St. Cloud, MN – The top-ranked St. Cloud State University Huskies would like to see their season extend for four more games. That places them in the NCAA championship game at the Key Bank Center in Buffalo, NY on April 13 at 7:00 PM CT. But, first things first. The Huskies landed their 14th trip to the NCAA tournament as the #1 seed and will face American International College, the #16 seed. First, a little about American International College:
About American International College
AIC was established 125 years ago and is a private, liberal arts college with an enrollment of about 3500. They are located approximately 80 miles from Boston and are members of the Atlantic Hockey Conference. They compete at the Division II level in all sports with the exception of ice hockey and women’s rugby which compete at the Division I level. They’ve had Division I hockey for 21 years with the last 15 years in the Atlantic Conference. The previous six years were in the MAAC Conference. Current coach Eric Lang has headed the program for the last three seasons. Previous to that, Gary Wright was the head coach for 32 seasons. Their all-time record at the Division I level is 182-467-69.
#1 Pairwise SCSU Huskies (30-5-3 | 19-2-3 NCHC) vs #31 Pairwise American International College (22-16-1 | 18-9-1 AHC)
Last Time Out:
The Huskies engaged in an epic battle with #2 Pairwise UMD in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship falling in a two overtime grudge match 3-2. Leading 2-1 late in the third period, the Huskies committed a critical defensive zone turnover and the Bulldog’s Billy Exell capitalzed to tie the game at 2-2 with 4:51 remaining. The contest proceeded to overtime and in the second OT session another SCSU turnover was converted by UMD’s Nick Swaney for the game-winner.
The Yellow Jackets also found themselves in a heated battle with Niagara University in the Atlantic Conference Tournament championship game. Also leading 2-1 entering period three, Niagara converted early in the third period to knot the game at 2-2. An ill-timed penalty to Niagara with 34 seconds left in regulation placed AIC on the man-advantage to start the overtime session and they cashed in 1:16 into OT with the game-winner by Hugo Reinhardt for the 3-2 OT victory.
Head to Head:
This will be the first ever meeting between American International and St. Cloud State University. They had one common opponent this season in Robert Morris University, another Atlantic Conference member. AIC was 2-1-0 vs the Colonials while the Huskies defeated Robert Morris by a 5-2 score in the Three Rivers Classic tournament in January.
Scouting the AIC Yellow Jackets:
Eric Lang took over the helm of AIC for the 2016-17 season and in three years has accumulated a quarter of the wins the program has produced in 21 years as a Division I program. The native of Bronx, NY is an alum of American International and was just named College Hockey News coach of the Year and Coach of the Year in the Atlantic Conference. Passionately loyal to his alma mater, Lang has recruited heavily in Europe, non-traditional USA hockey locations and the North American Junior Hockey league for the bulk of his players. Rostered players include 11 from Europe, 2 from California, 1 from and Texas and 1 from Florida. The roster also includes 12 players who skated in the NAHL. Two rostered players, Parker Revering and Etic Otto are from Minnesota. Former SCSU forward, Ryan Papa who had an injury riddled career at SCSU transferred to AIC as a graduate transfer for the 2017-18 season but after participating in one game decided to end his hockey career due to health issues. Papa played in 74 games for the Huskies compiling 8 goals 25 assists and 33 points.
This is a season of firsts for the AIC hockey program compiling their first winning season at the Division I level, winning their first regular season Atlantic Hockey Conference title, winning their first Atlantic Hockey Conference Tournament championship and making their first trip to the NCAA tournament.
AIC has played 6 games against teams in this years NCAA tourney going winless (0-6-0) against Providence, Quinnipiac (2), Massachusetts and Arizona State (2).
The Yellow Jackets have relied heavily on junior goaltender Zackarias Skog (Goteborg, Sweden) participating in 83% of the minutes this season compiling a 19-13-0 record with a 2.75 GAA and .896 SV%. Even though his goaltending statistics are not overly imposing, what does stand out are his five shutouts this season. He blanked Air Force and Army twice and Holy Cross once. He also posted a .942 GAA in the AHC tourney and was named tournament MVP and to the all-tournament team. However, his goals against vs teams in the NCAA tourney is a lofty 5.09…not good.
