Picking the Boys State Hockey Tournament Champion + Five Intriguing Storylines

Image via xcelenergycenter.com

Thursday morning the state’s larger schools will kick off the Class AA Boys State Hockey Tournament with the quarterfinals at Xcel Energy Center. Zone Coverage staff writer Sam Ekstrom, a radio broadcaster for the tournament, gives his thoughts.

Allow me to just come out and say it off the top: This is Andover’s tournament to lose.

Many are calling this eight-team bracket wide open, perhaps because its top seed has never appeared in the tournament field, and traditional blue blood Edina is watching from home. But No. 1 seed Andover is no ordinary first-timer.

The Huskies are going for the girls-boys sweep like Edina did last year. The Andover girls took down the Hornets 5-3 in the girls final two weeks ago, and the boys are looking to match the effort with a title of their own that could finally stamp Andover as the next great hockey program in the metro area.

Andover has been stuck in Section 7AA against the Duluth East dynasty, which has sent 18 teams to the state tournament since the two-class system began in 1994. The Huskies won 22 and 24 games, respectively, over the previous two seasons, only to lose to the Greyhounds in overtime two consecutive years in the section final.

Many of the same players from 2018 and 2019 remain on the Andover roster, which is ripe with senior talent — 15 of them, to be exact. They returned 10 double-digit point-getters from last year and 88 combined goals from that roster. They enter the tournament on a 15-game winning streak, averaging 6.9 goals per game during that span.

Their shots-on-goal margin is jarring at plus-32 per game (46-14). Goaltender Will Larson has only allowed six goals in his last 11 games.

Many teams enter the tournament without enough balance to score goals outside of their top two or three scorers, but Andover has the best depth in the tournament with nine double-digit goal scorers. Their fourth-line center Michael Clough would be top-line quality on many teams. Perhaps it’s because of their anonymity they are relatively overlooked. Only defenseman Wyatt Kaiser has a major-college commitment (UMD), while the rest of the roster spreads the wealth and puts up gigantic offensive numbers in aggregate.

It’s hard to imagine a bunch of three-year varsity players getting overwhelmed by the moment as they enter their first State Tournament. Their head coach Mark Manney certainly won’t be. Before he took the job at Andover, he was flying Air Force One for Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.

I like Andover to win the whole thing in chalky fashion. Here’s the other stuff that intrigues me in The Tourney.

  • St. Thomas Academy no longer has Greg and Tom Vannelli behind the bench. The brother tandem passed the baton to Trent Eigner, the former Lakeville North coach who completed a perfect season en route to a championship in 2015. Eigner has the Cadets rolling with 13 wins in the last 14 after a sluggish 5-7-2 start. St. Thomas Academy took Section 3AA as a 5-seed, upsetting Eastview, Rosemount and Burnsville along the way. Their defense and goaltending could challenge many teams, but they drew Andover in the first round, which won’t be easy.
  • More Mittelstadts! Former Eden Prairie Eagle and former NHL first-round pick Casey Mittelstadt’s brothers John (senior forward) and Luke (junior defense) are both committed to play for Bob Motzko at the U of M and have a combined 86 points for the Eagles this year.
  • Speaking of Motzko, his son Mack went back to St. Cloud Cathedral after a year at Minnetonka and is part of a Cathedral juggernaut that I like to repeat in the Class A tourney. Cathedral is one of only three teams to beat Andover this year, while Motzko, Nate Warner and Blake Perbix are all 50-plus point guys. Warroad likely got the 1-seed by virtue of their 5-2 win against Cathedral back on Nov. 29, but SCC has improved over the last three months and played a much tougher schedule.
  • Back to Class AA, can Moorhead finally get over the hump? The Section 8AA champion Spuds have the most runner-up finishes without a title in state history (eight). Their best chance at a title came in 2017 when they lost in the final to Grand Rapids, who is the only northern-school champion in the last 12 years. This year, Moorhead has a Mr. Hockey finalist in defenseman Luke Gramer, a volume goal-scorer in Caden Triggs and a Frank Brimsek goaltending finalist in Hunter Hodges. They could make some noise with 13 seniors on the roster.
  • Moorhead’s first-round matchup comes against tournament stalwart Hill-Murray, which is back in familiar territory behind Bill Lechner, their veteran coach celebrating 40 years at Hill-Murray as a coach in various capacities. When asked about his four-decade run, Lechner said coaching keeps him feeling young, but “it’s hard to forecheck with fake knees.”

For Sam Ekstrom’s play-by-play of the State Boys Hockey Tournament, tune into the Minnesota Score Radio Network on AM 660, AM 1440 or stream online

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Image via xcelenergycenter.com

Wednesday was an absolute treat for jersey nerds like myself. Flip the page to Thursday, and well, it was not as delightful as the Tourney’s opening day. […]

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