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Prep boys hockey: Team capsules

Hermantown's Tyler Watkins (left) competes for the puck with Duluth Marshall's Levi Stauber during a game between the Lake Superior Conference rivals last season at Mars Lakeview Arena. (file / News Tribune)

CLOQUET-ESKO-CARLTON LUMBERJACKS

Coach: Shea Walters, first season

2017-18 record: 17-8-1

Conference: Lake Superior

Section: 7AA

Key departures: F Jedd Anich (10-16—26); F Branden Matteen (12-6—18); D Ryan Nelson (4-23—27)

Key returners: Sr. D Andy Acers (4-8—12); sr. F Jon Baker (9-22—31); sr. F Kade Bender (8-6—14); jr. G Owen Carlson (2.52 goals-against average, .894 save percentage); sr. F Landon Langenbrunner (25-23—48); sr. F Gavin Rasmussen (14-13—27); sr. D Dane Stoyanoff (6-19—25)

Loose pucks: The Lumberjacks have been eyeing this season for years, ever since the current crop of seniors started having state success all the way up through youth hockey. The same can be said for the junior and sophomore classes, as well. So not only is the high-end talent there, but depth pervades the roster. That includes between the pipes. Walters, the 31-year-old first-time head coach, said as much when he noted that Cloquet-Esko-Carlton has four capable goaltenders that could get the job done. The Lumberjacks did receive a big blow when 6-foot-4 defenseman Stoyanoff tore his anterior cruciate ligament in August during a football scrimmage. It's unknown if Stoyanoff will return to the ice for CEC. For the third year in a row, the Lumberjacks hosted Duluth Marshall in the 2018 section quarterfinals, but unlike the previous two playoff meetings — both of which were 2-1 CEC victories — the Hilltoppers left Northwoods Arena with a 6-4 win. Among the Lumberjacks' contingent of Elite Leaguers this fall was Mason Langenbrunner, a sophomore defenseman and Landon's younger brother. CEC tied and defeated Duluth East a year ago, and the rivals get reacquainted Dec. 13 at the Heritage Center. That showdown is part of CEC's taxing opening month, which includes contests against Lakeville North, St. Thomas Academy, Minnetonka and Elk River. Asked which teams present the biggest challenges in 7AA, Rasmussen didn't hesitate: "Andover and East, like always. But the whole section will be tough like it always is," he said. Rasmussen played a game for the Minnesota Wilderness of the North American Hockey League earlier this month. After a 7-2 loss to Andover in early January, the Lumberjacks reeled off an 8-2 stretch to close the regular season, albeit with curious losses coming against Forest Lake and Grand Rapids. CEC is seeking its first trip to state since 2008. "We just have to keep working. Every day, get better," Landon Langenbrunner said.

DULUTH DENFELD HUNTERS

Coach: Dale Jago, second season

2017-18 record: 10-16

Conference: Lake Superior

Section: 7A

Key departures: F Brady Bastyr (7-13—20); F Luke Eilefson (8-14—22); G Benjamin Lafont (4.04 goals-against average, .888 save percentage); F Ryan Lemker (11-11—22)

Key returners: Sr. F Payton Budisalovich (6-20—26); sr. F Zach DeCaro (6-8—14); sr. F Jacob Eskola (17-12—29)

Loose pucks: In his first year at the helm after assisting Brendan Flaherty at Duluth Marshall, Jago led Duluth Denfeld to a five-win improvement over 2016-17. A strong finish allowed the Hunters to secure a home playoff game, where they fell 3-2 in overtime to International Falls in the section quarterfinals. They were 3-9 in late December before playing .500 the rest of the way, though that included a nasty six-game skid, the lowlight of which was a 13-0 loss to Duluth East. "They're learning how to win," Jago said last December. "But at the same time, when you're learning how to win, there are bumps along the road where sometimes you remember how to lose. We have to correct that and learn to respond differently." Eskola and Budisalovich ranked 1-2 in points a year ago. Denfeld was 19-8 as recently as 2014-15, but declining participation has hindered the program. The Hunters encounter a tough three-game stretch this January when they face East, Hermantown and Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in succession. Competing in Denfeld's holiday tournament December 27-29 are Xavier, Apple Valley, Irondale, Mankato West, St. Paul North, Owatonna and Roseville.

