ST. LOUIS PARK, Minn. -- This weekend, Benilde-St. Maragret's will host the third annual North/South Challenge. The event will take place Dec. 6-7, at the St. Louis Park Recreation center, featuring four of the top boys’ high school hockey teams in Minnesota.
Each year, the event features the Red Knights, along with the Eden Prairie Eagles, as the two South teams. The two north teams in the event are the Brainerd Warriors and Hermantown Hawks.
This year’s varsity schedule opens Friday, with the Class A No. 2 Hawks taking on Class AA No. 1 Eden Prairie at 6 p.m., to be followed by Brainerd and Class AA No. 6 Benilde-St. Margaret’s.
Saturday, the Eagles and Warriors will open play at 12 p.m. with Hermantown facing the Red Knights in the event’s finale to follow.
The North/South Challenge was the idea of Eden Prairie head coach Lee Smith as a way for the four programs to face some of the top competition in the state early in the season. The event is hosted by each of the programs on a rotating basis with a South team hosting one year and a North team hosting the next season.
All four varsity games will be streamed live on MNHockey.TV. In 2020, the event is slated to be hosted by Hermantown.
The Red Knights were projected to be one of the state's top teams this season as they return 18 letterwinners. The team's strength was expected to be on the blueline and in goal, where they have plenty of veteran leadership.
However, they sustained losses to junior goalie Carson Limesand, the team's number one goalie the last two seasons, and sophomore defenseman Brady Yakesh, was saw action in all 28 games a year ago, due to injury.
"I like the way we've responded with Carson," BSM head coach Ken Pauly said. "Both Charlie (Frattalone) and Jack (Olson) have given us strong games."
Olson's, who defeated Hermantown 3-2 in last year's challenge with a 29-save effort, turned in a stellar, 30-save performance in a 4-3 win over defending Class AA state champion Edina, Nov. 25.
That came two nights after a 4-3 defeat at 10th-ranked Grand Rapids and Pauly realizes his team needs to improve.
"We've seen some good things out of our guys," he said. "But there are some major areas that must get better. Our lack of practice time has really shown up in some areas - the power play (where BSM is just 1-for-12) is an obvious issue, but we traditionally have started slow in that area. Our puck movement has been very good for this early in the year but we need to get more synergistic, and we will."
Pauly's team will open with an 8 p.m. game, Friday, against Brainerd, the only team to hand them a lost in the first two years of the event. BSM will then face Class A second-ranked Hermantown, Saturday.
Second-year captain Nate Schweitzer, a Colorado College commit, is in his fourth varsity season.
"This early in the season, your are really looking to get a good measurement of what areas you need to address if you want to make your team stronger," Pauly said. "Playing strong and well-coached programs is the only way to determine that.
"The North/South Challenge offers a great opportunity. Hermantown is always one of the powers in the North, and Brainerd has always been in the conversation since Dave Aus took over the program."
Brainerd head coach Dave Aus understands the role of both top dog and underdog. He led Blaine to six consecutive state tournaments before taking over the Warrior program in 2014, a program that has never reached the state tournament.
"Being the only program in this event that has not yet made a state tournament appearance we seem a bit like underdogs," Aus said. "But I think our kids embrace that role well."
Brainerd is off to a bit of a slow start this season, going 1-1-1 in its first three games, dropping a 6-0 decision in the season opener at 13th-ranked Moorhead before a 3-0 win at Buffalo and a 1-1 tie with St. Cloud.
Senior goalie Luke Saiko has posted an 11-6-1 career record along with an .891 save percentage and 2.70 goals against average.
The Warriors have some work to do if they are going to claim the Section 8 title this year and their first trip to state.
"We may take some lumps as the season plays out," Aus said. "But, I honestly think, we are going to be tough to beat at the end of the season so long as we stay healthy and continue our work ethic and competitiveness."
