Will it be the usual suspects or will we see some new teams heading to downtown St. Paul this year?

Puck drops on section playoffs

The puck dropped on the second season Tuesday as several teams played their quarterfinal games in their respective sections. With some newly aligned sections there will definitely be some new teams represented at the state tournament, which will be held Feb. 21-24 at he Xcel Energy Center.

Warroad is the defending champion after defeating Orono 3-1 in the state title game. Orono returns as the No. 1 seed in Section 5A and will look to avenge their defeat last year. They will do so with a new head coach.

Warroad lost a ton of scoring from last year’s team, but they don’t rebuild in Hockeytown USA, they reload and they earned the No. 1 seed in Section 8A despite eight losses on the season. Crookston, always a bridesmaid in Section 8A, may catch the bouquet this year and defeated Warroad during the regular season, which should make for an interesting battle if the two teams meet with state on the line.

Section 7A may be the most competitive as top-seeded Duluth Marshall looks to dethrone perennial winner Proctor/Hermantown.

Section 5A is absolutely loaded with five teams winning at least 15 games.

In Section 1A Dodge County will look to defend their section final loss last season to Albert Lea. The Wildcats have won 19 games and Albert Lea 18. Simley, meanwhile, could be the sleeper team to come out of that section.

In Section 2A, every team has double digit wins.

All other sections are up for grabs as well, which makes for great hockey come this time of heart which most will agree, is the best time of year for high school hockey fans.

Last Year’s State Tournament Bracket

Here is a look at this year’s sections in Class A: (Overall Ranking in Parentheses)

Section 1A

2023 Champion: Albert Lea defeated Dodge County 3-2

Section 1ARecord
1. Dodge County (3)19-4-0
2. Simley(17)11-13-1
3. Albert Lea (14)18-6-1
4. Winona9-14-0
5. Waseca10-10-3
6. Red Wing6-18-1

Wildcats look to pounce on opportunity in 2024

Dodge County looks to avenge their runner-up finish in Section 1A a year ago. They certainly are the front runners after finishing 19-4-0 and with the No. 3 overall ranking in Class A.

The Wildcats have been dominant this season, outscoring opponents 125-30. They seem to get stronger as the game goes son as they have allowed just six third-period goals all season.

Offensively they are led by junior Nora Carstensen who reached the 50-point plateau in just 23 games (28g-22a). The Koch sisters, Maysie (21-20-41) and Mollie (14-19-33),  have combined for 74 points and helped the offense score at a clip of more than five goals per game. Abby Simons helps anchor the blue line and has put up strong offensive numbers with six goals and 26 assists.

Ida Huber has been strong in goal with a .910 save percentage, which will make the Wildcats the odds-on favorite.

But Simley, despite a below-.500 record, has been one of the hotter teams lately and beat the Wildcats last week 3-1, which helped them earn the No. 2 seed. They also have a win over overall No.2A Orono.

Last year’s section 1A winner Albert Lea comes in with the third seed with 18 wins. Freshman Morgan Goskeson has scored 39 goals, and as a team the Tigers have outscored opponents 130-40.

They did not play Dodge County or Simley during the season, so a potential match up against one or both fo those teams could be one of surprise as the Tigers look to defend their section title.

Both Simley and Dodge County receive a first-round bye since there are only six teams in the section. Albert Lea faces off against Red Wing Wednesday. Winona will play Waseca to see who advances to play the top-seeded Wildcats.

Section 2AA

2023 Champion: Mankato East defeated Hutchinson 3-1

Section 2A
1. River Lakes (16)13-8-4
2. Willmar(10)18-7-0
3. Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato12-12-1
4. Hutchinson11-13-1
5. Minnesota River13-12-0
6. Mankato West-Loyola/St. Clair11-14-0

Newly aligned section means new champion

Last year’s section champion Mankato East is no more, leaving the door wide open for the likes of River Lakes or Willmar. River Lakes earned the top-seed despite Willmar sporting a better record and a higher ranking in our Let’s Play Hockey Rankings.

Both teams will receive a bye in the first round. River Lakes will face the winner Hutchinson and Minnesota River, two teams who spent time in the top 20 this season. Willmar will face the winner of Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato and Mankato West. Every team in the section has double digit wins and the No. 6 seed is only operated form the No. 1 seed by two victories.

Does that mean the section is wide open?

Time will tell.