DULUTH EAST GREYHOUNDS

Coach: Mike Randolph, 30th season

2017-18 record: 25-3-3

Conference: Independent

Section: 7AA

Key departures: D Will Fisher (3-16—19); F Austin Jouppi (11-19—30); G Parker Kleive (1.51 goals-against average, .916 save percentage); D Luke LaMaster (4-41—45); F Ian Mageau (19-38—57); F Garrett Worth (47-24—71)

Key returners: Jr. F Logan Anderson (10-20—30); sr. F Brendan Baker (9-15—24); sr. D Carson Cochran (2-11—13); sr. F Ryder Donovan (14-48—62); sr. F Jack FitzGerald (8-9—17); sr. F Ricky Lyle (20-15—35); sr. D Frederick Paine (5-22—27)

Loose pucks: How loaded were last year's Greyhounds? After reaching the Class AA championship game, a 5-2 loss to Minnetonka, East bid farewell to a pair of Mr. Hockey finalists and NCAA Division I commits in LaMaster (Wisconsin) and Worth (Arizona State), plus another first-liner in Mageau, as well as starting goalie Klieve. And yet the Greyhounds and Andover are widely considered to be the section frontrunners. That's because a deep group of forwards is headlined by Donovan, the puck-distributing center. Nine East players were chosen for the fall Elite League. While the potent WMD line of Worth, Mageau and Donovan, which accounted for 190 points, is no more, Donovan is expected to center skillful wings Baker and Lyle, at least early. FitzGerald, the son of former East and Minnesota Duluth standout Rusty FitzGerald, broke his left forearm and right collarbone over the offseason, but doesn't expect to miss too much game action. Kleive assumed the starting goalie job midway through the season and finished with six shutouts. LaMaster won the Reed Larson Award as the state's top senior blueliner, making him the third straight Northlander to do so — Hermantown's Wyatt Aamodt (2016) and Dylan Samberg (2017) were the others. The Greyhounds started 9-0-3, with a 9-3 thumping of Andover in December doubling as Randolph's 600th career victory. He sits at 622 through 31 total seasons, a tally that ranks third all-time in Minnesota. East's rematch with the Huskies wasn't nearly as lopsided. Baker and Donovan scored third-period goals as the Greyhounds rallied from a 2-0 deficit in the 7AA final at Amsoil Arena, and Anderson punctuated the 3-2 comeback in overtime. They went on to defeat St. Michael-Albertville in the state quarterfinals, then doubled up rival Edina in the semis, only to suffer another title-tilt letdown, their fourth since winning it all in 1998.

DULUTH MARSHALL HILLTOPPERS

Coach: Bill Owens, first season

2017-18 record: 17-8-2

Conference: Lake Superior

Section: 7AA

Key departures: G Cam Brandt (2.28 goals-against average, .898 save percentage); F George Grannis (29-26—55); D Peter Hansen (11-16—27); D Nolan Krenzen (11-15—26); F Levi Stauber (20-26—46); D Willy Stauber (10-21—31)

Key returners: Sr. F Aiden Bachand (4-14—18); sr. F Keelan Golat (4-15—19); sr. F Carter Sullivan (9-12—21)

Loose pucks: Owens steps in for Brendan Flaherty, who was diagnosed last April with throat cancer. This would have been his 23rd season guiding the Hilltoppers. Owens had been on Flaherty's staff for three years. Previously, he was an assistant at St. Thomas Academy and the head coach at St. Paul Academy and Summit, where he coached Minnesota Duluth recruit Devlin McCabe. Owens faces a tall task in what will be a drastically remade roster. Gone is Mr. Hockey finalist Grannis and fellow NCAA Division I commit Levi Stauber. Grannis and Stauber eventually will play collegiately at Clarkson and Michigan Tech, respectively. Willy Stauber (Levi's cousin), a Reed Larson Award finalist as the state's top senior defenseman, is with the Bismarck Bobcats of the North American Hockey League. Meanwhile, Krenzen, who would have been a Marshall junior, opted instead to play for the Sioux City Musketeers of the United States Hockey League. And Hansen, a senior, has decided to focus on baseball this winter — he has signed to play that sport at Division I Bradley University. Add it all up, and the Hilltoppers lost their top five scorers and No. 1 goalie. Marshall has improved in each of its first three seasons in Class AA. The Hilltoppers won nine games in 2015-16, then 13, followed by 17 last year, including a playoff victory at Cloquet-Esko-Carlton and a spot in the section semifinals at Amsoil Arena, where they were unceremoniously ousted by Duluth East, 9-1. Marshall had taken the Greyhounds to overtime in December, losing 3-2. Grannis had 16 goals through the first four games of last season as the Hilltoppers started 5-0 before dropping a 5-3 affair to eventual state champ Minnetonka. Alex Busick, a 6-foot-6 senior, takes over for Brandt in goal.

