Maple Grove has a history of developing high-end hockey players.
The Osseo/Maple Grove Youth Hockey Association is one of the largest of its kind in the state, and the pure numbers make it a powerhouse across all the youth levels.
The still-developing northwest suburb shows no signs of stopping in it’s growth, both in terms of population and in hockey superiority. And even though the Crimson have seen a staggering group of elite-level players leave for the National Team Development Program, juniors or Shattuck-St. Mary's, there clearly exists enough talent in each year's crop that well-developed players keep stepping forward.
Make a list of star Maple Grove Bantam players who high school coach Todd Bergland never got a chance to work with, and rookie Wild defenseman Brock Faber, this year’s leading Calder Award candidate for the NHL's top rookie, goes to the top.
Not matter the departures, though, there is always talent at Maple Grove. But this year’s team looks different.
Absent are multiple big-time playmakers from last year’s team with the graduation of Finn Brink, Blake Steenerson and Jack Kernan, and the 72 goals and 176 points they collectively produced.
Now, a shift in mentality to defense-first and defense-always has taken hold for the Crimson, positioned at No. 8 in Class 2A in the Feb. 4 Legacy Hockey rankings.
The host Crimson (15-5-0) overcame a slow start on Tuesday and then smothered red-hot Centennial for 4-2 victory that puts them as the likely recipient of a No. 1 seed in the Section 5AA tournament set to start in two weeks. Maple Grove is the four-time defending section champion.
“It was a huge win with a lot of meaning to it,” Maple Grove defenseman and senior captain Connor Stelljes said. “Section seeding and conference wise, yea, it felt really good to get this win.”
Maple Grove’s scoring is down about half a goal from last year (5.03 to 4.48), but the Crimson have improved on goals allowed by nearly the same margin, down to 1.67 goals allowed per game from 2.03 last year.
The returning player with the most points from last year’s team, Lucas Busch (14-29-43), is still producing, with 18 goals and 34 points though 21 games. But he says the approach is entirely different this season.
“In the past we’ve had a lot of firepower on our teams,” Busch, a senior captain and forward, said. “This year, we might not be as strong up front as some other years, but we’re making up for it on the back end. Our defensemen don’t allow much to get behind them.”
It’s about what pieces the Crimson have, and finding what works for them.
“We’ve been pretty high-flying, but this year we really need to change the way we do things,” Bergland said. “We’re committed to defense, and we know that’s how we are going to win hockey games.
“We talk about it all the time, we are going to do this with absolute depth, and heart. We don’t have a Brink or a Steenerson to make that highlight reel play. (Busch) can make some great plays, but we need everybody committed to their role and playing the right way.”
Bergland credits blue line newcomers and sophomores Logan Lutner and Tommy Picconatto, along with junior Johnnie Hicks, for developing ahead of schedule. It’s made a question mark a strength, and something that drives the Crimson.
With the section playoffs looming, Maple Grove will likely finish the season just as it has in year’s past - as a top-seed and section favorite.
“We’ve learned a work ethic,” Busch said. “I think some of the younger guys maybe felt like we are Maple Grove, a double-A team that’s usually in the top 10, that we’re almost gifted in that section final game. Once everyone learned that it’s not, and we all understand that, everyone is putting in the effort in practice, and we’re going for it.”
Maple Grove picked up a pivotal win 4-2 over Centennial Tuesday night at Maple Grove Community Center in a matchup loaded with Northwest Suburban Conference implications as well as a likely top seed on the line in the Section 5AA tournament just around the corner.
With the victory, Maple Grove (16-5-0), No. 8 in the latest Legacy Hockey Class 2A rankings, assumes the driver’s seat to a top seeding as well as first place in the conference.
Centennial, ranked No. 10-2A and riding an 11-game unbeaten streak that dates to late December, held the upper hand early and held a 2-1 lead early in the second period before Maple Grove went to work. The Crimson outshot Centennial 9-7 in the second period, then 20-5 over the third as Centennial struggled to keep up with Maple Grove’s depth as the Crimson rolled three and sometimes four lines.
Andrew Karkoc scored the equalizer on a short-handed goal late in the second period, and it was all Crimson after that. Brady Aubut scored just 1:18 into the third for the eventual game-winner, and Lucas Busch added an empty netter as the Crimson pulled away.
Harper Searles and Kellen Krumwiede scored for Centennial.