Future Bulldog Blake Biondi put on a show Wednesday at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul. The senior forward recorded a hat trick and a pair of assists for Hermantown in a 7-1 rout of Monticello on the opening day of the Minnesota boys high school state hockey tournament.
Four years ago at Xcel, it was Cole Koepke lighting up the scoreboard in the Class A state quarterfinals as a Hawks’ senior. He scored four goals and two assists in an 11-3 dismantling of Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato in the quarterfinals and finished the legendary state championship run with 11 total points, including six goals.
Now a sophomore winger for Minnesota Duluth, Koepke is once again putting up the points at tourney time. He’s riding a collegiate-best eight-game point streak going into this weekend’s regular season finales at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday against St. Cloud State.
Dylan Samberg, a teammate of Koepke’s in 2015-16 at Hermantown along with UMD sophomore center Jesse Jacques, said a lot of what made Koepke successful in high school has brought him success now in college. Koepke takes advantage of the linemates he’s playing alongside and the skills he possesses, Samberg said.
“His shot, that hasn’t changed much. It’s gotten a little harder, but it’s always been really hard,” said Samberg, a junior defenseman who came to UMD a year before Koepke and Jacques, despite being a year behind them at Hermantown. “He’s always been a really good shooter. He’s always used it to his advantage, especially in high school.
“He uses his speed. He can really fly. Not a lot of guys can keep up with him.”
Koepke, a 2018 sixth-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, enters the final weekend of the regular season as the leading goal scorer in NCHC play with 12 in 22 games. He has 14 goals — already double last year’s total — and 16 assists in 32 games overall this season, with two goals and two assists coming shorthanded.
The current eight-game point streak (five goals, five assists) is Koepke’s third extended point streak of the season having tallied three goals and three assists in six-straight games between Nov. 8 and Nov. 23 and five goals and seven assists in seven-consecutive games between Nov. 30 and Jan. 11.
Koepke, who turns 22 in May, had seven goals and 19 total points last season as a freshman and a single assist in the first six games of 2019-20.
UMD coach Scott Sandelin said Koepke is a much more confident player this season and the sophomore is using his speed to create separation and to attack the net.
“His speed sets him apart. His speed is incredible,” said Sandelin, whose son Ryan was a junior on the 2015-16 state champion Hawks. “His first two steps are arguably better than anybody in the country. When you have that separation, it certainly helps you offensively. He’s going to get space because he can create it.
“He’s always had speed. He’s faster now, he’s stronger now. He always had a good shot. He scored a lot of goals, he scored a lot of goals in high school and we’re starting to see that now at this level, as well.”
Koepke’s six goals and five assists in the 2016 Class A state tournament were part of a senior season that saw him total 68 points in 30 games, including 41 total goals. But unlike Biondi today — verbally committed to UMD and a rising prospect for the upcoming NHL Draft — Koepke was uncommitted and not on any NHL draft boards his senior season at Hermantown.
It wasn’t until after the high school state tournament, after he played nine games in Cloquet with the Minnesota Wilderness of the North American Hockey League and after being taken in the second round, No. 24 overall, of the United States Hockey League entry draft by the Sioux City Musketeers that Koepke finally started seeing offers from colleges.
“Eventually, I got the opportunity to come to Duluth and that was a no-brainer for me,” said Koepke, who verbally committed to the Bulldogs in July of 2016, one month after Samberg did.
Koepke played for the Musketeers in 2016-17, though an injury cut that season short. He played another year in Sioux City in 2017-18 — scoring 28 goals and 39 points — before getting drafted by the Lightning and enrolling at UMD.
Like his senior season at Hermantown, Koepke said he’s playing with a lot of confidence right now. Some of that comes from who he’s playing with — junior center Justin Richards has been Koepke’s shorthanded partner in crime with three shorthanded goals and an assist — but Koepke said the confidence of the coaches is the ultimate boost.
It was there in 2015-16 as a senior at Hermantown. As one of three captains, Koepke said coach Bruce Plante started giving him a little more slack in his third varsity season.
Koepke said it’s there now at UMD with Sandelin and not just for him, but for him and Richards, especially shorthanded.
“Anytime you get confidence and goals start to come early, that’s huge. Then you can build from there,” Koepke said. “I think that’s what’s happening this year. It didn’t start off super fast for me or (Justin Richards). Then we started to click a few games in. Our confidence has been there and it’s allowed us to play our game a lot more free. Coach is giving us more trust. That’s just huge for us. If your coach can trust you out there, it just skyrockets your confidence. When you are playing with confidence, you’re going to be way more successful.”