ELY TIMBERWOLVES

Coach: Ben Johnson, fourth season

2017-18 record: 6-14

Conference: Independent

Section: 7A

Key departures: F Gage Merhar (15-10—25); F Thomas Montana (14-17—31)

Key returners: Sr. F Nick Mattila (27-14—41); jr. F Luke Olson (20-13—33); jr. F Dalton Schreffler (3-11—14)

Loose pucks: Six wins might not sound like a reason to celebrate, but simply being able to field a squad in 2017-18 was welcome news for Johnson and the Timberwolves. Ely nearly had to forfeit its season before enough players materialized to give it a go. There were hiccups — such as being outscored by a combined 43-7 over a three-game stretch in January — but the Timberwolves were able to get a roster of 22 players valuable experience. Many were new to the sport and only three or four, Johnson said, had ever played varsity hockey. Before the backslide, Ely won seven games in 2015-16 — its most victories since 2008-09 — and a robust 13 in 2016-17. Johnson is confident the Timberwolves can get back to that level, and hopefully beyond, by building a strong youth program. He's always maintained that this is a long-term project. And while this winter again could be a grind, there's hope on the horizon. The current Timberwolves can build around Mattila and Olson, last year's leading scorers. As a junior, Mattila registered at least a point in 16 of Ely's 20 games. He had four hat tricks. The Timberwolves went 4-4 over their final eight games of the regular season. Former multi-sport Ely standout Louie Gerzin is an assistant coach.

EVELETH-GILBERT GOLDEN BEARS

Coach: Jeff Torrel, eighth season

2017-18 record: 13-11-2

Conference: Iron Range

Section: 7A

Key departures: D Adam Erie (1-1—2); F Payton Gregorich (5-3—8); F Cody Hendrickson (31-27—58)

Key returners: Jr. D Nick Beaudette (8-12—20); jr. D Gage Everson (6-17—23); sr. F Josh James (7-10—17); jr. F Bryce Kopp (10-5—15); sr. F Gavin Maki (6-9—15); jr. F Nathan Tassoni (7-8—15); jr. D Will Troutwine (8-23—31)

Loose pucks: The Golden Bears are tasked with replacing one of the Northland's top scorers. Hendrickson had at least one goal in all but four games last season. He is now playing at the University of Providence in Great Falls, Mont. After Hendrickson, the top nine point producers return. Indeed, Eveleth-Gilbert will boast improved depth and experience in 2018-19, according to Torrel, who hopes a more challenging slate will have the Golden Bears battle-tested come playoff time. Sophomores checkered the roster last winter, many of whom assumed key roles. Chaska and Holy Angels Academy are among the schedule additions. Eveleth-Gilbert has finished above .500 two years in a row following an 8-18-1 mark in 2015-16. The goal now is to carry that success into the postseason, earn a top-four seed and appear in the section semifinals, said Torrel. Kodi Intihar saw the bulk of the time in net as a junior, when he finished with a 4.33 goals-against average and .850 save percentage. After dropping the opener of its holiday tournament last December, the Golden Bears went 5-0-2 over their next seven games.

GRAND RAPIDS THUNDERHAWKS

Coach: Chris Marinucci, second season

2017-18 record: 7-19-1

Conference: Independent

Section: 7AA

Key departures: F Jack Burnson (9-13—22); F Nano DeGuiseppi (10-12—22); D Michael Heitkamp (3-10—13); G Gabe Holum (4.08 goals-against average, .906 save percentage)

Key returners: Jr. G Carter Clafton (5.27 goals-against average, .865 save percentage); sr. F Anthony DelGreco (5-6—11)

