So after you've loaded up on a delicious Christmas meal and with oodles of other related sweets and delicacies of the season thousands of Minnesota hockey fans will be making their way to the local rinks. With the 'Winter Break' is an opportunity for communities all across the state to host all kinds of High School and youth hockey tournaments that keep hockey parents and players busy. These tournaments do not carry the glitz of the State Tournament but they are opportunities for teams to win some hardware to bring back to their respective school or hockey programs. Whether teams bring back a trophy or not, what is usually remembered by the kids who play in these tournaments are the times teams spend bonding before and after the games. That could be playing knee hockey in the hallway of the hotel or group dinners hosted by the parents. These memories can last a lifetime and it may sound cliche, but the memories these players forge are some of the best friendships anyone can ask for. I can still remember the holiday tournaments I played in, not as much about the scores but the fun things I did with those close friends I played the game with. Great times indeed.
More recently, I've turned my 'Winter Break' into an opportunity to go to some of these hockey tournaments to get my ultimate high school hockey fix. For the last 10 years, I've been attending the Premier Tournament hosted in South St. Paul's Wakota Arena. Over the years some of the participants have changed, but what has not is the high level of play as well as the reputation that some of these schools that compete in this tournament go on to play in the State Tournament not to mention its a chance to see some exceptional player who will go on to be either be drafted by NHL teams or play Division I or III college hockey. In just the last few years the Premier Tournament's participants have exhibited a number of Division I players like Hopkins' Archie Skalbeck (Colorado College) and Travis Boyd (Minnesota), as well as South St. Paul's Adam Wilcox (Minnesota) and Zach Palmquist (Minnesota State) and also Eagan's Will Merchant (Maine) and Michael Zajac (Princeton) just to name a few. But whether you're going to the Premier Tournament in South St. Paul or the Granite City Classic in St. Cloud or the Schwan Cup Gold Division at the Xcel Energy Center or the Home for the Holiday Tournament in Eveleth's historic Hippodrome, fans can be treated to some great hockey. So if you have nothing else to do; head down to your local arena and you'll probably find a full parking lot giving you an idea that holiday tournament is in full swing. I am going to cover 3 games that I had the opportunity to witness over the break and I hope you enjoy my game summaries as well as my own 3 stars of the game. So without further adieu here are the 3 games I attended.
Eagan vs. North St. Paul
Elk River vs. Maple Grove
Eagan vs. Hermantown
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Eagan 9, North St. Paul 0 (Wednesday, Dec. 26th)
Right from the drop of the puck Eagan asserted its dominance against North St. Paul who was hard pressed to handle the Wildcats' superior team speed and size. The first 10 minutes resembled that of a boxer play rope a dope as the Polars scrambled about their end and on the few opportunities they had to start the break out the line was often so exhausted all they could manage to do was to cross the red line and dump it deep and go on a line change. Eagan seemed to win just about every race to the puck and even when a North St. Paul player got close along the boards they were rebuffed by superior strengths of the Wildcats' skaters who often ended up dumping the Polars' player to the ice. The only real advantage the Polars had early on was the tremendous play of their goaltender Mario Bollman. Bollman was coming up with some outstanding saves, both with the glove and with his legs he kept the Wildcats at bey. It wasn't until mid-way in the 1st period that North St. Paul had their first decent scoring chance on a drop pass by team captain Mark Meister to his brother Maverick Meister who pulled the trigger on a quick wrister from the slot that bounced in and out of the glove of Eagan's sophomore goalie Andrew Lindgren who looked a bit shaky in this writer's opinion. The puck would fall to the blue paint and roll just wide of the goal. A few moments later North St. Paul had another chance and again Lindgren would struggle to control the puck and Eagan dodged another bullet that could've had them trailing despite the fact they were carrying most of the play up to this point. Eagan would rally back and it was its top line which would assert itself as Zach Glienke tipped a pass from along the wall beneath the goal line back out to the front where it was shoveled on goal by Cullen Willox before it was sort of jammed by Bollman by Jack Jenson. It was ugly finish to a semi-pretty set up to make it 1-0 Eagan. The 1st line went back to work and this time the pretty set up led to an equally pretty finish. The puck was worked back to the point where defenseman Nick Wolff hesitated and then delivered a perfect back door pass to a waiting Glienke who wasted little time before rifling a snap shot by a diving Bollman to make it 2-0. Bollman had no chance. Eagan would add one more when Glienke stole an errant pass in the neutral zone and he would race around the Polars' defense and make a quick deke on Bollman before back handing it just over his outstretched glove arm to make it 3-0 at the end of the 1st.
