You’re absolutely right. Well — mostly.
During this time of year, with the playoffs right around the corner, I feel obligated to discuss the chances of any area team reaching the state tournament.
However, to call a team a contender or pretender is too easy. There is no wrong answer. Every area team is certainly a contender. The overall talent pool makes that obvious. Yet, did you know each team has a bit of pretender to it as well?
I’m not talking about generating false hope for fans. I’m talking about music. Each area team can use a different song by “The Pretenders” to summarize the season. The English band established a musical legacy well before any of today’s prep players were born, but it may help determine if those same players can add to the legacy that comes with wearing their school’s hockey sweater.
On that melodic note, I give you this week’s rankings, with the appropriate accompaniment. Maestro, if you please.
1. Duluth East Greyhounds (20-4-0)
The easy choice here is the song “2000 Miles.”Let’s face it, by the time the playoffs arrive, the Greyhounds have logged about that much distance in bus trips. Anoka, Wayzata, Centennial, Andover, Blaine, Moorhead, White Bear Lake, Lakeville South, Lakeville North and St. Michael-Albertville all received visits from Duluth East this season. Throw in the Schwan Cup tournament and the upcoming season finale at Tartan, and the mileage is quite a test. The schedule home or away is always a test. The fact is, Duluth East is passing these tests with flying colors. The ‘Hounds are good. Scary good. Yet, at times it is the kind of scary that strikes fear into opponents, and other times it is the kind of good that has fans on edge.
Yes, the Greyhounds have won 12 straight. Yes, they are a lock for the top seed in Section 7AA. The fans, coaches and players are well aware of this. How long can things keep rolling so smoothly? There is also plenty of awareness as to just how many more consecutive wins it would take to do something very special. The toughest part for Duluth East will be remaining confident without getting cocky. There will be talk of how good the Greyhounds are, and how Section 7AA is theirs to lose. That’s just talk. It needs to be proven on the ice.
I mentioned all the long road trips the ‘Hounds endured and how that will help them be playoff-ready. The time is coming to show it. On the figurative road to the section title, East needs to be the pace car. No tolerance for cruise control here, or the Greyhounds will be left to wonder what might — or perhaps should — have been.
2. Hermantown Hawks (19-4-1)
The song “Thin Line Between Love and Hate” immediately comes to mind.
It wasn’t all that long ago, when I hated Hermantown’s chances to reach the state tournament. Right now, I’m in love with the Hawks chances again. A week-long stretch in January that saw the Hawks drop three of four, suddenly feels like decades ago. Since that time, Hermantown has eight straight wins by a combined 55-8 score. For all the math majors out there, that’s about a 7-1 score on average (yes, I rounded).
The Hawks could always score, and now they’ve suddenly found solid goaltending as well. Bruce Plante began the year using a platoon situation with Adam Smith and Jace Thomas rotating in net. Early on, neither goalie provided any real stability. Currently, the platoon continues, and everything Plante touches turns to gold. Smith and Thomas have both found their game, and the Hawks have found their stride.
The other great thing Hermantown has is experience. Coaches love to say, “act like you’ve been there.” In the case of the Hawks — who’s acting? Hermantown knows what it means to play in pressure-filled games, and knows what it’s like to win them. The Section 5A seeding will be very intriguing. St. Cloud Cathedral and Princeton have had great seasons. Where will the Hermantown Hawks find themselves in the mix? I’m not sure it matters. At this rate, the seeds will literally be just numbers, and Hermantown will still be viewed as a favorite to reach another state tournament.
3. Grand Rapids Thunderhawks (17-4-3)
The classic tune “I’ll Stand By You” is most fitting.
I did drop the Thunderhawks in the rankings, but primarily due to how well Hermantown is playing. I will stand by a feeling I’ve had all season long. Grand Rapids has the second-best team in Section 7AA. I’m pretty sure I just heard grumbles from fans in Cloquet, Elk River and Andover.
Both Rapids and East have lost just four games. Both teams have lost only once in 2013. The vast differences come in quality wins, section record, and head-to-head competition. What will it mean for seeding? Will three losses and two ties in 7AA play cost the Thunderhawks? It shouldn’t, but it might. I have seen computer projections that have had Rapids anywhere from a two-seed to a six-seed.
The trio of Avery Peterson, Jake Bischoff, and Hunter Shepard gives Grand Rapids as much talent at each position as any team in the state. Yet, is there depth beyond that? Can they finally grab a win over a team like Cloquet-Esko-Carlton? Can they overcome years of one-goal losses to Duluth East? The Thunderhawks are odd in that they are both consistent yet enigmatic as we head to the postseason.
4. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton Lumberjacks (14-8-2)
I ended up debating two songs here. The first was “I Go To Sleep,” as I was convinced that’s exactly what the Lumberjacks do against quality opponents. Then Cloquet-Esko-Carlton broke a four-game losing streak by earning consecutive victories — over Class AA opponents! This is no small feat for this ‘Jacks team.
