Lots of teams around the state have eased their way into the ‘19-20 campaign this week, some with just one game on the schedule or a nice early-season matchup to get their feet wet. Hard to blame teams on this approach as you’re still implementing systems, getting young guys acclimated to the speed of the high school game and in some cases, still missing players to fall sports. NOT the case for these four teams that will be facing off this weekend in a battle of MI-HS heavyweights. Division-I powers Brighton and Saginaw Heritage square off in a rematch of the 2018 state championship, while Hartland and Country Day compare their respective back-to-back state title résumés.
Friday, November 22 at 7:30 p.m.
BREAKDOWN: The Eagles at home are always a tough draw, with a 12-4-1 record at Hartland Sports Center over the last two seasons — two of those four losses are at the hands of one team though, and that team is not Country Day. Hartland has elite playmakers in Dakota Kott and Kieran Carlile, among other sources of offense that they can tap into if called upon but DCD has playmakers of their own as well… and maybe more of ‘em.
Gino Sessa and Jacob Thomas present major challenges from the blue line, as they can defend as well as they can produce offensively. The question as a coach becomes, ‘Do I match my top line against their top D pair or try to get them away from their best defenders?’ It’s a tough spot to be in for Hartland and coach Rick Gadwa because as much as you want to put your guys in a position to succeed, you can’t afford to expose yourself to mismatches either.
Both the Eagles and Yellowjackets will start relatively inexperienced goaltenders. I’m anticipating Ryan Piros for Hartland and Greg Enright for Country Day but that is an educated guess. If that’s the case, the two goalies combine for just two career starts — one of which was this past Wednesday — that’s according to The Hub. Play in net will be the Achilles heel in this matchup, and I don’t know what we’ll get from either ‘tender.
Two very talented, very deep teams that are sure to be in the discussion for their respective Division races come mid-March. I’m gonna go with the Yellowjackets here in Week One, surviving a couple penalty kills down the stretch and edging out Hartland in their own barn.
Saturday, November 23 at 6:45 p.m.
BREAKDOWN: Two teams that finished each of the last two seasons ranked in the top six of MyHockey’s Division-I rankings, and I expect ‘19-20 to follow suit.
Brighton needed a three-goal third period to defeat Canton 4-2 on Wednesday, and while the Chiefs will be much improved this season, I certainly didn’t expect it to be such a tight game. The offense runs through Will Jentz and the four-year senior is as dominant of a power forward as you’ll see this season. He’s a phenomenal talent to rely upon but I worry that dependency may lead to ebbs and flows for Brighton, as one guy can only do so much. The Dogs will need Logan Mitchell, Brady MacDonald or some other resource to elevate their game and add a legitimate threat to this Brighton squad. The potential is there for sure, but I’ve gotta see it first.
I’m giving the edge to Heritage, in what might be perceived as a bit of an upset in the opening week of the season. The Hawks won this opening contest a year ago 7-1, but I don’t think it will be that slanted on Saturday night. With returning weapons like Brady Rappuhn, Matthew Cole, Ethan Houck and John-Michael Watson, I trust Heritage’s solidified depth more than the potential that Brighton may have.
Heritage also has senior Jacob Winters in net, who has a little bit more of a track record than the Bulldogs’ Chris Wozniak. I could see the Hawks outshooting Brighton 28-20 or 35-24, meaning that Wozniak gets put to the test much more than Winters and it comes down to how much he can answer the challenge, as well as how efficient Brighton can (or can’t) defend their own end.