Howie Hockey Notebook: Section 7AA/7A big dogs not disappointing

DULUTH, MN — This high school boys hockey season is playing out as predicted, with Duluth East, Hermantown, Cloquet, and Duluth Denfeld all getting off to strong starts and setting themselves up for high seeds in their respective section tournaments.

Here’s a mid-season report card for each team:
Duluth East (9-3-1) — The Class 2A/No. 5-ranked Greyhounds have been as competitive as any team in the state, while playing an enormously challenging schedule. Duluth East’s 2-1 overtime loss at Andover on December 8 only whets the appetite for a possible Duluth East-Andover Section 7AA. Cloquet and Grand Rapids are strong sectional darkhorses. Look for the Greyhounds to play a lot of low-scoring, one-goal games for the rest of the regular season and into the playoffs. I’m still picking Duluth East to win Section 7AA.
Hermantown (9-3-0) — The more I watch the Class 1A/top-ranked Hawks, the more I am impressed with their elite forward line consisting of Blake Biondi, Joey Pierce and Justin Thomas. Biondi is an ultra-elite scorer, and Pierce and Thomas are big, rugged power forwards who can score in bunches. Defenseman Darian Gotz is a strong two-way player. I’m curious to see how senior goaltender Cole Manahan plays against Class 2A/top-ranked Minnetonka on Saturday afternoon at the Hawks Dome.
Cloquet (6-8-0) — As always, the Lumberjacks will be a dangerous team to play in the Section 7AA tournament. Cloquet has struggled a bit while playing one of the toughest schedules in the state. The Jacks have won three of their last four, including wins against Elk River-Zimmerman (5-0), Stillwater (5-2) and Duluth Marshall (3-2). The loss was at Class 2A/No. 4 Maple Grove (6-4). Senior center Landon Langenbrunner leads the Jacks with nine goals and 20 points. His brother, Mason, is Minnesota’s best sophomore defenseman.
Duluth Denfeld (8-4-1) — The Hunters, the surprise team in northeastern Minnesota, lost to Duluth East 2-1 late in overtime on Monday and defeated Greenway 4-3 in overtime on Dec. 4 at Hodgins-Berado Arena. Hunters Payton Budisalovich (team-high 24 points), Griffin Lehet (23) and Zach DeCaro (19) are elite forwards, and Darren Shykes (7) is a big, bruising puck-moving defenseman. Shawn Easty had 57 saves against the Greyhounds.
My Section 7AA and 7A Rankings
Section 7AA
1. Duluth East
2. Andover
3. Cloquet
4. Grand Rapids
5. Elk River
Section 7A
1. Hermantown
2. Greenway
3. Duluth Denfeld
4. Eveleth-Gilbert
5. Virginia
. . .
Expect senior forward Ryder Donovan of Duluth East and sophomore forward Joey Pierce of Hermantown to verbally commit to the Bulldogs soon.
Class act: Duluth Denfeld coach Dale Jago, in a post-game interview, thanking Duluth East coach Mike Randolph for continuing to play the Class 1A Hunters. The Duluth East-Duluth Denfeld rivalry will continue to heat up as the Hunters teams improve in the next few years.
Expect Bulldogs junior forward Riley Tufte to sign at the end of the college season with the Dallas Stars, who will have to sign him or he becomes a National Hockey League free-agent.
Look for New York Rangers top-two defenseman Neal Pionk of Hermantown to sign a new multi-year contract with the team either still this season or in the spring, at an estimated $6.5 million-plus per season.
I wouldn’t be surprised if Los Angeles Kings defenseman Derek Forbort is traded soon, along with his defensive partner Drew Doughty. I expect that Toronto will snatch Doughty. Forbort to the Rangers?
Howie Hanson is a contributor to CBS 3 Duluth.  His views do not reflect those of CBS 3 Duluth’s.  Watch for his weekly column every Thursday night as part of CBS 3’s Thursday Night Face-off, which focuses on high school hockey during the 2019-2019 season.  
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