The boys' high school hockey season is winding down. Most Minnesota teams have two to four games left on their schedules, which will wrap up by next weekend at the latest.
There are three sections that feature area teams, and there's a good chance we'll have three area teams in the state tournament. However, there's a lot to decide before we get to that point, and things tend to change.
While it might seem Duluth Marshall is the obvious favorite, we've danced this dance before in the section.
Last year, Hibbing was not the No. 1 seed and was not the section favorite. Yet, there they were, giving Hermantown everything it could handle in the state semifinals. That came after the Bluejackets blasted favored Virginia/MIB 5-0 in the section final.
This team could do that again. Guys like Josh Bestul, Adam Johnson, and Mike Pechovnik were big parts of the team last year, and they will do it again this time around. Hibbing's team goaltending numbers aren't terribly impressive, but goaltending is obviously a big part of any team this time of year. A hot goalie at the right time can make a team into a champion, but a championship-caliber team is nothing without quality big-spot goaltending.
Marshall should be the top seed. The Hilltoppers had a bit of a down year last season, hovering around .500 but then giving Virginia a heck of a tussle in the section semifinal. Star Judd Peterson (St. Cloud State commit) averages nearly three points per game, and he leads a group of six players over 20 points on the season. Marshall plays tough defense and gets quality goaltending, so the Hilltoppers should be stout.
Virginia could be a factor, with Mark Krebsbach leading the offensive charge. But the Blue Devils don't have the quality depth they've had in the past. International Falls might be a darkhorse.
In the end, though, it appears we're looking at a Marshall/Hibbing section final at Amsoil Arena Feb. 29.
This looks too easy. Hermantown is 22-0, is outscoring its opponents 134-34, and has more depth than virtually anyone in Class A. It's also a very well-coached team, making it even more difficult to beat.
However, the Hawks know they will see challenges in the section tournament. Hermantown will be seeded first, but right behind them will be Rogers and St. Cloud Cathedral, teams that played the Hawks very tight during the regular season (2-1 games against both).
I don't see any other serious threats in the section tournament, as the rest of 5A lacks the talent and depth to match up against anyone in the top three. If there are upsets, they will be monumental, and they'll involve goalies standing on their heads in fluky 2-1 or 1-0 games.
(I have to give the nod here to Moose Lake, though I don't see the Rebels winning more than one game in the playoffs. Josh Cisar has 52 goals, and brother Tyler has 71 points. They're a great tandem, and it's a great story, even if the team doesn't have enough to go far.)
This race is four or five teams deep, potentially. Duluth East is 21-1 and the favorite, and there's no question a Greyhounds team that hits on all cylinders will not be beaten by anyone in the section.
However, there's a line of teams that would like a shot. Grand Rapids is probably the second-best team in the section, but don't discount Andover. The Northwest Suburban team has some nice wins this season, including one over Cloquet/Esko/Carlton. These teams should be seeded second and third, with CEC seeded fourth or fifth, spots they will contend with Elk River for.
I tend to think this is a two-horse race, with East and Grand Rapids. The Thunderhawks, however, have been banged up all season long, and Monday's loss to Hibbing certainly opens the prospect that they will have to deal with being the third seed. It means a tougher first-round game, and it means being the visiting team on the scoreboard for the section semifinals, in all likelihood.
East has the scoring depth and defensemen to win, but it's fair to wonder about the Greyhounds' goaltending after that Minnetonka disaster, as well as a rather uneven performance Monday night against CEC.
If someone can protect their net and catch East on a day where its own net drive isn't as good as it can be, this team is no different than any other. It can be picked off.