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Prep boys hockey: While still favored, Hermantown not a sure thing in 7A

Hermantown's Tyler Watkins keeps his eyes on the puck during a game against Grand Rapids earlier this season. (Clint Austin / caustin@duluthnews.com)

PREP BOYS HOCKEY / SECTION 7A PLAYOFF PREVIEW

The unfortunate repercussion of winning so habitually — and so decisively — is that when you lose six games in the regular season, like the Hermantown boys hockey team has done, eyebrows are raised.

Lofty expectations notwithstanding, the Hawks are just fine, and enter the Section 7A playoffs in a familiar position. They are seeded first, ranked No. 1 in Class A and favored to reach their ninth consecutive state tournament. The sky, then, is not falling. Even if the six setbacks are Hermantown's most since 2007-08 (17-10).

First-year coach Patrick Andrews calls it a "double-whammy." First, the Hawks graduated the likes of Dylan Samberg, Ryan Sandelin, Jesse Jacques and Cade McEwen. Second, the schedule is tougher. Hermantown added Eden Prairie and Benilde-St. Margaret's to an already demanding and Class AA-heavy slate.

Both those games resulted in overtime losses. But Andrews believes the long-term benefit of competing nightly against upper-crust opponents far outweighs any negative, like an extra defeat here or there.

"If our record looks more human like it does this year, I'm fine with that because the goal is to be the best in February and March, not the best in December," he said.

A year ago, when Division I recruits Samberg and Sandelin were Mr. Hockey finalists and McEwen was up for the Frank Brimsek Award as the top senior goalie in Minnesota, the Hawks started 0-1-1, but that was it for blemishes. They ran the table, winning 29 straight to repeat atop Class A.

This time around, things haven't come quite as easily. Hermantown was 2-3-2 entering the Hilltopper Holiday Classic. Turns out, the tournament jumpstarted the Hawks, who downed Roseville, Wayzata and Duluth Marshall in three days. They are 17-6-2 overall.

"At about Christmastime, everything started to click for us and I think our season really took a turn there," talented senior forward Tyler Watkins said. "We had been playing not to lose, and I think then we started playing to win."

Andrews, Bruce Plante's energetic successor, described the first month as "trying to find the best team for this time of the year."

That very well could have included monkeying with the top line of Watkins and wings Jacob Herter and Blake Biondi. Andrews liked the trio's chemistry during preseason scrimmages, but he wasn't sold on thrusting the sophomore Biondi, a Minnesota Duluth commit, directly into such a crucial role.

He started them in the opener against Wayzata, but broke the unit up late in that contest. Andrews kept them apart the next day at Lakeville South, but was pressed to reconsider after the Cougars bolted in front 2-0. Watkins, Herter and Biondi were reassembled in the first period that night, produced 10 points — including four goals — in a 6-4 comeback, and have skated together ever since.

Watkins (19 goals, 35 assists, 54 points), Biondi (23-21—44) and Herter (18-24—42) have combined for 140 points. They're a threat to light the lamp every time they're on the ice. Biondi, for instance, netted four goals in Hermantown's 4-1 dumping of second-ranked Mahtomedi on Feb. 3.

Despite the roster turnover, Watkins was confident the Hawks wouldn't drift into obscurity. Others may have predicted a backslide, but he knew better. As did his teammates. New coach, new players, but as Andrews noted back in November, the expectations haven't changed.

"Our goal every year is to win the state tournament," he said.

That objective comes attached with some pressure, admitted Watkins, a captain and the "heart and soul" of the Hawks, according to Andrews. A good pressure, though.

"That's what you play for in Minnesota high school hockey," Watkins said.

No sure thing

Returning to Xcel Energy Center isn't a foregone conclusion for Hermantown like it has been of late. In 2016, the Hawks did as they pleased while winning three section playoff games by a combined 29-2. Last February, it was more of the same — 23-2, though Greenway hung around in a 5-1 final.

The second-seeded Raiders (18-7) could find themselves with a similar chance in the Feb. 28 championship. And they appear well-suited to challenge the frontrunners. Greenway boasts a pair of Division I-committed sophomores in Christian Miller and Ben Troumbly, who returned in last week's 5-2 loss to Marshall after missing a month with a knee injury. Throw in Donte Lawson (36-30—66), one of the state's most explosive scorers, and stout netminder Ville Hyttinen, and it's no surprise Greenway was tied with Hermantown late into the third period of the clubs' Jan. 16 meeting in Coleraine, an eventual 4-2 victory for the Hawks.

That showdown suggests the Raiders have closed the gap. Not so fast, Greenway coach Grant Clafton said last month.

"I'd like to think that we have, but until we prove otherwise in a section game, they're the top dog and that's who we're chasing," Clafton said. "They're a well-coached team, they have a lot of talent and they have a tradition and expectation of going to the state tournament."

Similarly, No. 3 Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl (15-9-1) threw everything it had at the Hawks on Jan. 30, settling for a 2-1 loss that indicated another legitimate contender.

The Blue Devils, led by dynamic forward Jake Seitz (30-35—65), split with Greenway in the regular season, losing 8-2 and winning 3-1.

"Greenway and Virginia are very good teams," Andrews said. "It's going to be a fun section tournament, I'll tell you that."

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