It was to be a perfect narrative: an undefeated Stillwater Ponies team would host Eden Prairie in Lowell Park on Hockey Day Minnesota with a perfect season on the line.
But in hockey, anything can happen. The Ponies lost to White Bear Lake on Jan. 14, bringing their record for the 2016-17 campaign to 14-1-0.
Now, the narrative shifts. On Hockey Day, these two strong programs who've never met in the regular season will compete for glory and bragging rights, reuniting childhood rivalries along the way.
Even though the high school programs are strangers to each other, their players are not, having faced off countless times against each other in their respective youth systems.
"[They're excited for] going to Stillwater and playing a great team they had a rivalry with growing up," said Lee Smith, head coach of Eden Prairie. "As far as high school programs, this is our first meeting. But as far as the youth program, they [grew] up playing against each other for a long time."
While Stillwater's success is relatively recent, Eden Prairie (10-4-2) has appeared in the MSHSL State Tournament and won more state titles in the past decade than every Class AA program except Edina. Since 2009, the Eagles have been to the Big Dance five times and won it all twice. This year's Hockey Day appearance is Eden Prairie's second; the Eagles beat Hermantown in 2010 by a score of 4-3.
The Ponies are on the upswing, appearing in the MSHSL State Tournament for the first time in 2014 and again last year. This is also their second Hockey Day appearance, but they'll be in search of their first Hockey Day win: Elk River beat Stillwater 4-1 in 2014.
Stillwater has yet to win a state title, but the Ponies are vying for their chance this year right alongside the Eagles.
One of Eden Prairie's greatest assets is senior Casey Mittelstadt, who turned down the opportunity to play for the USHL's Green Bay Gamblers so he and his Eagles could make a run for the state title.
Mittelstadt, who's received plenty of attention from NHL scouts and the media alike, has 32 points in 16 games. The Eagles have three other point-per-game players: seniors Hunter Johansen and Nolan Sullivan and sophomore Jack Jensen, a University of Minnesota commit.
"He's a pretty humble kid, so that helps that he's grounded," Smith said. "I think the team is used to seeing [Mittelstadt] be the star all the way up through the system. ... We're only going to go to state or win state with all 20 guys playing well, so they're more into the idea now that they've all gotta help pull the train."
Stillwater's counter to Mittelstadt is senior Noah Cates, a University of Minnesota Duluth commit with 34 points in 15 games. Seniors Luke Manning, Matthew Stanton and TJ Sagissor all have 20-plus points, which could give Eden Prairie senior goaltender Nick Wiencek some trouble.
"With Eden Prairie, the talent they have and how deep they are, we take note of that," said Stillwater head coach Matt Doman. "But we just have to play our game."
Narratives aside, both the Eagles and Ponies have had this game circled on the calendar for months, both for the chance to spark an old rivalry and to partake in everything that makes Hockey Day Minnesota so special.
"Being outside, wearing eye black, wearing those new jerseys ... the experience is so different," Doman said. "Playing in front of their town, the atmosphere is going to be really special."