Section 3A

2023 Champion: Luverne defeated New Ulm 4-0

Section 3A
1. Marshall(20)16-8-1
2. Luverne15-10-0
3. New Ulm(18)13-10-1
4. Windom10-13-1
5. Fairmont7-17-0
6. Worthington0-22-1

Marshall’s late surge earns them top seed

Marshall made a late surge, winning their final eight games to snatch up the top seed in Section 3A, including a convincing 5-2 win over Luverne to avenge a 4-1 loss earlier this season. Marshall also has defeated New Ulm twice.

Their recipe for success has been defense and goaltending. They have allowed just 38 goals all season, about 1.5 per game. Brooklyn Mauch has been the team’s top scorer with 20 goals.

Both Marshall and Luverne will receive first-round byes, which means Luverne will likely be pitted against New Ulm. Luverne split with the Eagles,  losing 2-0 way back in November and winning 4-2 in mid-January.

Windom will have to beat Fairmont to move on with the winner of that game having the tall task of facing Marshall. Expect Marshall to play either Luverne or New Ulm, leaving the section a relative toss up between the three teams.

Section 4A

2023 Champion: South St. Paul defeated Simley 4-1

Academy of Holy Angels has held the top spot for weeks and will look to uphold that ranking throughout sections and the state tournament. LPH PHOTO BY CHRISTINE WISCH

 

Section 4A
1. Academy of Holy Angels (1)19-3-3
2. South St. Paul (11)16-9-0
3. Chisago Lakes9-16-0
4. Minneapolis6-17-1
5. Blake4-19-2
6. Visitation3-22-0

Academy of Holy Angels enters new section as #1 in state rankings

The section shake up in the offseason gives Section 4A a new look with the state’s No. 1 team looking to be the latest Section 4A representative at state.

Academy of Holy Angels has held the top spot in the LPH Rankings for much of the second half of the season. They aren’t necessarily considered a juggernaut that scores a ton of goals, but perhaps could be coined more as a very efficient team that does things correctly on both ends of the ice that more often than not leads to a win.

Their three losses this season have come to top-5 AA teams Benilde-St. Margaret’s and Hill-Murray and No. 2A Orono, who they also defeated. Last season the Stars lost to Orono in the Section 5A title game, so the move to Section 4A bodes well for them, but maybe not for South St. Paul.

The Stars move into a section won by South St. Paul last season. Thet two teams played in the season opener with the Stars defeating the Packers 4-1. A lot of hockey has been played since then and South St. Paul is playing well as of late by going 7-2-0 in their last nine games, including an 8-1 win over Chisago Lakes who they could meet in the section semifinals.

Lily Pachl has put together a strong season for the Packers, eclipsing the 50-point mark (26-32-58). Just a junior, she is committed to Harvard University. Fellow juniors Bailey Vesper (15-27-42) and Alida Ahern (26-15-41) give the Packers a bright future.

But as the reigning section champs, are they posed to make another run to state? Or will Academy of Holy Angels elbow their way into state, using the Section 4 door?

If both teams meet int he section final, it should make for some great hockey with the traditionally strong Packers trying to defend their title against the newcomer to the section, and the top-ranked team in the state.

Section 5A

2023 Champions: Orono defeated Academy of Holy Angels 4-0

Orono has been a top-5 team all season and will look to get back to the state tournament after losing in the finals last year to Warroad. LPH PHOTO BY JACKSON BOLINE

 

Section 5A
1. Orono(2)18-6-1
2. Mound Westonka/Southwest Christian (7)17-7-1
3. Breck (8)18-7-0
4. Delano/Rockford (13)15-10-0
5. Pine City Area (15)16-8-1
6. Princeton/Becker/Big Lake5-20-0

Section 5A loaded with winning teams

How good is Section 5A? Considering five of the six teams are ranked in the top 15 in the state, one would have to say it’s pretty good.

The benefit of having five very good teams in one section is that it makes for great hockey. The bummer about it is four strong teams will not advance to the big stage in St. Paul.

Orono is the clear front runner. After advancing all the way to the state title game last year, this year brings a new coach in Paul Antonenko and the same goal: get back to state, but this time win it.

They entered the season as the No. 1 ranked team in Class A and got off to a rough start, losing their season opener to Simley.

But they quickly turned things around and won their next six games, including a 4-1 win over current No. 1 Holy Angels. Holy Angels exacted revenge with a 5-4 win later in the year, but that section rivalry is now in the past and if the two teams meet again it will have to be at the X. Orono’s four other losses were all to highly-ranked Class AA teams.