Loose pucks: Wild stat from Grand Rapids' 2015-16 team that finished third at the Class AA state tournament: Seven players off that club ended up making NCAA Division I commitments. The Thunderhawks were similarly awash in starpower the following year as they streaked to the program's first state title since 1980. Afterwards, however, forwards Gavin Hain (North Dakota) and Blake McLaughlin (Minnesota) and goalie Zach Stejskal (Minnesota Duluth) all decided to forego their senior seasons, which left Grand Rapids with a depleted talent pool last winter under first-year coach Marinucci, UMD's 1994 Hobey Baker Memorial Award winner. Things should start to turn around. Incoming sophomore defenseman Jack Peart already has committed to St. Cloud State. Peart's older sister, Sadie Peart, a senior forward for the Grand Rapids-Greenway Lightning, also is a DI commit; she is headed to Quinnipiac. Clafton is an up-and-coming goalie whose role will expand with Holum graduated. Holum was basically under duress from November through February. Included in his game log was a 72-save bonanza vs. Holy Family Catholic, 60 saves against Duluth Marshall, 58 against Benilde-St. Margaret's and 53 vs. Duluth East. Compounding the defensive deficiencies was the fact that the Thunderhawks scored a mere 48 goals in 27 games, or 1.78 a night. They were shut out a whopping nine times.

GREENWAY RAIDERS

Coach: Grant Clafton, fourth season

2017-18 record: 20-8

Conference: Iron Range

Section: 7A

Key departures: G Ville Hyttinen (2.37 goals-against average, .913 save percentage); F Aksel Jenson (5-11—16); F Wesley Johnson (19-17—36)

Key returners: Sr. D Aaron Elich (0-2—2); sr. D Cameron Lantz (7-15—22); sr. F Donte Lawson (37-35—72); jr. D Christian Miller (8-21—29); sr. F Nikolai Rajala (17-33—50); jr. D Brock Trboyevich (1-6—7); jr. F Ben Troumbly (18-19—37); jr. F Mitchell Vekich (10-13—23)

Loose pucks: It's hard to find someone who doesn't think Greenway is encroaching on Hermantown's throne atop 7A. The Raiders, having made major strides — first to respectability, then to state tournament contention — are closing in on the Hawks. Clafton isn't ready to admit as much. "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," he said on the eve of the 2018 postseason. Man was Greenway close to "proving otherwise" last February in a scintillating section final. The Raiders led 3-1 well into the third period before the Hawks peeled off three goals in 3:44. Greenway, though, stunned the Amsoil Arena crowd when Johnson's prayer ricocheted off just about every player on the ice and into the Hermantown net. Lantz was credited with the equalizer at 16:59.9 of the third. The Raiders ultimately fell late in double overtime, missing what would have been their first trip to state since 2001. They bring just about everybody back this time around, though superb goalie Hyttinen, a Finnish exchange student, won't return as he's playing for the Alexandria Blizzard of the North American 3 Hockey League. Troumbly and Miller are St. Cloud State commits. Miller's father, Kris Miller, was Minnesota's Mr. Hockey winner in 1987, when his Greenway teammate, Ken Gernander, also was a finalist. Gernander has moved back to Coleraine, and his son, Micah, a junior forward, will skate for the Raiders this winter. Kris Miller, Ken Gernander and Derek Vekich, Mitchell's father, starred on Greenway's dominant 1986-87 team. Greenway defeated Grand Rapids 5-1 last November to end an 11-game losing streak against the Thunderhawks, which dated to January 2004. The Raiders face host Bemidji on Hockey Day Minnesota in January. Tristan Birdsall, a senior forward who led Hibbing-Chisholm in scoring last year, joins Greenway.

HERMANTOWN HAWKS

Coach: Patrick Andrews, second season

2017-18 record: 22-7-2

Conference: Lake Superior

Section: 7A

Key departures: F Jacob Herter (21-33—54); D Trent Madill (2-3—5); F Tyler Watkins (26-43—69)

Key returners: Sr. F Brady Baker (11-7—18); jr. F Blake Biondi (30-28—58); sr. D Darian Gotz (10-21—31); sr. D Sam High (3-7—10); sr. G Cole Manahan (2.23 goals-against average, .904 save percentage); sr. F Elliott Peterson (13-16—29); sr. F Justin Thomas (10-15—25)