Defensively, the Yellow Jackets are 37th in the country allowing close to three goals per game. Upperclassmen, Nicolas Luka (Jr) and Ryan Polin (Sr) typically are the number one pairing but it’s sophomore Brennan Kapcheck and freshman Patrick Demel that are putting up some offense and performing quite well at the blue line. Kapcheck (4-20-24) has one game-winning goal and two power play goals and is +12. Demel (1-16-17) is +14 and has one game-winning goal. Junior Janis Jaks has been the most effective defenseman on the power play picking up three goals but his plus/minus is -11. This group will be tested severely by the SCSU offense.
The AIC offense doesn’t run without a few players. First off, Blake Christensen, only in his junior season has already broken the AIC single-season scoring record in the Division I era. Christensen who scored the overtime game-winner vs Robert Morris in the AHC tourney semi-final has 16 goals and 30 assists for 46 points. He’s also scored two game-winning goals and 6 power play goals. The 5’9″ Coral Springs, FL native was named top forward in the Atlantic Conference and was named to AHC the First Team. Sophomore Tobias Fladeby, a native of Norway, led the Yellow Jackets in goal scoring with 18 and has been a clutch payer with 6 game-winning goals and 5 power play goals. Others that can bury the puck are junior Kyle Stephan (11-15-26) who has 4 GWG, Freshman Luka Maver (11-6-17) and junior Joel Kocur (10-10-20). Against teams in this years NCAA tourney, Christensen (1-4-5), Shawn McBride (1-2-3) and Fladeby 3-1-4) have been their most effective forwards.
Team Offense: 3.26 (9th)
Team Defense: 2.95 (37th)
Power Play: 19.43% (25th)
Penalty Kill: 80.69% (35th)
Penalties (Average Min. Per Game): 10.38 (37th)
Scouting the SCSU Huskies:
The Huskies have been ranked #1 in the Pairwise, Krach and USCHO for 15 weeks and captured the Penrose Cup as the regular season Champion in the NCHC. They are excelling on both ends of the ice and ranked second in the nation in offense and 11th on defense. Special teams have been strong – 6th nationally on the penalty kill and seventh on the power play. Seniors are providing tremendous leadership, there is balanced scoring, the first-year class is contributing and both goaltenders are getting the job done. They are the tournament favorite and #1 seed.
Currently, the Huskies are the 11th ranked defense in the nation allowing 2.18 goals per game. Led by All-American, two-time Hobey Baker finalist, 2018-19 All-NCHC 1st team pick and NCHC Player of the Year, Jimmy Schuldt (10-24-34 +24), alternate captain and senior Jon Lizotte (1-8-9 +13), and talented puck mover and 2018-19 second team All- NCHC Jack Ahcan (6-28-32 +34 +31), this diverse unit of defenders is one of the top three-some in college hockey. Schuldt has played in 157 consecutive games, and surpassed Kelly Hultgren for career points by a defenseman with 117 and a school record 19 power play goals. Add to the group, sophomore, Luke Jaycox (2-3-5 +8) and a talented group of newcomers – Brendan Bushy (+4), NHL draft choice and All NCHC Rookie Team Nick Perbix (5-15-20 +25) and local native Spencer Meier (+3) and you have one of the top defensive units in college hockey.
The Huskies are currently ranked second in the nation on offense with a lot of depth at forward. Senior Patrick Newell, NCHC Forward of the Year is the teams offensive leader this season and was just named to the 2018-19 All-NCHC First team and is a Hobey Baker Top Ten Finalist. Newell is leading the team in points and goals with 21-26-47 and has six game-winning goals. Robby Jackson, led the Huskies in scoring in 2017-18 and currently is second in team goals with 19 goals and 40 points. Montreal Canadiens first-rounder, Ryan Poehling also was named to the 2018-19 All-NCHC First team has 31 points in 35 games and is integral to both the power play and penalty kill. The Poehling twins, Jack and Nick are preferably matched against the opponents top line and are adding offense as well. They’ve combined for 35 points and are +21. Sophomore Blake Lizotte made was named to the All-NCHC First team in 2018-19 and is one of the most exciting forwards in college hockey. He currently has 41 points in 36 games and is the top face-off player. Easton Brodzinski is another member of the 2017-18 NCHC All-Rookie team and netted 14 goals his rookie season. He has 15 goals and four game-winning goals and six power play goals. Sophomore Kevin Fitzgerald is back in the lineup after missing 12 games and has 10-8-18 in 25 games.
