March 7, 2020 @ Xcel Energy Center 7:00
The 2020 high school hockey season had been difficult to prognosticate with many competitive teams, but Hill-Murray and Eden Prairie emerged from the gauntlet of earlier playoff rounds to face off in the season’s final game. Eden Prairie had been the 2019 state runner-up, and although only seven players from that team returned in 2020, the Eagles had another strong season and entered the championship game with a 24-5-1 record. Playing an equally difficult schedule, Hill-Murray was 21-6-3 and had quietly played their best hockey against top competition, going 4-0-1 against the AA tournament field in the regular season.
Eden Prairie had the first good scoring chance three minutes in, twice sending the puck through the crease on a 3-on-2 but failing to generate a shot. Following that, their chances would be few and far between. Playing without top defenseman Joe Palodichuk, who was a late scratch due to illness, Hill-Murray nevertheless prevented Eden Prairie from ever achieving much offensive rhythm thanks to excellent team positioning and defensive support. With Luke Hause and Leo Gruba picking up extra minutes, plus the steady play of Seamus Regan, Matthew Fleishhacker, and Axel Begley, the defense appeared to function interchangeably along with plenty of help from the forwards. About half of Eden Prairie’s attempted shots were blocked by Pioneer skaters, and the other half were handled confidently by Remington Keopple.
Hill-Murray’s first goal came midway through its only power play of the game, when Fleishhacker snuck a long wrist shot between a defender’s legs and then the goalie’s. Eden Prairie failed to score on its only power play late in the first period, which ended with the Pioneers up 1-0.
Both teams missed wide on open chances early in the second, and Nick Pierre dinged the crossbar on a 2-on-1. A goal for either side was beckoning, and Owen Quast provided it with a 50-foot wrist shot over goalie Axel Rosenlund’s blocker, after he and Max Zupfer had won a loose puck in the neutral zone. It was just the fifth goal of the season for Quast, although two of those were critical, the other being the tying goal in the second period of the section final.
With a two goal lead, Hill-Murray was able to effectively execute their strategy for the rest of the second period. When Eden Prairie finally did get a 3-on-2 with two minutes remaining, Keopple snared John Mittelstadt’s 30-foot shot with his glove. Then off the ensuing faceoff, the Pioneers worked the puck up ice to Strobel, who stickhandled along the left side, behind the net, and stuffed the puck inside the post. Not content with a three goal lead, Pierre nearly added another soon after, twice wristing shots off Rosenlund’s glove, one of which dribbled behind him and hit the post.
The third period started much like the end of the second, with Hill-Murray getting good chances on partial breakaways by Strobel and Jared Jensen. However, Eden Prairie’s leading scorer, Ben Steeves, promptly spoiled the shutout when he nearly duplicated Quast’s goal with a rush up the left side and a shot over Keopple’s blocker from the left circle. With 11 minutes to go, Eden Prairie still had more than enough time to put Hill-Murray’s championship dreams on thin ice, but the Pioneers held firm over the next five minutes. Then Strobel essentially put an exclamation point on the game and the season, outracing everyone to a loose puck in the neutral zone and continuing with a not-to-be-stopped burst up the right side before cutting to the middle and depositing a shot under Rosenlund’s pad.
Eden Prairie played most of the final five minutes with six skaters, although not much of note occurred other than Hill-Murray whistling shots wide of the empty net several times. No matter, the Pioneers completed a 4-1 victory and a well-deserved state championship. Keopple finished the season with a school-record save percentage above 93.4. The previous record holder was Jeff Poeschl, who earlier in the day coached Mahtomedi to the Class A title, giving Metro East teams both the AA and A crowns. St. Thomas Academy, tied for third in the Metro East, finished fourth in the AA tournament.
The 2020 Pioneers added to the school's exemplary hockey legacy. Just over a month ago, the team honored the program's first state champions, the 1970 Hill Pioneers. Now, at the completion of six decades of boys hockey, the school has a sixth state champion team.
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