Loose pucks: The 2017-18 season ended without Hermantown vying for a Class A state title, something that hadn't occurred since 2009. The Hawks, of course, followed six consecutive runner-up finishes with back-to-back crowns in 2016-17. They were shocked by Alexandria in the semifinals last March, losing 6-1 at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, before rebounding with a 4-0 win over Mahtomedi in the third-place game. That group had to replace a trio of NCAA Division I commits in Jesse Jacques, Dylan Samberg and Ryan Sandelin. Jacques and Samberg are now at Minnesota Duluth, where both Biondi and Gotz, Hermantown's captain, have committed. Gotz's older brother, Eric Gotz, is a freshman defenseman at Michigan Tech. Biondi had a brilliant offseason, first with Team USA and then leading the Elite League in goals scored. Peterson trades his cleats for skates after serving as a captain for the Hawks football team that reached the Class AAAA state tournament. He also excels on the baseball field. Adding to a dominant blue line is sophomore Joey Pierce. While Pierce captained a Hermantown bantam club that went to state last winter, this won't be his rookie season of varsity hockey — that came while at Ely in 2016-17, when the talented youngster notched 34 points. The defensive corps, which includes juniors Indio Dowd and Zach Carson, fronts Manahan, who has grown to 6-foot-4. The Hawks' ninth straight section championship came in thrilling fashion last February as they overcame a 3-1 third-period deficit and withstood Greenway's tying goal at the buzzer of regulation to win in double overtime. Watkins and Herter both are with the Minnesota Wilderness of the North American Hockey League. Andrews' predecessor, Bruce Plante, was inducted into the coaches association Hall of Fame in September. With 13 returners, Andrews said this edition of the Hawks will feature more experience.

HIBBING-CHISHOLM BLUEJACKETS

Coach: Justin Tomberlin, third season

2017-18 record: 7-19-1

Conference: Iron Range

Section: 7A

Key departures: F Nick Belich (2-12—14); F Tristan Birdsall (17-18—35); F Michael Kubena (9-4—13); F Jake Riihinen (14-16—30)

Key returners: Sr. F Nic Cicchi (5-11—16); soph. F Conner Willard (5-5—10); jr. D Mitchell Ziemba (3-9—12)

Loose pucks: With the exception of perhaps Grand Rapids, no Northland program has been hit harder by early defections recently. The list at Hibbing-Chisholm includes — among others — Jarrett Lee, Scott Perunovich, Ryan Ullan and now Birdsall, the Bluejackets' top scorer in 2017-18. A senior, Birdsall will play for Greenway after transferring. His offense will be sorely missed. Hibbing-Chisholm managed just 61 goals in 25 regular-season games last season, an average of 2.4 per night. The Bluejackets scored two or fewer goals in 17 games overall, their run ending in the section quarterfinals via a 5-0 loss at Greenway. While Perunovich is starring at Minnesota Duluth, where he's one of the best NCAA Division I defensemen in the country, Lee is at Division I Northern Michigan, where Ullan, currently with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League, is scheduled to arrive next fall. Despite a rough go of it last year, which included a 1-11-1 close to the regular season, Hibbing-Chisholm produced a couple head-scratching results. In late December, the Bluejackets defeated Alexandria 3-1, the same Alexandria club that would go on to rout Hermantown 6-1 in the state semifinals and finish second in Class A. One month later, the Bluejackets tied Class AA state-ranked Duluth Marshall.

INTERNATIONAL FALLS BRONCOS

Coach: George McDonald, fourth season

2017-18 record: 13-12-1

Conference: Iron Range

Section: 7A

Key departures: D Trevor Becvar (7-17—24); F Trimble Butler (9-16—25); F Barrett Kalar (8-8—16); G Jake Klow (3.36 goals-against average, .895 save percentage); F Kane Kostiuk (5-12—17); F Gust Lorenson (14-9—23)

Key returners: Jr. F Jaxon Germain (11-8—19); jr. F Kian Gonzales (9-10—19); sr. F Simon Palm (13-6—19)

Loose pucks: The Broncos' first winning season since 2012-13 featured an appearance at Amsoil Arena for the section semifinals, where they were eliminated by Hermantown. Klow often was good enough to singlehandedly keep International Falls in games. The goalie's numbers didn't jump off the page, but he put together some memorable performances. There was a 45-save effort in a 2-2 tie with Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl, and 51 stops in a 2-1 victory at Fort Frances. International Falls has won 10, 10 and 13 games in McDonald's first three seasons after going 4-22 in 2014-15. The Broncos reached the 7A semis last February by slipping past host Duluth Denfeld 3-2 in overtime in the quarters. The program received a blow earlier this month when Keith "Huffer" Christiansen died at the age of 74 due to complications from lung cancer. Christiansen, who went on to win an Olympic silver medal and star at Minnesota Duluth, where his No. 9 became the first jersey retired by the Bulldogs — whom he led in scoring all four of his seasons — carried International Falls to a state championship in 1962. Another ex-Broncos star, Ben Gordon, is in his first year as an assistant coach on Bob Motzko's staff at Minnesota.

