Last year the Neutral Zone predicted 5 of 8 Section ‘AA’ winners correctly including a big upset in Section 1AA with Lakeville South making their way to play at the Excel Center! This year is going to prove a difficult challenge to top those results as it’s a deep group of teams with great parity.
Unlike recent years there isn’t an overwhelming favorite to win the Minnesota State Tournament or let alone survive a section, so we had to dig deep into the numbers to try and make sense of it all. One thing is for certain, there will be no shortage of drama or upsets as teams lay it all out on the line for a chance to play for the Minnesota State High School Title!
SECTION 1AA SEEDING
- Lakeville South
- Lakeville North
- Rochester Century
- Rochester Mayo
- Rochester John Marshall
Lakeville South (18-7): The Cougars roll into sections winning 8 of their last 9 game and bolstering a young squad looking to make a mark by getting to the State Tournament. Led by (F) Zack Oelrich (37pts) and (F) Cade Ahrenholz (16G) they are looking to make it back to back trips to St. Paul, but this time it is as the top seed in Section 1AA.
Lakeville North (17-7): The crosstown rival is poised for a showdown with Lakeville South and is no stranger. Lakeville North has won 8 of their last 10 games and is confident behind leading scorer (F) Caden Smith (32pts) along with (F) AJ Anello (29pts). The records go out the window when these two team play and this year should be very interesting if they meet in the Section 1 AA Finals.
NEUTRAL ZONE PICK (LAKEVILLE SOUTH)
Last year Lakeville South came through in an upset and this year they are our favorites. They are very well coached and have depth at every position down the roster. Although they are young, they have numerous players that were in this situation last year and are our top pick to come through the top heavy Section 1 AA.
SECTION 2AA SEEDING
- Prior Lake
- Eden Prairie
- Holy Family
- New Prague
PRIOR LAKE (17-5-3): The Lakers are one of the biggest surprises in the state as they are led by very young players. Their top 3 leading scorers (F) Will Schumacher (35pts), (F) Alex Bump (32pts) and (F) Sam Rice (27pts) are all in 10th grade! Prior Lake being the #1 seed was highly unexpected coming into the season in a strong section featuring Eden Prairie and Minnetonka. The Lakers have wins this season over Eden Prairie, Minnetonka and Rosemount.
EDEN PRAIRIE (19-5-1): The Eagles absolutely do not lack firepower as the trot out (F) Ben Steeves (50pts) and (F) John Mittelstadt (49pts) on their top line. To make matters worse for other teams they also feature the return of (F) Jackson Blake (10pts/7gp) to add to the fireworks. Their defensive core has a great tandem in Luke Mittelstadt and Mason Langenbrunner who can key in on top opposing lines. They have played a great schedule and have seen the best in the state on a consistent basis.
MINNETONKA (12-12-1): Don’t let the Skippers record fool you as they have been through the gauntlet in terms of scheduling. They have a win this season over Prior Lake (5-4) and also downed Hill-Murray. They are led by (F) Teddy Lagerback (36pts) who leads them in goals, assists and points. Minnetonka has limped into sections with a record of 2-4-1 in their last 7 games and will need some depth scoring other than Lagerback if they want to make a run.
NEUTRAL ZONE PICK (EDEN PRAIRIE)
We really like the high scoring Eagles to come through over the untested Prior Lake team. It has been a breakout season for the Lakers, but when push comes to shove the Eagles have too much talent to be denied. They are not only top heavy as their depth is impressive led by (F) Drew Holt and (F) Carter Batchelder who are averaging over a point per game this season.
SECTION 3AA SEEDING
- St. Thomas Academy
- Bloomington Jefferson
- Park of Cottage Grove
- Apple Valley
ROSEMOUNT (19-6-0): The Irish appear to have a team poised to make a long overdue trip to St. Paul. High flying speedster (F) Luke Levandowski is having a monster season for them with 49 points and 27 games. His sidekick (F) Connor Kenefick (36pts) has been a strong compliment while consistently producing up front. Their defensive core is very difficult to play against as they have size and grit with Jake Ratzlaff and Mason Wheeler. They had a tough loss down the stretch to Burnsville but are poised to rebound well.
BURNSVILLE (15-8-2): The Blaze have been a tough team to figure out as they don’t have what would be considered high end talent. What they do have is depth and a hard working mentality. They locked up the #2 seed with a late 5-1 win late in the season over Rosemount. (F) Kade Nielsen has had a breakout season while leading them down the stretch with 45pts. They will need to play their best hockey if they want to advance out of the section
EAGAN (16-9-0): (F) Jonny Meiers has carried the Eagan squad most of the season by leading them with 15g and 34 points. He has been joined in the scoring mostly by (F) Henry Reiff (30pts). They have been backstopped by (G) Derek Manzella (92.6%sv), which has given them a chance in every game they have played. They will need depth scoring if they want to survive the next couple of games.
