MADISON - The comparisons have been made all season. But for the M&M Thunder high school hockey team to truly set itself apart, there's only one way to go this weekend.

The Thunder will compete in the Wisconsin Amateur Hockey Association Division 1 state tourney, which begins tonight at West Madison. The second-seeded Thunder will open Saturday at 10 a.m. against seventh-seeded Onalaska.

Last year's Thunder finished 24-7-2 and placed second - the highest of any Thunder team in a Division 1 state tourney.

After graduating 11 seniors, nobody expected this year's team to top that. But the Thunder (29-2-2) has had an incredible season and is three wins away from M&M hockey immortality.

"It was such a big unknown because we lost so many players from last year," coach Frank Best said. "We challenged the kids."

The Thunder is seeded second and Onalaska is the seventh seed.

"If we come out and play our game we should be able to win our first game," Best said, "but I guess you never know."

The winner will play Saturday at 6 p.m. against third-seeded Pettit or the sixth-seeded Ice Wolves.

The Thunder switched to a U.P. league this season and is unfamiliar with most of the state tourney teams. Fifth-seeded Rock County upset the Thunder in the M&M tourney title game this winter. The Thunder went 1-0-1 against third-seeded Kenosha, the defending state champion.

No. 1-seeded Milwaukee SHAW lost at state to the Thunder last season, and has a long history of rough games against the M&M team.

SHAW is in the opposite half of the eight-team bracket.

"The fact that we wouldn't see SHAW until Sunday is an advantage," according to Best.

Senior Riley Hegg has had an outstanding season with the Thunder. He leads the team with 57 goals and has 39 assists. Hegg has won 386 faceoffs and lost just 154.

Denin Bieberitz leads the team with 40 assists, and he has 21 goals, fifth on the team.

Derek Reiswitz, who is a year out of high school, was able to play with the Thunder because the team competed at the Midget level and he made the age cutoff date. He is ineligible for state, however.

"He's had a great year and he's been one of our leaders," Best said.

Reiswitz was third on the team in goals (24) and assists (35).

Brock Jersey (15 goals, 25 assists) will take Reiswitz's place on the first line with Hegg and Bieberitz.

The second line consists of Aaron Maas (22 goals, 33 assists), Colin Hass (29 goals, nine assists) and Mark Pulver (five goals, 11 assists). The third line includes Brendon Kriedeman, Easton Arsineau and Austin Perry. Cole Theisen, who missed much of the season due to an injury, has provided offensive punch.

The Thunder will only go as far as its defense and goaltending take it.

"I'm sure we'll get our scoring chances and we'll score goals," Best said. "It's just a matter of playing well defensively."

The five-man rotation on defense includes Gunther DeDamos, Jake Swenson, Alex McQueeney, Andy Swanson and Luke Kraus.

The team has exceeded expectations largely because freshman goalie Zak Giese has exceeded expectations. He has 544 saves and has allowed just 48 goals - a .920 save percentage.

With 42 saves in a win over Michigan Midget state champion St. Ignace, Giese proved he's no weak link.

"He's a big kid. Even when he's down he still covers up a lot of net," Best said.

Coaches Paul Aftanas and Kevin Best - both good Thunder goalies in their day - have worked with Giese to be more aggressive.

"I think it's all how well we play in our defensive end," Frank Best said. "Zak Giese's had a great year but he's our freshman goalie."

The comparisons to last year's excellent Thunder team have continued all winter, and the current team could distance itself this weekend.

"It was a transition with Bill (Mass, co-head coach) retiring," Frank Best said. "We certainly miss him, but Paul has brought in some new things and kept some of the old. It's been a good mix."