Religion aside, I have often been curious as to any other meanings of my name, so I decided to look it up on Google last night. Let’s face it, we’ve all “Googled” ourselves at some point. This instance just happened to have a little different spin on it.
As it turned out, if variety is the spice of life — I’m pretty bland. The only other two meanings I found were “noble” and “honor.” Those are great, but everywhere I looked, the overwhelming theme was “strong” or “strength.”
In my case, the strength I possess is hopefully intellectual, or more than likely psychological perseverance. I can’t imagine that it refers to physical strength in any way. I am not a muscle-bound man in stature at all. My “pipes” more or less resemble pipe cleaners, and my “pythons” are essentially garter snakes at this point.
However, as many of you know, I’m working on that. “Sweating For The Wedding” is still in full force at my fitness center. I’ve got about eight months before I need to be in the strong shape I desire for the big day. Plenty of time.
Prep hockey teams are not blessed with the same luxury. The time to flex their muscles is rapidly drawing near. Less than two weeks remain before the first playoff games are played. As I rank the area (boys) teams this week, let’s see who is in tip-top shape:
1. Duluth East Greyhounds (18-4-0)
This team is an incredible turnaround. Duluth East went from looking unprepared and lazy early in the season, to being one of Minnesota’s strongest teams. Since last week’s rankings, the Greyhounds earned two road victories over rival teams. Lakeville South declared themselves a new rival to the Greyhounds, thanks to last season’s shocker in the state tournament, and Cloquet-Esko-Carlton continues to be the top rival for the East program.
Those wins boosted Duluth East’s winning streak to 10 games. The Greyhounds have also won 14 of their last 15 outings. East now ends the regular season with winnable games at Lakeville North, St. Michael-Albertville and Tartan. As much as coaches and teams don’t like to discuss winning streaks, there’s a good chance the Greyhounds will be shooting for a 16-game winning streak or perhaps 19 down the road. 16 would put them in the state tournament, 19 would win it.
Still, that’s getting way ahead of themselves, and the Greyhounds know it. They have to become the ultimate “one game at a time” team. The top seed in the section is a lock, and there is no doubt East has big plans for the future. Yet, just as in fitness, you can’t immediately try to bench press a personal best without properly preparing yourself earlier in a workout. The Greyhounds need to take each game seriously and show their talents from start to finish. They’ve fallen behind 2-0 in two of the last three wins. Can they get away with that in the postseason? Meirs Moore, Phil Beaulieu, Alex Toscano, Jack Forbort and Ryan Lundgren are unquestioned leaders on the ice, and if they also lead in the locker room, this East team is in great shape.
2. Grand Rapids Thunderhawks (15-4-3)
The Thunderhawks continue going strong and earned two more victories since last week’s rankings. They got a great win in Moorhead, before cruising past Hibbing-Chisholm last night. It certainly appears that East and Grand Rapids are the top two teams in Section 7AA, but will the seeding also reflect that? The confusion will come when the coaches look at two things before voting. Rapids totalled one win in section play, and only six wins against Minnesota Class AA teams (6-4-3). Still, it is a winning AA record, and some of the Class A wins earned by the Thunderhawks came against top-notch teams. The Thunderhawks also only have one loss since December 28. I believe Grand Rapids will earn the second seed in Section 7AA, because of how well the team has played recently. Like Duluth East, Rapids stumbled early in the year, but seems to have things figured out.
The concern is, the Thunderhawks have been in the “cool-down” portion of their workout for a while. By season’s end, Grand Rapids will have played six of the final eight games against Class A opponents. With the exception of Duluth Denfeld, none of those opponents truly jump out at you. I have no doubt the Thunderhawks will be a confident bunch in the postseason, but can they flip the switch against quality opponents? They must have last year’s first-round exit still in their memory bank, and 7AA teams won’t quiver at the idea of facing Grand Rapids. The Thunderhawks are strong and dangerous. Yet, when they have lapses, they’re also dangerous to themselves.
3. Hermantown Hawks (17-4-1)
The Hawks are like the guy at the gym that was there every day and was the epitome of fitness. Then, he didn’t show up for a week, looked a little off when he returned, but in a matter of minutes was right back where he should be. The Hermantown Hawks have found their wings again. They earned three colossal victories since last week’s rankings. First came a dominant home win (4-1) over Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, then an eye-opening shutout victory (4-0) on the road over state-power Totino-Grace, and last night the Hawks avenged an earlier loss to Duluth Denfeld by pounding the Hunters (7-1).
Teams often talk about getting in “playoff mode,” and it seems the Hawks have done that. Since losing three of four over a week in January, Hermantown has won six straight by a combined score of 43-4. The Hawks are going to see a much bigger challenge to get out of Section 5A compared to recent years (keep an eye on St. Cloud Cathedral and Princeton), but suddenly they appear ready for it. They still may not get the top seed in the section, but the defending champs will strike fear into any opponent. At the start of the year, I felt East and Hermantown were the best teams in the area. If the Hawks can get revenge on Superior tomorrow night and keep rolling, I believe that will eventually ring true after all.