The team's strength lies in it's goaltending and on the blueline. Luke Saiko is back for his second season in goal and will backstop a Warrior team which features six returning letterwinners on defense, which should play into the team's strategy.
"We have four very good defensemen and two very solid goalies," Aus said. "Our system has become a little more structured. Our goal is to hold opponents to as few shots as possible and win low scoring games."
Aus knows his team isn't where they need to be, but he's confident it can get there.
"We have gotten off to a bit of a slow start, as I anticipated that we might," he said. "With a ton of turnover from last season, we have really had to work at plugging some holes that I anticipated we may have.
"The boys have worked very hard to start the season and have shown that they are willing to compete, regardless of the situation, and, at the end of the day, that is all you can ask as a coach."
The Eagles will come into this weekend's action with a target on their back, which is something head coach Lee Smith's charges are used as they are perennially one of the state's top teams.
Eden Prairie entered the season ranked number one, coming of an overtime loss in the Class AA state championship game last season.
Smith knows his team will get challenged this weekend, which is what he expects from the event.
"We get two quality games against two outstate teams," he said. "They bring a ton of pride to the rink to play the 'City Boys.'
"It also forces us to play the bench because the games happen so quickly that there isn't a lot of recovery times."
Minnesota-bound John Mittelstadt leads the top-ranked Eagles into this weekend's action.
Although with just one game under their belts, a 6-2 win over Cretin-Derham Hall, the Eagles don't have a lot to measure themselves against yet.
What they have is a stable of quality players. Up front, Eden Prairie features seniors John Mittelstadt, who has committed to play at Minnesota, and Ben Steeves, a Minnesota-Duluth commit.
On the back end, the Eagles feature a pair of highly-touted juniors in Luke Mittelstadt, who is also slated to head to Minnesota, and Harvard commit Mason Langenbrunner.
Where is his team at right now? Smith said they are still wondering.
"We have only played one game," he said. "In that game, we did a lot of excellent things, but also struggled at times.
"I know we'll be challenged immensely (this weekend), so we we will get a new measuring stick of our ability."
After nine consecutive trips to the Class A state championship game, including title wins in 2016 and 2017, the Hawks were upset in the Section 7A championship game last year and are looking for a return to the state tournament.
Behind the likes of senior forward Blake Biondi, who is an early candidate for the Mr. Hockey Award, Hermantown has plenty of reason for optimism.
"You never truly know what you have until Christmas," Hawks' head coach Patrick Andrews said. "But, I would say, early in the year I am really excited with this group.
UMD-bound Blake Biondi record 34 goals and 63 points as a junior last season.
"They have been working really hard and pushing each other in practice. We have 20-22 guys that can all play high school hockey, which makes for a great competitive environment in practice."
With that said, Andrews is looking forward to the test his team faces this weekend.
"The past two years, we have had great games with both EP and BSM, and I would expect nothing less again this year," he said. "Both teams are so well-coached and loaded with talent, it is good for our guys to be pushed so hard right out of the gate and it lets us see who is ready for high-end hockey coming into the season."
The Hawks have opened the season with wins over No. 12A Eveleth-Gilbert and No. 18AA Wayzata and Andrews has been pleased with what he's seen.
"I have been impressed with our compete and team speed," he said. "We faced adversity of different types in both games, and the boys rallied around each other and found a way to get big wins.
"We have looked very fast in the first two games,and all of our guys can skate. With our skating we should be able to compete with anyone."
But, Andrews knows his team has room to improve.
"The biggest need of improvement right now is cleaning up our team defense," he said. "Our D are very active, which we encourage, but they must be mindful of when they jump up, not every play is a home run."
The hosts to next year's event, Hermantown, Andrews stated, is looking forward to this weekend.
"We are really looking forward to the challenge of playing two of the best teams in the state on back-to-back nights," he said. "Every year this weekend presents a lot of adversity and thus a lot opportunities for growth and success. It has been a great experience for our program and we look forward to hosting it next year."