Hockey Day Minnesota will open bright and early on Saturday when the Mahtomedi Zephyrs (8-6-0) take on the Thief River Falls Prowlers (7-7-0) in a Class A contest at 10 a.m.
It will be the first time the programs meet in the regular season; they are a full 306 miles apart, making regular matchups a challenge.
Mahtomedi has appeared in eight MSHSL State Tournaments, but the program has never captured a state title. Most recently, the Zephyrs took third place at the tournament in 2015.
After a tough start to the season, Mahtomedi has picked up its game significantly in the middle stretch. The Zephyrs enter Saturday having won five of their last six games. Mahtomedi sits third in the Metro East behind Hill-Murray, which it lost to twice, and St. Thomas Academy, which it just beat on Jan. 14.
The Zephyrs have three point-per-game (or more) players: sophomore Dylan Lallier and seniors Matt Vannelli and Luke Posner, who has 29 points in 14 games played.
As one of the older hockey programs in the state of Minnesota, Thief River Falls has been well represented in the MSHSL State Tournament. The Prowlers have appeared in the tournament 13 times, and they took third place the year after Mahtomedi, in 2016.
Having graduated 12 seniors last year, the Prowlers' mission this year was to establish an identity and to try to follow up a 24-7-0 season capped with an MSHSL State Tournament appearance. Leading the way are junior Aaron Myers, with 26 points in 14 games, and seniors Christian Larson and Zachary Lee, with 17 and 12 points, respectively.
"We have high expectations every year," said Tim Bergland, head coach of Thief River Falls. "[I'm proud of] the way these guys have showed up every game, day in and day out. We had a lot to learn this year and we've started to mature as a group."
Like Mahtomedi, Thief River Falls is also riding a winning stretch, entering Saturday having won three of its past four. The Prowlers are in the middle of the pack of the seven-member Mariucci Conference behind Roseau and East Grand Forks.
Even though both programs have plenty of experience with the MSHSL State Tournament, Mahtomedi and Thief River Falls have the distinction of being the only two high school teams in Hockey Day Minnesota 2017 that have never appeared in a Hockey Day before. Stillwater and Minnetonka's girls matchup is a rematch of the 2009 girls game, the Stillwater boys visited Elk River in 2014 and Eden Prairie beat Hermantown in 2010.
Needless to say, both programs are exceptionally eager for the opportunity.
"Hockey Day is something that probably every Minnesota hockey person is aware of and watches," Bergland said. "It's something these guys are looking forward to."