4. Duluth Denfeld Hunters (15-7-0)
It’s not often that a team can move up in the rankings after losing 7-1 in the last contest, but I have to look at the big picture for the Hunters. They have good talent, and a good record. They have quality wins over East, Hermantown and Warroad on the year. Notice I didn’t say Duluth Marshall. That’s because I don’t necessarily believe that the ‘Toppers are a quality opponent right now, but I’ll get to that later. It was still a great win for Denfeld in terms of section seeding, and also attitude. The win over Marshall was a long time coming, and Denfeld didn’t just beat the ‘Toppers, they embarrassed them. An 8-3 road win by Denfeld virtually cemented the top seed in Section 7A. A state tournament berth could be looming.
Still, the Hunters are playing just .500 hockey over the last six games, and have two consecutive tough ones against Superior and Grand Rapids before closing the season against Proctor. I still think Denfeld is leaning too heavily on goaltending. It worries me when I see Zach Thompson make 47 saves on a night when Denfeld still allowed 7 goals. That’s way too many pucks being thrown on net. Perhaps that’s just a case of Hermantown proving that the early win by Denfeld may have been a fluke. That’s ok. Denfeld just can’t let Marshall do the same thing in the postseason.
5. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Lumberjacks (12-8-2)
I can already hear the gripes from fans of the Lumberjacks, and as an East alum — I’m used to it. “How can Denfeld be ahead of us when we beat them twice?”
Well, what have you done for me lately? How about three straight losses, and four losses over the last five games? The Lumberjacks are the guy at the gym who breezes through the easy part of the workout without even breaking a sweat. Then when the intensity increases, guess who is asleep in the corner?
The ‘Jacks had fabulous chances to earn big wins in each of the last three games, but instead suffered a loss to Hermantown last week, another season sweep to rival Duluth East on Monday, and a second straight crucial section loss when they were shutout by Andover last night. Yikes. What does this do to the seeding in Section 7AA? I’ve made several mentions of Grand Rapids going just 1-3-2 in section games, but how about Cloquet-Esko-Carlton sitting at just 2-3-2? Duluth East has swept through the section so far, and is undoubtedly the top seed. Yet, you can make a case to seed Grand Rapids, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, Elk River and Andover anywhere from second to fifth. St. Francis and Forest Lake will want in that mix somewhere also. What a mess. The Lumberjacks certainly helped create it. The first line is great, but the team is average. The 4-7-2 record against Class AA teams in Minnesota reflects that. The ‘Jacks are weakening, but do you want to face them in the playoffs?
Best of the rest:
6. Superior Spartans (14-6-1)
The Spartans are cruising, and at the perfect time. Playoffs start very soon in Wisconsin, and Superior will be a top seed as well as popular choice to reach the state tournament. The Spartans have won their last two games by a score of 15-1, and now run into Hermantown and Duluth Denfeld at the end of this week.
It will be interesting to see those results, but win or lose, the games will be tremendous in terms of playoff preparation. Superior has six losses this season, yet half of those have come against top area teams from Minnesota, and only one to a Wisconsin team not named Notre Dame Academy. I wish the rest of “Badger Country” good luck in stopping the Spartans.
7. Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers (10-11-0)
Congratulations to the Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers on their first wins over Minnesota schools since December 15. That’s good news. The bad news is, it was Eveleth-Gilbert and Proctor. Had the ‘Toppers not won those, they may have to hope I change my rankings to a top 15.
Still, it has to boost confidence, and keep the ‘Toppers from completely folding up shop. The two wins were just the second and third over an 11-game stretch, and were badly needed after the embarrassing home loss to Duluth Denfeld. The question is, can the Toppers finish above .500? They should win the next two games (Virginia-MIB and Greenway/Nash-Kee.) to get above the mark, but will have to beat either Cloquet-Esko-Carlton or St. Cloud Cathedral at the end of the year to stay there. Marshall deserves the respect that comes with being a defending champion in Section 7A, but they better start playing like one.
8. Hibbing-Chisholm Bluejackets (11-11-0)
The Bluejackets made a very nice statement in an 8-3 win over International Falls last week, but then stumbled in a 6-2 loss to Grand Rapids last night. That pretty much summarizes the season for Hibbing-Chisholm.
This is a .500 hockey team. Look for them to finish the regular season a game over. Two winnable section games remain against Eveleth-Gilbert and Virginia-MIB, and then the season finale is very tough against Hermantown. Sooner or later, the Bluejackets have to string some wins together — otherwise the “win one, lose one” style adds up to a second-round playoff exit, right?
9. International Falls Broncos (10-8-4)
International Falls recovered from a loss to Hibbing-Chisholm by grabbing victories over Detroit Lakes and Lake of the Woods. Next up, comes a pair of challenging Class AA opponents in Grand Rapids and Roseau. This will show us if the Broncos have found another gear.
International Falls could be a dangerous team in a Section 7A field that appears to belong to Duluth Denfeld. Yet, we need to see a little more from the Broncos than we have so far.
10. Virginia/MIB Blue Devils (8-13-1)
The spoiler role could fit this team perfectly. The overall record is not great, but the section record is impressive. It will either reach new heights or take a huge hit as the Blue Devils still face Duluth Marshall and Hibbing-Chisholm in section play. What a wrinkle that could throw into the 7A seedings. As of this moment, most of the teams not named Duluth Denfeld are hovering around .500. Virginia-MIB can almost single-handedly break this logjam.
So that’s how I measure the strength of the teams in the area. Apparently with the name Brian, I know a thing or two about strength.
I’m sure you have your own thoughts as well. I’m also pretty certain you will Google the meaning of your own name now that you’ve finished the article.