It’s the time of year when one turnover can make or break a season. When one hot goaltender can spark an upset and unsuspecting tournament run.
Yes, believe it or not, the WIAA state hockey playoffs for both boys and girls are officially here.
There should be no shortage of excitement in the Chippewa Valley. Here are the players, teams and story lines you can be keeping on eye on these next three weeks.
— We’ll start in the most local boys bracket — known to the WIAA as Section 2.
Eau Claire Memorial is the clear team to beat, as it has been in the last decade. The Old Abes are going for their ninth straight state tournament appearance and first under rookie coach Chris Tok.
This year’s Memorial team, with many of the same names as last year’s squad, has shown Tok’s philosophy all year, making them look just a tad different.
The Old Abes have emphasized getting pucks to the net this year and have scored more rebound goals than we’ve seen in years past. Perhaps their shining example came last Tuesday against Hudson, when they didn’t have anything going against the top-ranked defending state champions.
Down 2-0 with 7:59 to play, Memorial got a goal right in front of the net by forcing the issue and driving right through the slot. The Abes then tied the game on a Carter Ottum rebound goal with 1:33 left.
When Memorial has been ousted at the state tournament the last few years, it’s run into some really hot goaltenders. Appleton United’s Dylan Phinney stopped 28 of 29 shots two years ago in a semifinal loss, while Hudson’s Anthony Howard pitched a shut out on the Abes in last year’s quarterfinals.
The grittier look of Memorial this year gives it opportunity to score some blue-collar goals, and it has outscored opponents on average of 4.96 goals per game to 1.83.
Eau Claire North is the No. 2 seed and boasts the area’s leading scorer in Sam Stange.
He can change a game all by himself if he gets time and space. His shot is that good, and his patience on the ice creates those opportunities.
The Huskies’ second line, Joey Koller and Zach Urdahl mixed in with another forward, is pesky and will make other teams work.
North, which has challenged itself with tough competition all year, aims for its second sectional final in the last three years.
Chippewa Falls is an intriguing team at the No. 3 seed.
While the Cardinals don’t boast the explosiveness they had last year in All-Area player of the Jordan Steinmetz or Blayde Bowe, they play hard and make teams earn victories against them.
If they get a lead, they could be especially tough. They have a strong three-year goalie in Jaden Hoople as well as a defense that can play keep away.
It probably wouldn’t be wildly pleasant for a team to fall behind a couple goals on them.
Elsewhere in the sectional, seventh-seed Rice Lake is playing some of its best hockey of the season. The Warriors are as well-coached as anyone with former Badger Josh Engel behind the bench. If they beat Chequamegon tonight, they’d get North on Friday.
Regis/Altoona/McDonell is the eighth-seed and hosts Black River Falls tonight at Hobbs Altoona Sports Arena. The co-op can score, and first-year coach Nick Stirmel has let some of his playmakers have the green light in the offensive zone.
— Perhaps the most intriguing sectional in all of Wisconsin is the girls Sectional 1. In it are the state’s top three teams in Hudson, the ECA Stars and the St. Croix Valley Fusion. Those are the top three seeds in that order.
Don’t be at all surprised if one of these three teams hoists a state title trophy in the early afternoon on March 3.
The Stars are in the midst of their best season ever with a 21-2 record, and it’s no coincidence this is also their most complete team.
They have three very solid lines offensively that have all scored big goals, and their defense is balanced thanks to Charlotte Akervik and Brooklynn Arbs up front.
They have the state’s leading scorer in Abigail Stow as well as Ava Kison. When those two are paired up together, instant offense can happen.
If there’s a year for the Stars to make it to Madison, this is sure a good candidate.
Of course, the sectional goes through top-ranked Hudson.
The Raiders won the conference and got it done with defense, allowing just 1.33 goals per game. Anna Wilgren will be a state player of the year finalist and has 64 points.
St. Croix Valley knocked off the Stars two weeks ago in a 6-5 thriller and has shown an ability to play with the top teams.
It’s a shame two of these three will have to sit home state weekend.
— The last sectional we look at is back on the boys side in Sectional 1.
Obviously, Hudson will be the team to beat here. The Raiders have lost just one game all year — that came on Saturday to Green Bay Notre Dame — and are the defending state champs.
Defense is the name of their game, allowing just 1.17 goals per game. They play hard on the forecheck and take advantage of others mistakes.
However, they don’t have a cakewalk to state.
Superior is always a tough team to handle, and they beat them 2-1 in early December. And don’t count out third-seed New Richmond, which Hudson had to come back to beat on Jan. 25. Also, the Tigers took Memorial to overtime on Dec. 21.
New Richmond will open with sixth-seeded Menomonie on Thursday. The Mustangs, led by Carter Davidson, played one of their better games of the year in a 3-1 loss last Thursday.