MOOSE LAKE AREA REBELS

Coach: Lee Costley, third season

2017-18 record: 2-23-1

Conference: Two Rivers

Section: 5A

Key departures: F Mark Fossum (13-5—18)

Key returners: Sr. F Andrew Burn (3-5—8); jr. F Jordan Fjosne (11-15—26); sr. F Tommy Kliniski (2-8—10); sr. D Anakin Oswald (4-4—8)

Loose pucks: Moose Lake Area will have 12 skaters and three goalies in 2018-19. "Not many coaches would be excited about this, but I am," Costley wrote in an email. That's because the Rebels had eight skaters and one goalie last season. In a lopsided loss to Lake of the Woods in early January, there were seven total players in uniform. "It's going to be strange to look down at the bench during a game and have more than one player looking back at me," the coach wrote. The Rebels' youth program, Costley said, is starting to pay dividends. While the coach is optimistic about the future, especially after the addition of a bantam squad two years ago, he knows Moose Lake is still in rebuilding mode. Its first win of 2017-18 didn't come until game No. 21, and the Rebels were shut out seven times total. Despite the adversity, Costley is thankful his players stuck with it. If one or two hadn't, Moose Lake wouldn't have been able to field a club. "We might not have the most wins, but that's not what it's about. It's about what we're doing for the future of our program," said Oswald, who has helped the Moose Lake-Willow River football team reach each of the past two state tournaments. The focus now is on getting more players into the system and building something sustainable. Equally crucial will be keeping homegrown talent. The Rebels have lost about a half-dozen players to other Northland teams or junior hockey recently.

NORTH SHORE STORM

Coach: Mike Guzzo, fifth season

2017-18 record: 10-14-3

Conference: Independent

Section: 7A

Key departures: F Cody Brandt (10-9—19); F Nick Hendrickson (8-6—14); D Logan Loiselle (3-11—14); F Chad Nordean (25-17—42)

Key returners: Sr. F Wyatt Haugan (4-12—16); jr. F Cole Komarek (6-16—22); sr. F Mason Meyer (11-10—21); sr. G Cameron Roy (3.58 goals-against average, .871 save percentage); sr. D Connor Somnis (6-6—12)

Loose pucks: After more than 30 years of coaching high school hockey, this will be Guzzo's final season on the bench. He's been a fixture at Lake County rinks and fields over the years, also coaching the Silver Bay boys and girls teams, plus the school's softball squad. He brings back a solid supporting cast, plus talented newcomers like sophomore wing Ryder McMillen and freshman center Will Olson. With Nordean, the program's career scoring leader, graduating, Meyer is the only returner that netted a double-digit goal total. Nordean had a point in all but eight games and registered four hat tricks. Junior Connor Sullivan could share time between the pipes with Roy. The Storm, a Two Harbors-Silver Bay co-op, are coming off their first losing record in six seasons. They were 5-5-2 before an 0-5-1 skid following the holiday break. For many North Shore players, there wasn't much of a layoff between fall and winter sports. A number of them, including Meyer, Komarek and Haugan, helped Two Harbors reach the state tournament in football for the first time since 1977. The Agates bowed out in the Class AAA quarterfinals on Nov. 10, two days before hockey practice started. Three of North Shore's victories a year ago came against Proctor, including 3-0 in the opening round of the section playoffs. Guzzo says he's hoping to go out with a "fun and competitive" season.