But that doesn’t mean the section 5A playoffs are going to be a cake walk. It might be more of a game of musical chairs as five teams could legitimately come out of the section. Only two wins separate  No. 5-seeded Pine City Area (16-8-1) and Orono. No. 3-seed Breck has 18 wins and No. 7 Mound Westonka/Southwest Christian has 17. Let’s not leave out No. 4 seed Delano/Rockford, either, with a 15-10-0 record.

The section is stacked. Orono has the edge as the reigning champion, but in section hockey anything can happen.

 

Section 6A

2023 Champion: Fergus Falls defeated River Lakes 2-1

Section 6A
Fergus Falls(19)13-11-1
Northern Lakes7-17-1
Prairie Centre5-16-1
Morris/Benson Area7-17-0

Otters winning with defense and goaltending

With just a four team section Fergus Falls will look to make a return trip to state and are the clear front runners. The Otters have strong goaltending in Ana Jyrkas who has logged more than 1200 minutes and has seven shutouts and a .910 save percentage.

The Otters don’t score a lot of goals, just 66 on the season, but rely on a stingy defense and solid goaltending.

Section 7A

2023 Champion: Proctor/Hermantown defeated Duluth Marshall 5-4

Ilsa Lindaman is second in the state in scoring and will look to lead Duluth Marshall back to the section finals with a chance to get to state. LPH PHOTO BY JACKSON BOLINE

 

Section 7A
1. Duluth Marshall (6)21-3-1
2. Proctor/Hermantown (4)16-8-2
3. Cloquet/Esko/Carlton14-11-1
4. Moose Lake Area (12)14-11-1
5. Rock Ridge11-13-2
6. Hibbing/Chisholm7-18-1
7. North Shore9-17-0

Section 7A will be one of the more competitive sections in Class A hockey as Duluth Marshall looks to unseat Proctor/Hermantown while the Mirage will look to earn their fourth section title in a row and sixth in the past seven years.

Duluth Marshall is led by senior Ilsa Lindaman. The St. Thomas recruit has 55 goals and 83 points. Proctor/Hermantown is led by Izy Fairchild with 20 goals and 38 points. The two teams met on Jan. 23 with the Mirage scoring with three seconds left in overtime for a 4-3 win. It was Duluth Marshall’s second loss of the season. Their third came a week later against No. 4 seeded Moose Lake Area.

But they have 21 wins for a reason and as the top seed are the slight favorites to dethrone Proctor/Hermantown.

But Moose Lake and Cloquet/Esko/Carlton may have other plans. Both are formidable teams who have beat some very good opponents and can win on any given night. Moose Lake not only beat Duluth Marshal, Burt has played several other opponents very close. Any time there are low scoring games, the chances of winning increase. Moose Lake has given up just 41 goals this season. A team that is tough to score on is a team that is tough to beat. By contrast, Duluth Marshall has given up 38, and Proctor/Hermantown and Cloquet/Esko/Carlton 62 each. Duluth Marshall has scored 113 goals, almost 30 more than Proctor/Hermantown (84) and almost twice as many as Moose Lake (62). C/E/C has scored just 54 goals. That may say more about who the favorites are than anything.

In any case, the semifinals and the finals in this section will be battles. Whatever team emerges will be battle tested heading into the state tournament.

Section 8A

2023 Champion: Warroad defeated Crookston 8-0

Will the Lady Warriors have reason to celebrate again this season? LPH PHOTO BY JACKSON BOLINE

 

Section 8A
1. Warroad (5)17-8-0
2. Crookston (9)16-8-1
3. East Grand Forks10-12-3
4. Thief River Falls7-17-1
5. Detroit Lakes7-12-2
6. International Falls1-21-0

Warroad outscored opponents in the section tournament last season 7-2 including an 8-0 win over Crookston in the section final.

That may change this season. Crookston could give the defending state champion Warriors a run for their money. The last time Warroad lost a section playoff game Barack Obama was president.

While the Warriors took it to Crookston last season, the Pirates defeated Warroad 2-0 on Dec. 5. The two teams played again on Dec. 28 and Warroad returned the favor with a 4-3 win. Six of Crookston’s other seven losses have come to Class AA teams. Their other Class A loss as to Duluth Marshall.

Warroad, meanwhile, lost a ton of scoring from last season and it has showed with an uncharacteristic eight losses, but like Crookston, six of those eight are against AA teams. But they never rebuild and always reload, and nobody would be surprised if they marched their way back to the title game at the X.

Crookston may have something to say about that. But first they have to get past their semifinal opponent. They have played East Grand Forks twice and won both. But in section playoffs, as we have seen all too often, anything can happen.