WILLMAR -- This may be Willmar's best chance to get to the boys hockey state tournament since 1947 when the upstart Cardinals beat Granite Falls in a best-of-three series for the region title.
The Cardinals (10-13), seeded No. 3 in Section 3A, will host No. 6 Marshall (14-12) tonight in the quarterfinal round. No. 2 Hutchinson (17-7) lurks up ahead in the quarterfinals and No. 1-seed New Ulm (24-3) will be favored to reach the championship game from the upper half of the bracket.
"Well, you always hope," says Cardinal coach Dan Tollefson, who played in three section tournaments for Willmar when it was still a single-class tournament. "We look at the season as having two parts and we're playing a lot better in the second half."
Willmar has played its best hockey in the last month. The Cardinals have won four of five heading to playoffs, including a sweep of Fergus Falls, to finish in a three-way tie for sixth place in the Central Lakes Conference, the highest finish since a third place in 2003-04.
The Cardinals have played one-goal games with the two higher seeds, beating Hutchinson and losing to New Ulm.
No. 5 Litchfield/Dassel-Cokato (9-16), which upset New Ulm in last year's section final, plays at No. 4 Redwood Valley (18-5-1) tonight with that winner getting the Eagles in the semifinals.
Upsets are part of the playoffs but LDC doesn't have the exceptional goaltending it had a year ago and Redwood Valley's schedule doesn't match the caliber of the other teams in the top five.
Willmar lost to the Tigers in overtime in last year's quarterfinals; this year Willmar belted Marshall 8-2 in December.
One key to the team's improvement is more muscle. Tollefson talked with the players about the need to get stronger after last year's 7-18 record.
"They've worked hard," said Tollefson. "Coach (Reed) Larson had a training regimen for them and they responded."
The Cardinals start an all-senior line with Jeff Bredberg centering Rory Schneider and Trent Fader. The sophomore line had to be adjusted after Grant Schow broke a bone in his wrist at the end of the season. He's one of the team's top scorers with nine goals and seven assists.
Gabe Amon centers Liam Johnston with Matt Odom or Stephen Reynolds on the wing in Schow's spot. Landon Baker, Brian Klein and Zach Chester are on the third line with John Nelson, coming off an injury, also seeing time.
John Schrupp, Jake Tone and Landon Peterson see the majority of blue-line time; Jake Sobieck, James Johnston and Grant Kallevig will also defend.
Ben Leitch has continued to improve between the pipes with JV goalie Keiffer Dahle backing up.
Marshall smashed Sleepy Eye 8-1 on Tuesday to advance. Danny Hansen scored five goals and Ryne Hanson got four points.