The final pieces of the state tournament field were set tonight. I made the trip out to the Minnesota State Fairgrounds, my first trip there were I didn't eat a disgusting amount of food, to take in two of the sectional finals.
The first game was between rivals Blaine and Centennial. The final score ended up 6-1 in favor of Blaine, though play was probably a little closer than the final score indicated.
Blaine got things started when freshman Nick Bjugstad fired a beautiful slap shot over the shoulder of Centennial goalie Jack Hanna. Bjugstad didn't really do a lot the first time I saw Blaine play Centennial, but he was much more of a factor in tonight's game, especially early. Bjugstad has a pretty big frame, but still needs to add a lot of muscle, which isn't surprising given that he's a freshman. He's got a world-class shot, however, and as he matures, and gets more opportunities to use it, he could be a very dangerous player.
Centennial looked like they would make it a game when they tied the game at 1-1 on the powerplay in the second period off a scramble in front of the net. Blaine quickly answered back with two quick goals, and added another later in the period to take a 4-1 lead after two periods.
Even well into the third period, Centennial looked like they were controlling the play, and that if they could get a goal and cut into Blaine's lead, they might make the game interesting. That goal never came though, and Blaine added two goals late to make it a blowout.
Blaine deserves a lot of credit for shutting down Centennial offensively. They played an amazing defensive game, keeping Centennial to the outside of the ice the entire game. Centennial looked a lot stronger along the boards, and did a nice job cycling the puck in the Blaine end, but couldn't generate quality chances off of it. When Centennial did get chances, they either missed the net or hit the goalie in the chest.
In my section preview, I said the difference in the game would be Blaine's seniors outplaying Centennial's juniors, and that was definitely the case. Centennial's junior line of Pitlick/Lovick/Hess were dangerous all night, but in the end, only put one goal up on the board. Blaine's top line scored 4 times, led by three goals from senior Mike Schaber.
Another advantage Blaine had was that they developed a solid third line. It looked as though Blaine moved the very big, but seldom-used sophomore defenseman Gavin Tufte up to center, and his size created problems for Centennial most of the night.
It's not likely that Blaine will be one of the top four seeds, but I think they should give fits to whichever seeded team they draw in the first round.
The second game between Hill-Murray and White Bear Lake was a much better game. In what seems to be an annual occurrence, Hill-Murray earned a trip to the state tournament with a one-goal victory over White Bear by a score of 2-1.
Hill-Murray definitely looked like the stronger team, but White Bear goalie Owen Collette was fantastic all night long. Hill-Murray's Joe Phillippi also played well, so he didn't see nearly as many quality chances as Collette.
The game was fast and tight-checking all night long. The first period came and went without a goal, and without a penalty. In fact, White Bear Lake had the only powerplay of the night. Both teams played a fairly clean game. The officials certainly could have called a few more penalties, but even in the first period, the game had the feel that one goal might be enough to win, so it was going to take a lot to earn a penalty.
Hill-Murray finally got onto the board midway through the first period when Tyler Zepeda caught on outlet pass near the blueline and used his great speed to beat a defender and beat Collette with a backhand. But White Bear's Chris Fiala answered back right after that goal with a nice shot of his own. Collette made a couple amazing saves to keep the game tied after two periods.
Heading into the third period, it looked like whichever team got a bounce would come out the winner, and as it has so many times before, that bounce went Hill's way. Defenseman Jordan Johnson fired a fairly innocent shot from the point that was deflected in front of the net and found its way into the net to give Hill-Murray the lead.
White Bear had a few quality chances in the third period to tie the game, but Phillippi played solid hockey, and Hill-Murray did a good job keeping the play down in White Bear's end for much of the period, killing some valuable time.
St. Thomas Academy shut out South St. Paul to make it back to the state tournament.
Top seed Lakeville South won the battle of the Lakevilles to make the state tournament.
And Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato upset New Ulm to make the Class A tournament in Section 3.