Examiner's Note: Beginning with the Class AA preview, the format of each section preview in hockey and basketball will change. Instead of going section by section in numerical order, the sections will be previewed by ranking, starting with the toughest and going down the line.
The Road to St. Paul begins this week for Minnesota high school girls hockey teams as section play gets underway. First up is a preview of the eight Class AA sections.
The best and toughest of the eight class AA sections is without any doubt Section 6. There are four teams in a seven team section that have a great shot of heading to St. Paul. Leading off is the top seeded and top ranked Hopkins Royals. Vin Paolucci's bunch is looking for their first trip to state since 2009, when they lost to Stillwater in the Class AA championship. Looking to keep the Hopkins team bus in the garage is the second seeded Benilde-St. Margaret's Red Knights, led by Ms. Hockey candidate Kelly Pannek, Caitlin Reilly and goalie Abby Miller. Their only two losses this season were to Edina and Hill-Murray. Seeded third is the three time state champion Minnetonka Skippers. It's been a tougher road this season for Minnetonka. Can their championship reign continue? Also in the hunt is another Top 10 team, the fourth seeded Wayzata Trojans. They have bounced back from a five game losing streak, including two to Minnetonka. But wait, there's more. The fifth seeded Maple Grove Crimson, who defeated Hopkins on January 30. They face the Trojans in the quarterfinals Saturday, February 9. Who will emerge from this section? Find out on Valentine's Day at Ridder Arena.
Looking at Section 2. The Eden Prairie Eagles and the Edina Hornets are the top two seeds. God news for Hornets fans. Head coach Laura Slominski is back on the bench after missing most of the season due to an injury. But look out for the combined team from the two Bloomington schools who are seeded third, Jefferson and Kennedy. They have an outstanding goalie in Bailey Plaman. Can they dethrone the Lake Conference juggernaut?
In Section 4, the top seeded Hill-Murray Pioneers have not lost in 10 straight games. But this section is usually tough with the second seeded Stillwater Ponies, the third seeded Cretin-Derham Hall Raiders and fourth seeded Roseville Raiders. It should be interesting.
Going south to Section 1, the top seeded Lakeville North Panthers hope to return to St. Paul after playing in the memorable six overtime game in last year's semifinals against Minnetonka. Look out Lakeville North! There are a couple of emerging contenders on your path. The second seeded Dodge County Wildcats and the hottest team in the state with a 14 game winning streak, the third seeded Rochester John Marshall Rockets. Can JM become the first school from the home of the Mayo Clinic to earn a state tournament berth since the Mayo Spartans in 2007? They can if they stay hot.
THE REST OF THE FIELD
The Section 3 field is wide open with the top seeded Burnsville Blaze, the second seeded Eastview Lightning and the third seeded Hastings Raiders in contention.
Section 5 could be a dandy with the Blaine Bengals a potential top seed going on a five game winning streak. It could also be the last chance to see the metro's leading scorer, Irondale's Samantha Donovan, before she heads for Rhode Island next season to play at Brown. Also in the mix could be the Mounds View Mustangs.
The pairings have not been released for Sections 7 & 8. Looking at the standings in 7, the three teams with a winning record are the Andover Huskies, Elk River/Zimmerman and Grand Rapids/Greenway. And finally, in Section 8, the top contenders are Sartell/Sauk Rapids and St. Cloud. Since the state tournament began in 1995, no team from the St. Cloud area has traveled down I-94 to St. Paul. Could this be the year for the Granite City?
Next up, the Class A section preview.