Maybe my second song, “Don’t Get Me Wrong” is the better choice. Are the ‘Jacks proving me wrong with late-season, big-game ability? Don’t get me wrong at all. The Lumberjacks will be a factor in Section 7AA. They have made memorable playoff runs many times before. If I’m facing them, I’m uneasy about that idea.
That said, the ‘Jacks need a lot of things to go right. The top line needs to be firing on all cylinders. The depth just isn’t there. The goaltending needs to improve. Will the Lumberjacks be forced to hit the road in the playoffs as the fifth seed? East, Rapids, Elk River and Andover may all end up ahead of Dave Esse’s team. Will the team rally around the head coach? Will the Lumberjacks win a title for Jamie Langenbrunner? The NHL star recently suffered a potential career-ending injury, and the former Lumberjack guided Cloquet-Esko-Carlton to the only opening-round state tournament victory in school history. The ‘Jacks have great storylines, and are the ultimate wild card.5. Duluth Denfeld Hunters (16-8-0)
The song for the Hunters is “My City Was Gone.” The title says it all. Until this season, Duluth Denfeld was an afterthought in town in terms of hockey.
State tournaments? Think East or Marshall. Many Duluthians also jumped on the Hermantown bandwagon come tourney time. Even “the artist formerly known as Duluth Central” found its way to the state tournament behind terrific Trojan goaltending many years ago. Of course that was several years after the most recent trip to state for Denfeld.
Yep, 1989. That’s the last time the Denfeld Hunters took the ice at a state tournament. The 2013 tournament may see the Hunters as well. Still, Denfeld has been mediocre of late, going 4-4 in the last eight games. In reality, the Hunters lost games that most of us figured they would. Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, Thief River Falls, Hermantown and Grand Rapids have all beaten Denfeld during that stretch. However, there were also big wins over Warroad and Superior during that same time period. Nobody will forget the wins over Hermantown and Duluth East earlier this season either.
None of those teams will be a concern for the Hunters moving forward. Denfeld will likely need to defeat Marshall or one of the Iron Range teams in a very mediocre Section 7A. Yet will the Hunters move forward? The media will want them to look back at 1989, but Denfeld may want to look back at early-January — when the Hunters played arguably their best hockey of the season. If not, there will be even more 1989 references next season.
Best of the rest:6. Superior Spartans (15-8-1)
The song the Spartans must hear is “Where Has Everybody Gone?”
Superior is suddenly in the playoffs, and the team doesn’t recognize any of the opponents. That’s probably fine with the Spartans. Losses to quality teams from northern Minnesota piled up late in the year. Duluth Marshall, Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, Duluth East, Hermantown and Duluth Denfeld all got the best of Superior.
People from Wisconsin take an incredible (and sometimes nauseating) amount of pride in the fact that they are indeed from Wisconsin. The Spartans should do exactly that. This is a good hockey team. Although slightly above average in the area, Superior helps set the standard in Wisconsin. Look for them to make some noise down in Madison.
7. Duluth Marshall Hilltoppers (12-11-0)
Marshall is singing “Forever Young” — and it reflects the roster perfectly.
This youth, along with some injuries, has turned the ‘Toppers into an underachieving team in the eyes of many this season. Yet, are they peaking at the right time? The end of the season will tell us.Marshall has won four straight to get over .500 for the first time in a month. However, the Hilltoppers were clear-cut favorites in every one of those games. Can they pull an upset against either St. Cloud Cathedral or Cloquet-Esko-Carlton to close the year? The ‘Toppers likely have a two-seed in 7A cemented regardless, thanks to a good section record and an outstanding strength of schedule — but what kind of mental state will they be in after these last two games?
8. Hibbing-Chisholm Bluejackets (13-11-0)
“Middle Of The Road” is a perfect tune.
This team has been there all year. Furthest under .500? Three games. Over? Two games. Adam Johnson and Colten Perkins are outstanding individuals, but the team defines mediocre.
Two wins in a row for this team right now, but a season finale with Hermantown awaits. How will the team morale be come playoffs? Will the Bluejackets be in the conversation with Duluth Denfeld and Duluth Marshall?
9. International Falls Broncos (10-10-4)
Already in a logjam in Section 7A, the Broncos have to now share “Middle Of The Road” with Hibbing-Chisholm. Three straight losses have sent International Falls back to the .500 mark.
The one positive may come in having played AA powers Grand Rapids and Roseau in an attempt to better themselves. The Broncos should also be more confident after their season finale with Greenway/Nash-Kee.
10. Virginia/MIB Blue Devils (9-15-1)
The song for the Blue Devils is a good tune, but also a personal request — “Show Me.”
Come on Blue Devils. Show me something. Anything. Give me a reason to think you can surprise the rest of the 7A field. Chances were there late in the season against Duluth Marshall and Hibbing-Chisholm, yet both were losses in which Virginia-MIB was dominated. The only reason the Blue Devils could exceed expectations, is because they now may not have any.
That will do it for this week. It is now 1:45 a.m.– and I’ll be at work in about five hours.
“Back To The Chain Gang” in the morning.
The playoffs are almost here, and whether you’re a contender or pretender, the whole idea is music to my ears.