North St. Paul was outshot 22-5 in the 1st period and they were lucky the game wasn't 6-0, which was only for the solid play of Bollman between the pipes. Eagan would waste little time building on its lead which only further degraded the play of North St. Paul who was already seriously overmatched. Its an all too familiar story at just about any level when a team is being thoroughly routed; the legs stop moving and players get caught watching the puck and not their assigned player or area of coverage and the goals just start to pile up. Eagan's Nick Gray would bang home a close range shot to make it 4-0, while Bollman had a crowd in his crease. The damage continued as freshman Jesse Gabriellle tapped home a puck on a nice pass by Zach Schultz. Wildcats' defenseman Tommy Muck would wrist a long range shot from the point that fooled a well screened Bollman to make it 6-0, and then senior Zach Glienke would pump home two more goals to make it 8-0 at the end of the 2nd bringing up his personal total for the game to four.
In the 3rd period, Wildcats Head Coach Mike Taylor more or less sat his 1st line down and only sent their players out on various mixed lines for the rest of the game. Eagan freshman Jesse Gabrielle would provide the lone goal of the period, a wicked snap shot that flew underneath the crossbar and in on an early tally on North St. Paul replacement goalie Steve Orme. North St. Paul tried in vain to get on the scoreboard but Eagan replacement goalie as well as the Wildcat's defense was more than up to the task to shut down the Polars' attack as they rolled to a 9-0 victory.
My 3 Stars:
1st Star – #27 Zach Glienke (Eagan) ~ With 4 goals and an assist Glienke was clearly the MVP of the game. North St. Paul had no one that could match Glienke's combination of speed and size (at least 6'1") let alone skill. Glienke dangled around defenders and had a good quick release that made him very dangerous everytime he had the puck. This senior reminded me a lot of Will Merchant with the way he played, and I have little doubt he's attracting considerable interest at the Division I level. Very impressive.
2nd Star - #35 Mario Bollman (North St. Paul) ~ It may seem strange to give the 2nd star to a goaltender who let in 8 goals, but he had very little help in his own zone to say nothing of goal support. Bollman really kept North St. Paul in the game for a little while until his team kind of stopped working in front of him and he was left to carry the game all by himself. The 2nd period deluge of 5 goals wasn't because of Bollman, rather the team just watching Eagan play, allowing them to storm the crease repeatedly without any answer.
3rd Star - #18 Jesse Gabrielle (Eagan) ~ Minnesota hockey fans would be wise to store the name of this freshman in the back of their minds. This kid is a very special talent as a freshman, who demonstrated great skill, nice poise, good speed and a wicked release in this game. He showed little hesitation on the ice and his last goal was really impressive, off the rush with speed and great accuracy. If this kid continues to develop I have little doubt he really could be one of the players everyone will be talking about in a few years. His 2 goal performance padded the Eagan lead.
Elk River 4, Maple Grove 2 (Thursday, Dec. 27th)
There was an atmosophere of both calm and familiarity as the two Northwest Suburban Conference foes battled it out at the St. Louis Park Rec Center as apart of the Sports Authority Hockey Classic. The Crimson tried to apply early pressure with an aggressive forecheck, and tried to work the puck deep and then bring it out front but Elk River's defense was amazingly calm. Especially senior Wyatt Ege who really was Mr. Cool all evening long taking the puck away and then quickly moving it up the ice for the breakout. Elk River's ability to quickly counter punch would lead to their first goal as the Elks transitioned quickly to catch Maple Grove in a 3-on-2 where Chase Springman found Peter Jones all alone in the slot for a quick snap shot that beat John Danielson to make it 1-0. The Elks would add to their lead just a few minutes later as Chase Springman would carry the puck down low where Danielson dropped to try to seal off the post, but patiently Springman kept it on his stick and wrapped a shot in from behind the goal on the opposite side to make it 2-0. This goal really seemed to get Maple Grove's players heads to drop a bit as they were simply being outworked. Elk River did not let up; using short, accurate passes to move the puck up the ice quickly they were really putting Maple Grove on its collective heels. The Elks would add one more as sophomore Jake Jaremko turned on the jets in the neutral zone and simply flew right by the Crimson defense and then beat Danielson on a quick wrist shot to make it 3-0 to a stunned crowd at the St. Louis Park Rec Center.
