St. Cloud, MN – After getting swept by Miami this past weekend it’s probably time for the team to take a deep breath, sit back and do some self-evaluation. Granted, things have not hit the “critical” point but after completing half the conference schedule they’ve got a lot of work ahead of them. Currently tied for fifth in the conference standings with Miami, the Huskies have played two more games than everyone in the league with the exception of this weeks opponent, UMD. Currently in the bottom half of the NCHC standings, the Huskies would be on the road to face the North Dakota Fighting Hawks in Grand Forks in the NCHC playoffs if the regular season ended today.
This past weekend, the Huskies were on the tail end of a very long road trip that started prior to the Arizona Desert Classic on December 30 and 31st. Rather than returning to St. Cloud following the tourney and re-booking a round trip to Oxford, OH the team decided (mainly for expense purposes) to get a few extra practice sessions in on the road and then head directly to Oxford. All told, this was about a twelve day road trip culminating in a 1-3 record including the games at the Desert Classic. Following Saturday’s Miami loss, Coach Motzko commented that the team played like it had a “flat tire” that evening. I’d agree but would also add that it wasn’t a particularly good road trip starting with the games in the Desert Classic. The loss to an undermanned Connecticut team was a disappointment and coughing up a 3-0 lead to edge Arizona State (currently #48 in the PWR) 4-2 (EN goal) in the third place game was downright frustrating to watch. Following that up with a “controversial” loss to Miami on Friday definitely hurt especially when the Huskies were in full control of the contest prior to the “contact to the head” call on Jacob Benson with 2:15 left in regulation.
There was certainly a lot of fan discussion concerning Benson’s penalty on Friday but I can understand WHY it was called. The emphasis on eliminating contact with the head literally forces the officials to make that call with no exceptions especially after the player goes down and is curled up on the ice. But, the frustration surfaces when the penalty is called, the player gets back up to his skates and is immediately on the power play. If it is in fact ruled contact to the head should the player be sent to a “quiet room” for evaluation or at least sit out a shift? I don’t have the answer but it raises the question. We then know the rest of the story. Miami’s Melnick scores on a 6 x 4 with the goaltender pulled with 56 seconds remaining in regulation to tie the game. The penalty carries over to the overtime and Melnick scores again on the man-advantage 1:23 into overtime for a 3-2 Miami win. A terrible way to forfeit three league points.
Take your choice – chalk up Saturday’s loss to bad luck, poor execution, an ineffective power play or a being on the tail end of a lengthy road trip. After losing via the five-minute major on Friday, the Huskies were handed six man-advantage opportunities on Saturday but failed to score on any and that was clearly the biggest factor in the 4-1 loss. Their opponent, Miami did enter the series as one of the top PK units in the NCHC but has been anything but an offensive juggernaut this season. With three of their six goals (excluding the EN) on the power play this weekend it was special teams that dictated the results in this series. Jeff Smith started both contests and finished the weekend with a .89 SV%. Once again, not where the goaltending needs to be to be successful.
Something is telling me the line chemistry is just not clicking right now. The “flat tire” syndrome related by Coach Motzko after Saturday’s game is an indication of that. It was also there for stretches in Arizona. With close to 30 different line combinations this season, the coaching staff has certainly tried to find the right chemistry.There was simply too many errant passes and sloppy play the entire weekend to be acceptable for a team with this many skilled players.The team is also suffering from the void left by the departure of power forward Patrick Russell who supplied a totally different element of physicality on the forecheck and in front of the opponent’s goal. It doesn’t appear there is a replacement for that void right now although Ryan Poehling and Blake Winiecki are the closest candidates. I would also think the coaching staff would admit defensively they are not boxing out their opponent as well as they need to and they need improved focus back on the blue line especially with added pressure of the goaltending SV% running south of 90%.
The Huskies recent lack of success has caused them to plummet in the rankings falling out of the top twenty in USCHO and to #20 in the Pairwise. But, you have to look at the positives of their upcoming schedule. All of their games until the end of February with perhaps the exception of Bemidji can do wonders for their conference standings and Pairwise. With 12 conference games remaining – eight vs UMD, Denver and North Dakota they can resuscitate their NCAA aspirations. However, there is little margin for error and it starts with a strong weekend in Duluth vs the Bulldogs who stumbled against Colorado College this past weekend and subsequently fallen to #3 in USCHO. The Huskies recent struggles at home vs the Bulldogs are well documented. However, they are 5-2-1 in their last eight in Duluth which is a positive to build on. The challenge is there.
More on the UMD matchup will be provided later in the week.