history. Their past two meetings went to overtime. The Greyhounds persevered in the section final last year. Andover defeated Duluth East 2-1 in overtime earlier this season.
“Last season’s loss motivated us this season,” Andover coach Mark Manney said. “When we played them earlier, it was back-and-forth but we were able to squeak it out.”
On-ice standouts include forwards and Mr. Hockey finalists Ryder Donovan (Duluth East) and Charlie Schoen (Andover) and Huskies goalie Ben Fritsinger, a finalist for the Frank Brimsek Award given to the state’s top senior netminder.
In Class 1A, Section 2 features defending state champion and No. 10 Orono playing a rubber match with No. 15 Delano at 7 p.m. Thursday at the St. Louis Park Rec Center.
A third consecutive Section 7 title game showdown awaits No. 1 Hermantown and No. 9 Greenway at 7 p.m. Wednesday at Amsoil Arena. Hermantown won the past two and added a 4-0 victory earlier this season.