PROCTOR RAILS

Coach: Dan Stauber, third season

2017-18 record: 7-17-2

Conference: Lake Superior

Section: 7A

Key departures: F Josh Hemming (6-3—9); F Blake Koski (8-6—14); F Jordan Linder (11-12—23); G Lucas Nordquist (3.32 goals-against average, .895 save percentage); D Evan O'Connor (10-12—22)

Key returners: Sr. D Zach Gunderson (3-10—13); jr. F Ben Harnell (6-2—8); jr. D Isaac Mosher (2-7—9)

Loose pucks: Five years of planning and a year of construction give way to the Rails' new home venue, which replaces the relic that was Proctor's former rink. The St. Luke's Sports & Event Center officially opened in mid-October. The arena will hold as many as 1,200 fans. The Rails would love for it to accomplish one other thing — keep Proctor players in Proctor, from youth hockey through high school, rather than migrating to other programs in the Northland. The Rails will be looking for more offense this time around after being shut out in seven games last season, including a 3-0 loss to North Shore in their playoff opener. They started the year 0-7-1. Gunderson and Mosher are strong on the blue line. A bright spot for Proctor in 2017-18: Defeating Virginia/Mountain Iron-Buhl 3-2 in overtime in early January, which commenced a 5-2 stretch.

SUPERIOR SPARTANS

Coach: Jason Kalin, 18th season

2017-18 record: 14-11-2

Conference: Lake Superior

Key departures: D Luke Drougas (13-12—25); F Max Plunkett (12-3—15); F Tucker Stamper (6-9—15); G Caden Welch (2.67 goals-against average, .899 save percentage)

Key returners: Sr. F Taylor Burger (10-17—27); sr. F Trevor Dalbec (8-10—18); jr. F Gunnar Hansen (10-5—15); sr. F Cayden Laurvick (9-11—20); sr. F Grant Sorensen (9-7—16)

Loose pucks: Superior looked ready for a quick exit in 2018 after going 0-6-1 to end the regular season. But the Spartans, led by Dalbec's two goals, jumped all over River Falls in their playoff opener, skating away with a 6-1 win en route to the sectional semifinals. There, then-junior Ian Johnson scored his only goal of the year in double overtime to secure a 4-3 victory over New Richmond. How unlikely of a hero was Johnson? He didn't even see the ice in the first three periods of that game. Superior was unable to ride the magic any further, falling to eventual repeat state champion Hudson 4-1 in the sectional final for the second year in a row. A nine-game winning streak near the end of 2017, during which no opponent tallied more than two goals, left the Spartans at 11-2. Four of the top five point producers return as Superior takes aim at Hudson's perch. The Spartans have claimed 13 state championships, with the most recent coming in 2015 — and, perhaps, the most improbable, considering they were below .500. Welch leaves big pads to fill between the pipes. Wild stat, courtesy of the Superior Telegram: The Spartans are 67-3 all-time in home playoff games.

VIRGINIA/MOUNTAIN IRON-BUHL BLUE DEVILS

Coach: Cale Finseth, first season

2017-18 record: 16-10-1

Conference: Iron Range

Section: 7A

Key departures: D Wyatt Phaneuf (1-8—9); F Jake Seitz (30-36—66)

Key returners: Sr. F Caleb Bialke (19-24—43); sr. D Nathan Coldagelli (0-20—20); jr. F Zach Kilen (9-13—22); sr. G Cam Kreibich (2.50 goals-against average, .922 save percentage); sr. F Cade Moreland (20-19—39); sr. F Jack Zupetz (14-19—33)

Loose pucks: Finseth replaces Reed Larson, who stepped down as VMIB coach last spring after seven years. And while big-time scorer Seitz graduated, the cupboard is hardly bare for Finseth, whose coaching past includes leading Eveleth-Gilbert for the 2006-07 season. He played his college hockey at both St. Scholastica and Wisconsin-Stout. Seitz, now with the North American Hockey League's Minnesota Magicians, was a whiz with the puck on his stick, and he was a big reason the Blue Devils were legitimate contenders in 7A last winter. They upended Greenway 3-1 and narrowly fell to Hermantown, 2-1, in January. VMIB opened 7-1 before alternating wins and losses the rest of the way. Bialke and Moreland form a dangerous 1-2 scoring punch for the veteran Blue Devils, who face a tough final month of this season, with contests against the likes of Cloquet-Esko-Carlton, Greenway, Hermantown and St. Cloud Cathedral. Kreibich has been terrific in goal, never more so than during a 3-0 blanking last December of eventual Class A runner-up Alexandria, in which he stopped all 46 shots he faced. After splitting with Greenway in the regular season, VMIB dropped a 5-1 affair to the Raiders in the section semifinals.

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