It was clear that Maple Grove Head Coach Gary Stefano must've torn into his team because they started the period with far more assertiveness (as well as a new goaltender in Calvin McKenny) to start the 2nd period as they were looking to get their forecheck going. Elk River struggled a bit to adapt and this is where MacLean Berglove really started to assert his dominance. WIth Maple Grove's forecheck starting to yield some scoring chances it was Berglove who repeatedly shut the door on the Crimson with nice saves and often with a little traffic near his paint. Maple Grove would finally light the lamp just past the 11 minute mark of the 2nd period when Sam Valerius fired a snap shot that rang off the right post and by Berglove to cut the Elks lead to 3-1. The goal would serve to give the Crimson a bit more gusto and they kept up a relentless forecheck that started to erode the Elks' defense. Elk River wasn't able to get off the short accurate passes that it used so effectively in the 1st period. Maple Grove's pressure also started to yield some Elk River penalties. The first came on a lazy retaliatory tripping call by Andrew Zerban who had felt he was tripped to no avail so he returned the favor and was sent to the box. With just under two minutes left, Zerban's foolish infraction was compounded when Blake Hillman earned a rather questionable interference call as he hip checked a Maple Grove forward moving for the puck that was near him. The official apparently felt Hillman was guilty of obstruction and this gave Maple Grove a 5-on-3 for the rest of the 2nd period. Elk River fought off the 5-on-3, thanks to some shot blocking by Austin Larson and Tim Sanford. Elk River would escape the 2nd period still leading 3-1.
Maple Grove was unable to capitalize on the power play (which still had over 30 seconds left) to start the 3rd and this was a big momentum swing for the Elks. Elk River would more or less provide the emotional dagger to Maple Grove a few minutes in as the Elks caught the Crimson defense napping a bit as Springman turned on the jets and flew around their blueliners to move in all alone on new goaltender McKenny where he dangled a shot around the sophomore netminder to give the visitors a 4-1 advantage. It was a great individual effort by Springman who not only fought off a defender but also having the ability to dangle the puck around the goalie before careening into the net himself. Maple Grove tried desperately to answer back but Berglove did a great job of protecting the lower part of the net; especially near the posts and stopped a number of close range opportunities. When it wasn't his leg pads stopping the puck he had a few great saves with the glove that were highlight worthy. Elk River was getting caught on occasion on the long pass which Maple Grove continued to try for the duration of the game. Wyatt Ege also came up big, calmly working the puck out of the zone and forcing the Crimson to have to get set up all over again. Maple Grove would add a little drama late as Nate Erickson took a pass from behind the goal and buried it by Berglove to make it a two-goal game but that would be as close as the Crimson would get. Berglove and the Elks continued to shut them down and they'd hold on for a huge win.
My 3 Stars:
1st Star – #18 Chase Springman (Elk River) ~ With two goals and an assist Chase Springman really was the catalyst for the Elks' offense. He really used his speed well at both ends of the ice and was a big reason Elk River was able to counter attack so effectively. The junior impressed with his terrific effort and savvy play with the puck.
2nd Star – #31 MacLean Berglove (Elk River) ~ Berglove really was a huge source of stabiltiy for the Elks and he really was the x-factor that allowed Elk River to escape the 2nd period with minimal damage. He had a number of quality saves with players all over his crease and he did a fine job of seeing the puck through traffic. Another solid performance by junior for the Elks.
3rd Star – #7 Wyatt Ege (Elk River) ~ The senior captain was the true leader on the ice for the Elks all game long. He was so incredibly poised and calm with the puck he seemed to always be able to make the right decision with the puck and help his team get out of tricky situations; especially along the wall in his own end. Ege also demonstrated grea puck handling ability and he found ways to free up shooting lanes for himself at the point and then deliver an accurate, low-lying shot on goal that created secondary opportunities for his teammates. Ege also chipped in an assist as well. Great performance.
