Section 7AA boys hockey: East hopes to strike back in playoffs

Almost daily, Duluth East's Garrett Worth is reminded of the Greyhounds' agonizing loss to Grand Rapids in last year's Section 7AA boys hockey title game.

Garrett Worth (5) of Duluth East shoots the puck on goal against Grand Rapids goaltender Gabe Holum (30)during Thursday's game at the Heritage Sports Center in Duluth. (Clint Austin /
Garrett Worth (5) of Duluth East shoots the puck at Grand Rapids goaltender Gabe Holum earlier this season at Heritage Center. The Thunderhawks won a thriller between the teams in last season's Section 7AA final. (Clint Austin /

Almost daily, Duluth East's Garrett Worth is reminded of the Greyhounds' agonizing loss to Grand Rapids in last year's Section 7AA boys hockey title game.

That's because last summer the junior forward hung a copy of the Feb. 26, 2016 News Tribune Sports cover in his locker-room stall at Heritage Center. It shows the Thunderhawks rejoicing after rallying from a 5-3 third-period deficit by notching three unanswered goals, the last coming from Alex Adams with 6 seconds remaining in regulation. That day's headline, in big, bold font: THUNDERSTRUCK.

Worth didn't want to forget the pain he felt as East's streak of seven section championships ended in front of a dazed and amused Amsoil Arena crowd.

"I wanted to remember it every day," he said on the eve of today's 7AA quarterfinals. "It was a heartbreaking loss, losing the trophy to our archrival. I want to get back to the tournament very badly, and I know all the guys in the locker room do, too.

"We're on a mission."


The same could be said for the bracket's top seed, Elk River. The rest of the section is chasing the Elks (21-4), who are ranked third in the state. Their seven-game winning streak includes a 4-1 win over East on Feb. 4. That afternoon on its Olympic-sized sheet of ice, Elk River's depth, especially along the blue line, was on display. Mr. Hockey finalist Nick Perbix and his fellow defensemen limited the Greyhounds to 11 shots on goal.

Elk River has been here before, carrying the mantle of favorite into the postseason. But the Elks' last trip to the state tournament was 2005.

Last year, it was Grand Rapids' turn. And the way this season started, the Thunderhawks appeared destined for a repeat. They were 7-0 following wins over highly ranked Edina and Eden Prairie in mid-December. But a loss to Elk River on the final day of the Edina Holiday Classic touched off a 10-7-1 close to the regular season. Grand Rapids was humbled 5-0 by East on Jan. 12, though the Thunderhawks were minus talented defenders Drake Anderson and Michael Heitkamp, who received game misconducts for their role in a postgame scrum at Hermantown two days prior.

Grand Rapids seemed to steady the ship before dropping three straight to Bemidji, Moorhead and Cloquet-Esko-Carlton. Still, Thunderhawks coach Trent Klatt refutes the notion of a second-half swoon.

"I don't really see it that way," Klatt said. "I think we've had a pretty strong season from start to finish."

Grand Rapids (17-7-1) slipped from a likely third seed to No. 4 via last week's loss at CEC. The Lumberjacks (15-8-2) moved up and host No. 6 Duluth Marshall (13-11-1) in tonight's quarterfinals. The Thunderhawks, meanwhile, welcome No. 5 Andover (10-13-2), which played Grand Rapids to a 3-3 tie on Dec. 30.

Klatt, whose team was third at last year's state tournament, doesn't put much stock in seeds.

"At the end of the day it doesn't matter," he said. "You have to win three hockey games to get in. You have to go through everybody."


No. 2 East (16-8-1) hosts seventh-seeded St. Francis (9-16) tonight.

CEC finds itself in a similar position to 2016, when the Lumberjacks defeated Marshall twice in the regular season, then slipped past the Hilltoppers in the quarterfinals. It worked out then, but CEC coach Dave Esse is leery of having to beat a team three times.

He says the young Lumberjacks, 8-3 over their past 11, have found their stride. The victory against Grand Rapids, which avenged a 7-1 loss to the Thunderhawks on Jan. 17, bolstered their confidence.

"I'm not sure how many times our juniors and seniors have beaten Grand Rapids through the years. It was pretty special at the end of the year here," Esse said while driving last week to Bemidji, where daughter Carley Esse was celebrating senior night for the Bemidji State women's hockey team. "The most important thing is you have to have confidence going into playoffs. That game proved that we can beat good teams. We've hung with (good teams) - lost 3-1 to Eden Prairie - but hanging with a team and beating them is a whole different deal."

With a win tonight, CEC just might be staring at a rematch with antagonist East on Saturday at Amsoil. The day's other semifinal could be Grand Rapids vs. Elk River. Nobody will struggle to get excited about those matchups.

"This is the best time of the year," Klatt said. "You get to live vicariously through your players."


1. Hermantown 23-1-1


2. Duluth East 16-8-1

3. Cloquet-EC 15-8-2

4. Grand Rapids 17-7-1

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