Puck Drop
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Heading up Thursday to Amsoil Arena in Duluth for the Class 2A, Section 7 showdown featuring No. 4 Andover and defending section champion, No. 12 Duluth East.

Forget the Greyhounds’ pedestrian ranking –this game is as big as it gets. Here on the Star Tribune’s new Puck Drop blog, we will go inside a bona fide north-south collision.

“Everybody up north hates Duluth East until they play a southern school,” Andover coach Mark Manney said. “Then all of 218 [area code] gets behind them.”

An Andover victory brings an historic first state tournament appearance. But wrestling it from the Greyhounds, the Northland’s Cake Eaters who essentially have home ice, won’t be easy. Many metro-area observers object to this Duluth East advantage. Manney isn’t part of the mob.

“We’ve taken the approach that we want our kids to play in a first-class facility that makes the game special,” Manney said. “We look it as we get to play there, not that we have to play there. Playing East up there makes it even better – though there is a certain mystique.”

Duluth East has won eight of the past 10 section titles, including last season’s overtime defeat of Andover. But there is reason for the Huskies to believe. They edged Duluth East 2-1 in overtime on Dec. 8 – a first for an Andover program that began in 2002.

Duluth East was 13-0-2 all-time against Andover. (Thanks, @KarlEastHockey)

“A loss might have gotten into our heads,” Manney said. “But we were able to squeak out a win and that kind of broke the seal. Now we know we can just play our game knowing if we play well enough, we have a good chance to win.”

Duluth East’s Mike Randolph, one of state’s premier postseason coaches, said he “doesn’t get into the psychology aspect. Drop the puck and let’s play.”

Regarding Andover’s December victory, Randolph said, “It’s different now. I think we’re playing finally playing up to our abilities.”

As a token of his confidence, Randolph said, “The section final is our trophy and they have to come and get it.”

One more to remember

I last made this trip to cover this game in 2012, figuring either Andover’s talented sophomore goalie Chase Perry might steal a victory or, more likely, I would get a head start on my state tournament preview reporting on Duluth East, the state’s best team. That title disappeared the first day of the state tournament, when all four high seeds crashed hard.

But here’s one from the archives to make Duluth East fans smile. It's a story former Duluth East standout Chris Locker previously shared with me, one Randolph expanded on this week. Makes me wish I had made the trip north in 1991.

Randolph’s run as Duluth East head coach really got cooking at the ’91 Region 2 finals when his Greyhounds beat Cloquet before a crowd at the Duluth Entertainment Convention Center that might have cost the fire marshal his or her job.

Locker, who rushed back from a peewee regional playoff game to attend, remembers barely getting in the door and then not being able to see the stairways within the building – they became improvised seats.

Randolph said, “Because Cloquet and us beat the metro teams in the semifinals, they moved the final to the Duluth. But they only had one day between games so they didn’t have time to print tickets. So they used the little tickets you’d get at Duluth East football games. Nobody had any idea how many people got in that night.”

Duluth East won in overtime and Locker said his father “jumped up and his arm hit me. I almost went flying onto the people in the row in front of us.

“That was the game where the idea started that I wanted to experience that,” said Locker, who later won the 1995 Class 2A state title.

Here’s to a new generation of memories being hatched Thursday.