Arguably four of the six best high school hockey teams in the state faced off tonight at Mariucci Arena with two state tournament berths on the line, and they combined to provide an incredibly memorable night of hockey in front of a nearly-packed arena.
The first game featured a match-up between Minnetonka and Benilde-St. Margaret's. Both teams came out a little slow, possibly due to nerves, and played a sloppy first period, but Minnetonka was able to score a shorthanded goal on a two-on-one.
Minnetonka dominated play in the second period, and added to their lead with a powerplay goal. The Skippers looked like they would cruise to the state tournament.
Benilde got a powerplay early in the third period, however, and after some nice passing, Steve Zierke fired a shot past goalie Matt Buonomo to get Benilde on the board. The goal woke up the Red Knights, and they were able to tie the game midway through the third period, despite Minnetonka having some great chances at a third goal that would have put the game away. The game had been a little slow up to that point, but once Benilde tied the game, the rest of regulation was some of the most exciting up-and-down hockey I've seen in a long while.
The game went to overtime, and Benilde won the game less than a minute in. Between people there for the first game, and people showing up for the second game, the arena was probably filled over capacity, with people lining up two or three deep around the edge of top row of seats.
The player of the game without a doubt had to be Benilde's Chris Student. Student and defenseman Tom McCarthy barely came off the ice in the third period, and both were rock solid. Student also set up the first goal with a nice pass, and his nice rush in overtime set up the game-winner. Minnetonka's Jake Gardiner played one of the better games I've seen him play, but he's going to have to make some adjustments next year, or he'll give Mike Eaves a heart attack. There were a number of times he got caught behind the play after rushing the puck up the ice, even in the third period while Minnetonka had the lead. None of those rushes resulted in a goal, but it did result in a lot of quality chances for Benilde.
The second game between Edina and Burnsville had a lot of to live up to, and if anything, it surpassed the first game.
Edina came in as the favorite, but Burnsville struck first just three minutes into the game, and a shot from a poor angle that the Edina goalie misplayed and deflected into the net. It was basically a free goal for Burnsville, and I think it made a huge difference in keeping the score as close as it was.
Edina responded back with two goals to take a 2-1 lead after one, with nice goals by Marshall Everson and Zach Budish, set up by some nice passing. Edina seemed in control of the game in the second period, and I think they took their foot off the gas a little bit, and even though they were playing well, they couldn't extend their lead. Late in the period, Burnsville got a two-on-one and capitalized with a great goal to tie the game. Heading into the lockerroom after two, there was a huge difference in body language between Burnsville who was pretty pumped up, and Edina, who was hanging their heads a little bit.
The third period had pretty good pace to it. Burnsville got a powerplay with about 10 minutes to play, but couldn't get anything set up, and eventually, Edina's Anders Lee forced a turnover and went in on a breakaway. He was tripped up and awarded a penalty, which he buried with a little over 9 minutes to play. After giving up a heart-breaking penalty shot goal, I thought Burnsville was done, but they picked themselves up off the mat and tied the game a little over a minute later.
Again, the final eight minutes of regulation was amazing up-and-down hockey, with each team trading great chances, but neither scoring. Minnesota's overtime format really favored Edina. In high school hockey, teams only get a three minute break, before playing an 8-minute overtime period, and if the score remains tied after that, then they resurface the ice and play a full period. Burnsville had really only played two lines all night and were completely gassed. If they had had a full intermission to get a break, maybe things would have been different. But Edina dominated the overtime period. Burnsville goalie Mikael Becker was incredible in goal, however, making a lot of great saves. It wasn't enough, however, as Anders Lee tipped in a goal with less than a minute left in the first overtime to win the game for Edina.
I had mixed emotions about the result of this game. On one hand, it would have awesome to see Burnsville pull out the win. It's hard not to cheer for the underdogs, and the Blaze played their hearts out, especially Becker. Their student section was one of the best I've ever seen too. At the same time, it's nice to see the best teams playing in St. Paul at the state tournament, and Edina is definitely an incredibly talented team. A potential state final against Roseau could be one of the all-time great match-ups and it would be fun to see that happen.
Overall it was just a great night of hockey with an incredible atmosphere. I think it really speaks to the quality of play, and the passion for high school hockey that a pair of sectional games can draw over 10,000 fans on a week night. I know last year, Fox Sports North and the MSHSL chose not to put those games on television for fear that it would detract from attendance, and the games this year weren't televised, but I think that's a huge mistake. Tonight was a perfect example of how magical high school hockey can be and it's a shame not to showcase it.
Roseau punched their ticket to the state tournament tonight with a 6-1 victory over Moorhead. It's just incredible how dominant they've been this year, and it should be fun to see how they do in St. Paul.
There was another overtime game in the state, as Duluth Marshall beat Hibbing 4-3.
St. Cloud Cathedral will be at the state tournament thanks to a 3-1 victory over Duluth Denfeld.
And Centennial and Blaine will meet for the third time this year on Friday at the State Fairgrounds with a trip to the state tournament on the line.