ST. THOMAS ACADEMY (15-8-2): Don’t let their record fool you as they have won 10 of 11 to close out the regular season. With their sniper (F) Jackson Hallum (35pts) and young depth of talent, they could really surprise people in this section. (D) Andrew Boemer has been great on the power play and chipped in offensively with 20pts. They just may be clicking at the right time.
NEUTRAL ZONE PICK (ROSEMOUNT)
The Irish have been very stingy defensively and have found a way to win the special teams battles consistently throughout the season. This makes them our favorite to come through a section that has a strong group of sleepers. This is a team that has stuck together and played for one another all season long and with that being said, we believe Rosemount takes the short trip North to the Excel Center.
SECTION 4AA SEEDING
- White Bear Lake
- East Ridge
- Mounds View
- Minnehaha Academy
HILL-MURRAY (16-6-3): The Pioneers have played a strong schedule and display a couple big scorers up front in highly skilled Nick Pierre (46pts) and power forward Charlie Strobel (40pts). The ever so dangerous (D) Joe Palodichuk (35pts) can back them up on the power play with his big shot and puck moving ability. They have an impressive 5-2 win on the road against #2 seed Stillwater during the regular season.
STILLWATER (18-6-1): The Ponies have had a rollercoaster season while starting out poorly but finishing up by winning 8 of 10. This includes a 6-1 win over Cretin-Derham Hall and a 7-4 thumping of White Bear Lake. They have gotten depth scoring but are mostly dependent on goal scoring by (F) Noah Tussey (43pts) who has 23 goals on the season. (F) Joe Stengl has taken a bit of the load off of Tussey by compiling 32 points. Can they continue their hot streak as of late?
WHITE BEAR LAKE (16-8-1): This is a team we really like early in the season but they have fallen on hard times by losing 4 of 5 to finish their campaign. It appears they are a bit top heavy while relying on the line of (F) Lleyton Roed (48pts), (F) Billy Rose (46pts) and (F) Sam Newpower (38pts). A bright spot for the Bears has been the play of (G) Tyler Steffens who completed the season with a 92.6% save percentage. They will need some depth scoring to make their way through.
NEUTRAL ZONE PICK (HILL-MURRAY)
This was a tough one to pick given the strong play late by Stillwater. White Bear Lake is also a huge rival game and they have several players on their team who won a Bantam AA State Tournament. Given the firepower up front and them having one of the best goalies in the state, we will ride with the Pioneers.
SECTION 5AA SEEDING
- Maple Grove
- Champlin Park
- Spring Lake Park
- Coon Rapids
BLAINE (17-8-0): The Bengals have no shortage of firepower up front with the duo of (F) Cole Hansen (58pts) and (F) Carsen Richels (52pts). The two forwards have combined for 51 goals this season. They have great depth on the blue line with (D) Finn Loftus, (D) Kaden Brazinsky and (D) Mason Streeter. Scoring goals hasn’t been an issue for the Bengals and if they can hunker down defensively, they could make back to back trips to the State Tournament.
MAPLE GROVE (17-8-0): The Crimson were dealt an awful blow with the season ending injury to their best player (F) Kyle Kukkonen during the midpoint of the season. This was along with the departure of last year’s leading scorer (F) Justin Janicke joining the USNTDP this season. The strong play of (D) Henry Nelson who leads the team with 29pts has kept them in contention to win the section. Their play up front has been spread with contributions from Sam Jacobs (26pts), Cal Thomas (23pts), Tyler Oakland (23pts) and Chris Kernan (22pts).
NEUTRAL ZONE PICK (BLAINE)
We see this as a two team section with an inevitable class between the Bengals and the Crimson down the stretch. Blaine has been playing very well as of late and has scored 4.8 goals per game this season. Along with their scoring, they have a strong defensive core which we believe will be the difference in this bracket.
SECTION 6AA SEEDING
- Benilde-St. Margarets
- Cretin-Derham Hall
- St. Louis Park
- Academy of Holy Angels
BLAKE (19-6-0): It has been an amazing season for the Blake Bears as they have scored 5.2 goals per game and earned the #1 seed in the toughest section in Minnesota AA hockey. Huge wins over Eden Prairie and Cretin-Derham Hall have landed the Bears in the unfamiliar territory of being the favorites. Their offensive catalyst (F) Joe Miller (59pts) is having an impressive season leading the team in goals, assists and points. He was supported by (F) Jack Sabre (44pts) and (F) Gavin Best (42pts) in leading their high scoring attack. Senior (D) Ben Dexheimer (23pts) has been a steady presence in moving pucks on the back end during their run.
BENILDE-ST. MARGARETS (16-7-2): The Red Knights roll into section play winning 10 of 12 games and making a strong push at the right time. They have a balanced attack with (F) Cooper Gay (17g/32pts) leading the way. He is joined by (F) Adam Marshall (25pts) and (F) Blake Mesenburg (25pts). They have one of the best power play defenseman in the state in (D) Nate Schweitzer (26) who is a threat at any time to take over a game.