Eagan 5, Hermantown 5 (Friday, Dec. 28th)
This game was the battle for the Premier Hockey Tournament Championship and it pitted 8th ranked Eagan of Class AA against 5th ranked Hermantown of Class A. From the drop of the puck, Hermantown immediately went to work putting Eagan on its heels with its excellent team speed. The Hermantown top line of Travis Koepke, Bo Gronseth, and Chris Benson were flying all over the ice and Eagan was struggling to just keep up. Sophomore goaltender Andrew Lindgren found himself under siege as Hermantown was able to transition from defense to offense that what looked like a promising rush suddenly turned into a 3-on-2 the other way. Travis Koepke finally got the Hawks on the scoreboard finishing a nice pass by Bo Gronseth to make it 1-0 a little over 3 minutes into the game. For the next few minues, Eagan continued to struggle as they were unable to mount almost any sort of attack of their own and found themselves time after time racing back to their own end as Hermantown's breakout was extremely effective with a nice long tape to tape pass. With Hermantown already dominating play, you could sense the Wildcats were getting frustrated by their lack of time and space and the mistakes started to pile up. Bad passes, failed clearing attempts and their game degenerated into just immediately attempting to chip the puck out of the zone off the glass or boards. Perhaps it was frustration that made Eagan's Peter Zibley run Hermantown's Kori Ochs from behind for a 5 minute boarding major plus a game misconduct. Hermantown would take full advantage of the power play. In less than a minute into the power play, a long pass somehow made it behind the Wildcats' defense and put Koepke on the breakaway who moved in and was stopped by a nice save by Lindgren but Chris Benson was there to bang home the rebound to make it 2-0. The bleeding wouldn't stop there, as the Hermantown power play resemebled a 4-1 look as they worked the puck to the point to star defenseman Jake Zeleznikar who would look to either blast a shot on goal or feint and make a quick pass to the wings who were hanging out just beneath the faceoff dots. Eagan's penalty killers were staying down low with the Hermantown forwards so Zeleznikar took his opportunity to shoot and on his first shot it would deflect off an Eagan defender and by Lindgren to make it 3-0. Moments after that it was Zeleznikar again who was more or less uncontested so he took his opportunity to wind up on a big slapper and he blistered a shot by Lindgren to make it 4-0 going into the 2nd period. At this point it looked as though Eagan could very well find itself at the end of a 10-1 or 8-3 rout that Hermantown inflicted on two other Class AA schools in Anoka and Hastings respectively earlier in the tourney.
The 2nd period started off a little better but they still had about a 1:30 left on Zibley's penalty left to kill; as Eagan was moving more on the penalty kill to try to deny Zeleznikar from taking the shot from the point. Eagan looked as though they might keep it a 4-0 game but with just 32 seconds on the power play Hermantown would add one more power play marker as Gronseth tapped home a rebound off a Koepke shot to give the Hawks a commanding 5-0 lead. This is where the game would take a different direction. As I had mentioned earlier the Wildcats did look like they were moving their feet a little better to start the period and they would begin to assert themselves physically as they tried to slow down the speedy Hawks by taking every opportunity to play the body. Eagan players were not missing any chance to deliver a good check to Hermantown and with that the Hawks started to make mistakes and the Wildcats were starting to create some scoring opportunities. Eagan's top line of Cullen Willox, Jake Jenson, and Zach Glienke who were largely invisible in the 1st period now began to start to lead the way for the Wildcats. The play started to tilt into the Hermantown end, and the Hawks were now the team that was just trying to chip the puck off the boards instead of executing the crisp tape-to-tape passes that were their hallmark of the 1st period. Eagan finally got on the scoreboard on a sneaky wrist shot from the point by Nick Smallidge that seemed to catch Hermantown's goaltender Adam Smith off guard, and it was 5-1 and just the start of a remarkable comeback. The goal seemed to really light a fire under the Wildcats who continued to punish Hermantown with hit after hit that really took the Hawks out of their game. Zach Glienke would give some of the scouts (including a scout from the Columbus Blue Jackets) in attendance a bit of a showcase of his skills as he added to the Wildcats lead by wiring a wicked wrist shot underneath the the crossbar to make it 5-2. Eagan continued to pour it on and an intercepted Hermantown pass pass by Jake Jenson would be passed over to Willox who lifted a wrist shot over a diving Smith to make it 5-3 and you could really sense Hermantown was really falling apart. With just seconds left in the 2nd period the Wildcats would bury another goal as freshman Jesse Gabrielle found a little open space to fire a shot from the slot that beat Smith to make it 5-4 and the Hermantown defenders fired the puck along the boards in disgust as their big lead was all but gone.
Predictably, the Hawks were pretty fired up to start the 3rd period as they held onto a 5-4 lead. They tried to go on the attack and take Eagan's approach and turn it against them with a strong physical forecheck. Eagan stayed calm and used quick passes to get free of the Hermantown forecheck to go back on the attack themselves. The Wildcats would tie the game just over a minute into the period as Zach Schultz found the twine behind Adam Smith. The 3rd would then sort of become a melee of close scoring chances as both clubs had opportunities to go ahead but just couldn't finish. The first of which was a quick pass from Josh Loew to Gabrielle who swung a shot just wide of an open goal as Smith was caught sprawling in his crease. Both teams were starting to get a little tired as they attempted multiple home run passes that didn't connect for a series of icing calls. Hermantown would press hard late in the 3rd with a few close chances; most notably a hard wrist shot by Koepke that caught the crossbar but the score remained knotted at 5-5.
