It's hard to discuss Maple Grove's team without using the word 'underrated' a lot. The Crimson have a great team, and have put up a great record this year, but are oershadowed in their conference and section by two big name programs in Blaine and Centennial. Maple Grove was without a signature win over a big name program, and after back to back losses to Cetennial and Blaine in January, most people wrote them off as a distant third in their section.
On Saturday, they got that signature win on Centennial's home ice and proved that Section 5AA is still wide open.
This game wasn't your typical upset win where one team dominates play but can't finish, while the other takes advantage of the few opportunities they get. Maple Grove skated with Centennial all night and ended up outshooting the Cougars.
The big difference in the game was the first period, where Maple Grove came out ready to play, while Centennial played a terrible period. Maple Grove outshot Centennial 10-5 in the period, and took a 2-0 lead on two nice goals by sophomore Dan Carlson.
Centennial woke up in the second period and almost cut the lead in half, but hit a post, and just missed a goal by Tyler Pitlick. A few minutes later, Maple Grove scored a flukey goal when a Centennial defender accidentally deflected a rebound into his own net. Centennial scored right before the break on a pretty 2-on-1 with Tyler Pitlick and Willie Hess.
The third period was similar to the second. Centennial had a great chance to cut the lead to one, but ended up hitting the crossbar. Maple Grove got a powerplay and converted to take a commanding 4-1 lead. Centennial got another goal, but wasn't able to come back, and Maple Grove added an empty-netter to seal the win.
As for some of the individual players in the game...
Maple Grove defenseman Wally Cossette doesn't get much attention, but might be the best uncommitted college prospect among the senior class. He's a big guy that is a little unpolished, but skates pretty well and plays very nice defense. The only real problem is that Maple Grove is thin on the blueline and they have to lean on him a lot. He was pretty gassed in the last minute of the second period when Centennial scored their first goal, and he skated 2 out of every 3 shifts in the third period.
Sophomore Dan Carlson is a player that people will hear a lot more about over the next couple of years. He got the game started with two nice goals. On the first, he skated down the right wing and fired a shot that beat Brett Larsen to the far side, then on his second, he picked up a lose puck in the slot, spun and beat the goalie five-hole along the ice. He'll definitely be a candidate to play for the NTDP next season, and should be on the radar of just about every Minnesota school.
Team leading scorer Josh Gross is another player that falls into the underrated category. He doesn't stand out much if you're just watching the game, but if you watch him closely, he does so many little things that really help his team like blocking shots or making little passes to break the puck out of the zone. A very heady player.
His senior linemates Matt Dee and Tommy Malone are also pretty skilled seniors, that should get an opportunity to play hockey somewhere next season.
Centennial's Tyler Pitlick was the best player on the ice. One of the areas where he has really improved this season is as a playmaker. He does a great job of drawing attention and then setting up his linemates with nice passes. His saucer pass on Centennial's first goal was a really top notch play.
Big defenseman Joe Schmitz is a college prospect, and was on the NHL CSB watch list this fall. He's put on a lot of strength over the past year and has really become a dominating physical force on the ice. He had 3 or 4 huge hits in this game. I'm not sure he's quite ready for college hockey right now, but could be in a year or two.
Centennial has another big defenseman in junior Brett Stern that will be watched closely by colleges and NHL teams over the next year. Overall, he was fairly quiet, but showed some nice flashes of talent.
Both teams still have a game against Blaine left on their schedule, which should play a huge role in the seeding for this section. It's likely that the game between Blaine and Centennial will decide who is seeded first in the section, with the loser drawing Maple Grove in the section semifinal.
For Maple Grove, they switched up their lines from earlier this year, and put their three talented seniors on the top line, and then Carlson, along with two good juniors in Alec Horton and Isaac Sinz on the second line. That top line is good enough that they can match up with anybody's top line, and their second line is good enough to provide enough secondary offense to beat anybody.
Defense and goaltending should be the deciding factor for them. Senior goalie Sean Elmer is a solid goalie, but I'm not sure I can see him stealing a game for Maple Grove.
For Centennial, this game probably serves as a nice wake-up call. This was a bit of a trap game after some big contests against Edina and Moorhead in recent weeks and having already beaten Maple Grove in Maple Grove.
The key for Centennial should also be goaltending in the sectional tournament. It's tough to fault Brett Larsen for any of the goals he gave up, but he wasn't at the same caliber he was when he stole the victory from Edina.
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