CRETIN-DURHAM HALL (19-5-1): The resurgence of the Raiders has been led by their Mr. Hockey candidate (F) Matthew Gleason (73pts/35g) who has put together a season for the ages. He is joined in his scoring by (F) Jack Nei (44pts) and young gun (F) Drew Fisher (43pts) in his efforts. CDH has scored 5.5 goals per game during the regular season and has only lost 3 games since December 5th.
EDINA (12-9-4): Don’t sleep on the Hornets as they have multiple players on their roster who won the 2019 State Title. It has been a struggle to score this season but they have a strong defensive core led by (D) Nick Williams and (D) Jake Boltmann. To go along with the defense of the defending champs is (G) Louden Hogg (92.7% save percentage) which can keep them in games in order to advance. Young scoring forward Jackson Borst (13g) is leading the late charge for the Hornets.
WAYZATA (14-9-2): The Trojans have a history of being a very difficult and stingy team to play against down the stretch. This year is no different as they come in facing strong competition and with key wins over Eden Prairie, Minnetonka, Hill-Murray, Blaine and Blake. They are a team that nobody wants to see and doesn’t give anything up easily. It’s a younger group that is scoring for them in (F) Gavin O’Connell (24pts), (F) Jake Keller (23pts) and (F) Jake Schneider (20pts). With strong play from their goaltender Garret Bonello, they could be a very difficult out for anyone.
NEUTRAL ZONE PICK (CRETIN-DURHAM HALL)
This is our upset pick of the Section playoffs! The toughest section by far and we like the Raiders to grind away their right to the State Tourney. They play extremely hard and physical along with consistent scoring. We will see if Matthew Gleason has some goals stored away in his last couple games to give CDH the upset State bid!
SECTION 7AA SEEDING
- Grand Rapids
- Forest Lake
- Duluth East
- Elk River/Zimmerman
ANDOVER (21-3-1): The Huskies are primed for a run at the State title with a strong veteran team. Led by (F) Hunter Jones (45pts) and (F) Luke Kron (37pts) they have been possibly the most consistent team this season. Their blueline of Wyatt Kaiser and Mitchell Wolfe has given teams fits while trying to score. It doesn’t end there though, they have gotten contributions from (F) Gunnar Thoreson (35pts), (F) Harrison VanderMey (15g) and (F) Garrett Schifsky (19g). They will be a tough out this season in Section 7AA.
GRAND RAPIDS (17-7-1): Grand Rapids is a strong and proud Northern Minnesota hockey community that won’t go down without a fight. They don’t touch the large numbers of players that the Metro high schools do but they always seem to produce high end talent. This year is no different with (D) Jack Peart who not only leads the team with 27pts, but also in goals with 13. The Thunderhawks have won 7 straight and look to make it 10 in hopes of reaching the State Tournament. Up front they have been led by (F) Braeden Holcomb with 26pts.
NEUTRAL ZONE PICK (ANDOVER)
The Huskies started out the season 0-2 and have only lost 1 game since while mowing down the competition. This year is setting up for them to attempt to capture their 1st State Title. Not only have they scored 5.6 goals per game, but they have been stingy in only allowing 1.28 goals against during the year. We really like Andover to cruise through this section!
SECTION 8AA SEEDING
- St. Michael-Albertville
- St. Cloud
MOORHEAD (18-5-1): The Spuds are still in search of their first ever State Title. They have a different team this year as they don’t display top heavy talent but have relied on depth. They have gotten a crazy outbreak of scoring by (F) Caden Triggs who has netted 30 goals on the year! His supporting cast has come from (F) Cullen Gess (48pts) and (F) Carter Johnson (42pts). When we said they didn’t have as much high-end talent, we didn’t mean they didn’t have high-end talent. (D) Luke Gramer (28pts) has been amazing for them while logging a ton of ice time in every situation possible. He seems to never leave the ice and has made an enormous impact in their strong run through a tough schedule.
ST. MICHAEL-ALBERTVILLE (12-10-3): It has been an up and down year for the Knights as they moved into the Lake Conference, which is considered by most the deepest in the state. There hasn’t been much of a night off for them as they face tough opponent’s night in and night out. They are a very top heavy team that has leaned on their top line of (F) Adam Flammang (56pts), (F) Luc Laylin (53pts) and (F) Casy Laylin (44pts). Most of the top team’s they have faced have found a way to beat them but you can’t count them out with their high end talent.
ROSEAU (16-8-1): The Rams are an interesting team led by a very young group of talented forwards. They haven’t faced the schedule of Moorhead or St. Michael-Albertville, but have found a way to win a lot of games. The Northern squad is driven by the production of (F) Max Strand (44pts), (F) Gavin Gunderson (32pts) and (F) Paul Huglen (31pts). Although young they should have some confidence going into section play with a 1-1 record against Moorhead.
NEUTRAL ZONE PICK (MOORHEAD)
The Spuds play hard and are a very consistent hockey team along with being well coached. Their depth in this section should prove too much for the rest of the field. To top it off, they have one of the best goaltenders in the state in Hudson Hodges (92.7%sv). It will take a great effort by another squad to deny the Spuds from reaching the State Tournament.
Photo Credit: Dan Hickling/Hickling Images