In overtime, both clubs again had their moments to finish as Cullen Willox fired a shot just wide of the mark off a nice pass by Glienke. Hermantown had its chances too as Gronseth seemed to find another gear and made a pretty toe drag move around Nick Wolff before firing a shot that went off the outside of the left post. You could see both teams were laboring pretty hard at this point as you saw a lot of players bent over resting their upper bodies on their sticks as they braced them against their legs. Ultimately overtime would end with both clubs still tied so it went to a 5-player shootout to decide who was coming home with the Championship. Officially the game ends in a tie; but for the tournament's purpose a winner must be declared.
The first shooter was Hermantown's Jake Zeleznikar and the skilled defenseman moved calmly down the middle of the ice before making a strong deke to his forehand side that got Lindgren to drop to this pads and Zeleznikar tried to pull the puck back across to his backhand side where he had an open goal but he'd drag it just wide. Eagan's first shooter was Cullen Willox and the captain would race up the ice where he'd beat Smith with a quick wrist shot to give the Wildcats a 1-0 advantage. Hermantown's next shooter was Travis Koepke and he'd race in and rifle a wrist shot over the glove of Lindgren to tie it at 1-1. The Wildcats' next shooter was Jake Jenson and he'd move in and try to fire a shot 5-hole that was stopped by Lindgren who seemed to lose it in his pads but he came up with the stop to keep it tied at 1-1. Hermantown's next shooter was Bo Gronseth and the speedy winger would take a wide right approach where he hoped to shoot against the grain on Lindgren who wasn't fooled and stonewalled Gronseth to keep it 1-1. Eagan's next shooter was a bit of a surprise as Tommy Muck went over the boards. The defenseman moved up the ice where he pulled off a Mikko-Koivu-esque forehand to backhand, roof move that worked perfectly to give Eagan a 2-1 lead in the shootout. Hermantown's next shooter was Chris Benson, and he'd race in and try a quick deke but couldn't lift it by the leg pad of Lindgren and this put all the pressure on the shoulders of Eagan's Zach Glienke who could seal a victory with a goal. Glienke would pick up the puck at center ice and race in and with a few quick little moves snuck a backhander that just trickled over the line and after a strange delayed celebration the Wildcats would win their 4th straight Premier Hockey Tournament Championship. The game was the barn burner many felt it would be and I think just about everyone felt it was a great test for both teams who have high hopes of being in the State Tourney this spring.
My 3 Stars:
1st Star: #35 Adam Lindgren (Eagan) ~ He may have given up 5 goals, but all of them were the result of high quality shots. In many ways he really kept Eagan in the game with a number of clutch saves. He had 44 stops on the night which gives you an idea of the tremendous pressure he faced throughout most of the game. Even though the shootout doesn't really count he did a fine job at stonewalling the best Hermantown had to offer.
2nd Star: #27 Zach Glienke (Eagan) ~ Glienke really was an x-factor from the 2nd period of this game. He really began to assert himself both physically with some good hits as well as using his speed and his ability to dangle around Hermantown defenders. He finished the game with a goal and an assist and believe me his goal in the 2nd really got the scouts attention in a big way. Eagan needed their best player to step up and forunately for him and his team he did just that.
3rd Star: #4 Jake Zeleznikar (Hermantown) ~ No defenseman in the tournament was as highly touted as this Hermantown defenseman was and he had a good effort to justify that notion. While defensively at times he seemed a little suspect he certainly has a very solid and quick release as well as a great first pass out of the zone to get his team going on the rush. Zeleznikar's 2 goals were examples of the power and accuracy of his shot and everytime he shot the puck you could sense the crowd holding its breath a bit. Impressive talent.
Well that was just 3 games of this year's holiday tournament scene which saw a whole slew of huge games. From St. Thomas Academy's surprising run through the Schwan's Cup Gold Division where they lost in a shootout to Hill-Murray to a bunch of other hard fought games the action at the arenas around the state was again top notch. The State Tournament is just 3 months away, and these high school programs certainly made 2012 end on a high note! I feel lucky to have had the opportunity to watch a small part of it. What games did you go see? Please share your stories in the comments section below!