As anticipated, traditional high school boys hockey small-school powers Duluth Marshall and Hermantown have established themselves as the teams to beat in Section 7A.
The Hilltoppers are 7-0, with home victories over Roseville (4-3), Breck (2-0), Proctor (7-3), Blake (5-0) and Orono (4-1), and wins at Grand Rapids (4-2) and International Falls (6-0) over the weekend.
Duluth Marshall will play its next seven games at beautiful Mars Lakeview Arena, including difficult nonconference games against Benilde-St. Margaret’s on Dec. 23 and Mahtomedia Jan. 6. The Hilltoppers, who host the Hilltoppers Holiday Classic on Dec. 30-31, will visit Hermantown on Jan. 16.
Senior goaltender Alex Murray (5-0, 1.17 goals-against, .952 saves percentage) has been a consistent performer for Duluth Marshall, giving top defensemen Jordan Fralich and Lane Krenzen, who have combined for five goals and 16 points, the confidence to become engaged offensively.
Derek Farrell leads Hilltoppers scorers with 12 points, with five goals, and senior forwards John McKenna and Nate Johnson have six goals apiece, which leads the team. Forwards Peter Lenz, Jack Dodd and Nathan Sepp have combined for six goals and 20 points.
Meantime, Hermantown (5-2) has won five of its last six, including an impressive 8-0 Lake Superior Conference home victory over Cloquet-Esko-Carlton on Dec. 2. The Hawks are led by a trio of local prep hockey rock stars: linemates Nate Pionk and Ryan Kero, both super-sniper seniors, and junior defenseman Wyatt Aamodt, a highly-recruited Division I prospect.
Pionk and Kero are averaging 2.17 points per game, with 13 points apiece, and Pionk has a team-high seven goals. Aamodt and Eric Gotz, another impressive junior, anchors arguably the best defensive corp in northeastern Minnesota.
Hermantown junior Luke Olson (4-1, 1.99, .892) has emerged as one of the area’s top goaltenders.
Duluth Denfeld (5-2) displayed flashes of potential in a 3-1 home loss to Hermantown last Thursday. The Hunters are led by 6-foot-4 senior defenseman Nick Thompson, a four-year starter who boasts a team-high 10 points, and senior forwards Jake DeCaro (team-high five goals), Cody Budislovich, Dylan Michaud, Jonah Williams and Cam McClure. Juniors Adam Shykes and Kadin Ferguson have emerged as dependable, hard-working forwards.
Westley Cook (3-1, 3.25, .847) and River Alander (2-1, 1.67, .942) have been impressive in goal.
Duluth East (3-1-1) is working hard to find scoring and win close, defensive games against tough opponents in Class AA. The Greyhounds, who have won three of their last four, are allowing and scoring 1.80 points per game.
Brothers Ashton and Nick Altmann are 1-2 in scoring, with five and four points, respectively. Ryan Peterson has three points and junior playmaking forward Luke Dow, perhaps the team’s best college prospect, has a goal and an assist in his first three games since becoming eligible after transferring from Duluth Marshall.
Senior goaltender Gunnar Howg (3-1-1, 2.17, .903) is a two-year starter.
Duluth East will face St. Thomas Academy (4-0) in a Schwann Cup Gold Dvision opening-round game Dec. 29 at Ridder Arena in Minneapolis.
HOWIE’S PREP HOCKEY BESTS-OF-THE-BEST
Team Featuring the Toughest Midseason Run: Duluth East plays a murderous, five-game stretch of games against top competition starting Jan. 2, with games at Hopkins (7-1) and Duluth Denfeld (5-2), at home against Grand Rapids (4-3) and Eden Prairie (5-1) and at top-ranked Lakeville North (5-0). The Greyhounds will also visit Elk River (6-1) on Jan. 31, in a possible Section 7AA championship game preview.
All-Forechecking Team: Nate Pionk (Hermantown), Jonah Williams (Duluth Denfeld) and Ashton Altmann (Duluth East)
Cleanest Barn: Mars-Lakeview Arena
Hardest Workers: Pionk and Jake DeCaro (Duluth Denfeld)
Best Tape-to-Tape Passer: Lane Krenzen (Duluth Marshall)
Most Under-Rated Player: Nate Johnson (Duluth Marshall)
Toughest Blue-Collar Players: Pionk, Dylan Michaud (Duluth Denfeld), Jesse Jacques (Hermantown)
Team With Least Depth: Duluth Marshall
Team With Best Uniforms: Superior
Team With Best Chance to Advance to State: Hermantown, Duluth Marshall
Teams With Most Octane Players and Coaches: Virginia/Mt. Iron-Buhl, Superior
Team Most Over-Achieving: Duluth Marshall
Team Playing Most Disciplined: Duluth East
Team Boasting the Best Barn Chow: Amsoil Arena
Team Boasting the Barn Featuring the Best Use of Wood: Cloquet
Teams Boasting the Best Ice in Their Home Barn: Duluth Denfeld, Duluth East at Amsoil Arena
Teams Boasting the Best Barn Interior Lighting: Duluth Denfeld, Duluth East Heritage Center