St. Cloud, MN – What a difference a year makes. The Huskies hit a high watermark in 2015-16 scoring an average of 4.27 goals per game and having a success rate on the power play of 29.5%. Entering the 2016-17 season, the Huskies saw the loss of 219 points of offense from the departure of a senior laden team with strong offensive leaders such as Kalle Kossila (14-40-54), Joey Benik (23-25-48) and sophomore, Patrick Russell (20-21-41), an early departure to the pros. Add to that the signing of an NHL contract by 30 game winner and goaltender Charlie Lindgren who posted a 2.12 GAA and .925 SV% and the team had a lot of rebuilding to do.
Having to rely on a squad with 18 rostered underclassmen would require a whole lot of coaching, patience and a bit of psychology by the SCSU coaching staff. Despite having a lot of talent to work with, the team would be missing leadership, experience and game day confidence. The Huskies would send nine underclassmen into battle at the forward position, five on defense and three untested goaltenders including a sophomore transfer and a freshman. From the start of the season, coach Motzko repeatedly cautioned this squad would go through a process of “growth” and it would take a large portion of the season for the youngsters to gain the confidence and experience to be successful in the torrid schedule of the NCHC. The depth on defense was undeniable with two NCHC All-Rookie team players in Jimmy Schuldt and Will Borgen and a third sophomore, Jon Lizzotte. The addition of a first-round NHL draft choice in Dennis Cholowski and USHL Defenseman of the Year Jack Ahcan added big time talent at the blue line. Add the experience of Junior Nate Widman and Senior Niklas Nevalainen and it was a certainty this unit would be formidable by seasons end. However, the biggest questions were on offense and in goal with nine of thirteen forwards underclassmen and neither expected starter in goal with a single game of experience in the NCHC.
So, despite an unremarkable record of 15-14-1 overall and conference record of 9-10-1 entering a bye week before the final push to the end of the season they currently sit in 4th place in the NCHC standings and just one point behind Western Michigan for third place. Buoyed by college hockey’s 4th toughest strength of schedule they are currently 12th in the Pairwise – an enviable position to be in at this juncture of the season.
Let’s drill things down a little to further understand the strides this team has made as they’ve progressed through their schedule. With a record of 6-8-0 from November through January, the team struggled at home losing five straight games at the Brooks Center. Saturday games were a buzz kill losing five straight until the most recent weekend sweep of Miami. But, coincidentally, the team’s turnaround occurred after getting swept by the Miami RedHawks on January 4th and 5th in Oxford, OH. With a schedule full of top-ranked teams UMD, North Dakota, Denver and Bemidji State the Huskies produced a 6-4 record since January 13th including this past weekends home sweep of Miami. Also, consider during that span, 7 of the 10 games were one-goal contests and that four of these games went to overtime with SCSU winning one of four. The point to be made is the young Huskies have been competitive against all of these ranked teams.
Unquestionably, the turnaround can be attributed to goaltending and team defense. Prior to the UMD series on January 13th, the Huskies allowed 3.55 goals per game. Since that time, they’ve allowed 1.90 goals per game despite allowing about three more shots per game (30.4 vs 27.6). The remarkable numbers appear when you consider the goaltending statistics. Since January 13th, the efforts of Jeff Smith and Zach Driscoll produced a combined save percentage of 93.7%. Compare that to the combined save percentage of 85.3% for the 18 games prior to that. Smith, who has played nearly all the games since the UMD series had a 81.5% save percentage for his first 12 games but an outstanding 93.7% in the 10 games since. With tutoring by former SCSU standout and goaltender coach, Mike Lee, it’s obvious his technique including positioning and angles has improved as has his conditioning and confidence. A “blocker” style goalie, he’s utilizing his 6’2″ frame much better in cutting the angles and yielding less of the goal to the shooters. The defensive unit has to be given credit for their improvement as well. A diverse group, they skate and move the puck well and do a nice job blocking shots. But, when called upon can play the physical game as well. Five of the seven defenseman are even or better in plus/minus with only Cholowski (- 7) and Widman (-6) in the negative. The unit has also done their part contributing to the offense scoring 16 of the teams 87 goals (18%).
Challenges still remain on offense with the Huskies relying on their sophomore class to do most of the scoring. The sophomore class currently has 114 points consisting of 41 goals and 73 assists. Next is the Freshman class with 22 goals and 44 assists for 66 points. They are followed by the Junior class with 21 goals and 22 assists for 43 points and the senior class with 2 goals and 15 assists for 17 points. However, they’ve taken a step back since the first 18 games of the season scoring 2.30 goals per game vs 3.38 goals per game – obviously the strength of schedule has contributed to that.
With four regular season games remaining and a push for a home ice playoff position, they’ll hit the road to face #2 ranked Denver University on February 24/25 and then return home to play the Colorado College Tigers in the regular season series finale. SCSU will benefit by playing highly ranked Denver when it comes to the Pairwise and wins vs Colorado College in the last regular season series are a must to keep their winning percentage above .500.
With a productive offense being the stereotype of a Bob Motzko coached team, it might be unusual to consider it could be the Huskies defense that will carry this team as they head down the home stretch of the regular season and into the playoffs.