Coaches, especially coaches preparing for a high-stakes showdown, like to insist that all the pressure is on the opponent. No matter the absurdity of their argument, they'll deliver it with so much conviction that you have to at least applaud their detachment from reality.
Duluth East coach Mike Randolph and his Andover counterpart, Mark Manney, defied conventional wisdom in the runup to their teams' Section 7AA final Thursday at Amsoil Arena.
"There's a lot of pressure on us - let's be fair about it," Manney said after the Huskies' 8-0 trouncing of Elk River on Saturday. "When the game ended with East last year, people started picking us to win this year. So we started feeling that pressure maybe more than last year."
Indeed, the Greyhounds were widely expected to get past Andover in the 2018 championship, which they did, albeit barely. East trailed 2-0 entering the third period before escaping 3-2 in overtime. The Huskies returned 13 players from that club, abandoning the underdog role as a result. They're the top seed this time around, ranked fourth in the state and packing a gaudy 24-2-1 record, and buoyed by the confidence of having defeated the Greyhounds (17-6-2) once already this season.
In other words, it's Andover's turn to deal with weighty expectations.
That doesn't mean East will arrive at Amsoil this evening without a worry in the world.
"I think both teams have pressure," Randolph said. "Both wanna get to the state tournament. It's a section final."
For Andover, that's never happened before - granted, the school only opened in 2002. The Huskies had perhaps their best chance of reaching Xcel Energy Center snuffed out last March when then-sophomore Logan Anderson redirected a Luke LaMaster shot past Andover goalie Ben Fritsinger 4:50 into overtime.
The Huskies appeared in one other 7AA title tilt, falling to the Greyhounds 4-1 in 2012. Since then, every championship in this section has been decided by one goal. Four of them went to OT and two needed a second overtime.
Anderson's heroics a year ago sealed East's 23rd trip to state as Randolph improved to 17-3 in section finals. Fritsinger was superb that night, keeping Andover afloat despite being outshot 53-20. He's one of three finalists for this season's Frank Brimsek Award, given to Minnesota's top senior goaltender.
Fritsinger comes in with a 21-1-1 mark to go with a 1.20 goals-against average, .936 save percentage and eight shutouts. He has yet to be scored on in the postseason, and his dependability allows the Huskies to take some chances offensively.
"You see every shift (junior defenseman Wyatt) Kaiser is jumping up in the rush with us, so it kind of shows how much we believe in our goalie," said Andover senior forward Charlie Schoen, an Arizona State commit and Mr. Hockey finalist who has 16 goals and 33 assists this winter.
Kaiser is a Minnesota Duluth commit.
Frederick Paine, a senior blueliner for the Greyhounds, was asked what he learned about Andover when East dropped a 2-1 OT game to the Huskies in December.
Paine's scouting report: really good goalie, good defense, good offense, good passing, good structure, smart.
"Knowing that they had almost their whole team back, we knew going into the season that we'd be chasing them all year, and we're still chasing them," Randolph said.
The Greyhounds have won six in a row, including 7-0 over Duluth Marshall in the section quarterfinals and 5-2 over Cloquet-Esko-Carlton in the semifinals. Senior forward Ricky Lyle has six of his team's 12 playoff goals. Lyle and senior teammate Ryder Donovan, a Wisconsin recruit and Mr. Hockey finalist with 14 goals and 27 assists this season, were dominant in Saturday's win over the Lumberjacks.
PREP BOYS HOCKEY
Duluth East (17-6-2) vs. Andover (24-2-1)
What: Section 7AA championship
When: 7 p.m. Thursday
Where: Amsoil Arena
TV: WDIO Ch. 10
Radio: WWAX-FM 92.1