First-year players Sam Hentges and Nolan Walker are already prominent contributors to the lineup. Hentges has 10 goals and 10 assists including three game-winning goals. Walker was just named to the 2018-19 NCHC All-Rookie team and has contributed 8 goals and 19 assists for 27 points. Micah Miller is another talented newcomer that has been a staple in the lineup the second half of the season and has 4 goals and 3 assists for 7 points.
With senior Jeff Smith and sophomore David Hrenak, the Huskies have a solid one-two punch at goaltender. Hrenak, named to the 2018-19 All-NCHC Second team is 23-4-2 and has a 2.19 GAA and a .908 SV% and four shutouts. Smith has split time with Hrenak and is 7-1-1 with two shutouts and 2.01 GAA and .923 SV%. Both can be counted on to get the job done for the Huskies.Against teams participating in this years NCAA tourney Hrenak carries a 2.63 GAA.
Offense: 4.08 (2nd)
Defense: 2.18 (11th)
Power Play: 23.47% (7th)
Penalty Kill: 86.51% (6th)
Penalties: (average minutes per game) 0.63 (33rd)
Six current SCSU players suffered through an overtime loss to Ferris State in the NCAA West Regional at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul on March 26, 2016. It ended quickly – 18 seconds into overtime as the #15 seed and #30 Pairwise Bulldogs defeated #1 West seed and #2 Pairwise SCSU by a 5-4 score. Twenty-one members of the current SCSU squad went through the experience of a 4-1 loss to the Air Force Academy Falcons on March 23, 2018 at the Sanford Center in Sioux Falls, SD. The #1 seed and #1 Pairwise Huskies had a painfully quick exit from last years tourney at the hands of #16 seed and #27 Pairwise Air Force. Immediately thereafter head coach Bob Motzko departed for the head job at the University of Minnesota.
Brett Larson was hired in April 2018, captain Jimmy Schuldt announced his return for the senior season and the Huskies haven’t looked back seemingly on a mission to gain some redemption for the players involved in these two frustrating losses. The steadying hand of coach Larson containing two national championship rings has been there before and has guided this team masterfully this season. They breezed through the NCHC regular season play with two losses and won the league with a record 62 points and by a 19 point margin over second place UMD. They’ve been upended only five times all season but only once since February first, a 3-2 double overtime thriller to #2 Pairwise UMD in the Frozen Faceoff Championship game.
So, now, it’s #16 seed American International, a squad who never had a winning season in 21 years making the trip west to Fargo to take on the Huskies. Third year head coach Eric Lang told Mass Live “We’ve turned ourselves from not only one of the best stories in college hockey, but if you look at where we were to where we are, we’re one of the better stories in NCAA sports right now,” coach Eric Lang said. “We’re as good a Cinderella story as anybody. We’re living in the moment and right now it’s a good day for AIC hockey. ” In facing St. Cloud he went on to say “It’s a fine line. We can embrace being the underdog to a certain degree but we also want our guys to be confident in our ability. There’s a reason why we are here. We’ve earned our way in and played our way in. We’re battle tested,” Lang said. “We deserve to be right where we are. It’ll be nice to hunt vs. being the hunted. … The longer this thing goes and the score stays tight, the pressure then shifts. We’ll have to weather some storms. We know that. We want our guys playing free and easy. We want our guys playing confident. This isn’t the time of year to change our tactics. There’s a way the game has to go for us to have success,” Lang said. “St. Cloud beat Boston College, 7-0 this year at Boston College. We don’t want to go up and down the ice against these guys. We’ll have to take care of the puck and minimize our turnovers.”
Indeed, it’s a big mountain to climb for the Yellow Jackets who have been outscored by NCAA tourney contenders 31 to 10 this season. And, no disrespect to Yellow Jackets starting goaltender Zackarias Skog whose .896 GAA and .2.75 GAA don’t compare favorably with Air Force’s Billy Christopoulos’s 2.09 GAA and .92 SV% entering last years tourney or Darren Smith’s 2.15 GAA and .923 SV% for Ferris in 2016. You can read between the lines. Coach Lang knows they can’t skate with the Huskies so they will do their best to slow the game down and keep the score as close as possible for as long as possible. And, Skog has to have a big game against a team that is outscoring it’s opponents 56-29 in the third period.
Don’t expect the Huskies to change things for this first game. The coaching staff loved the way they played in the Frozen Faceoff Championship and there’s no reason to do so. There could be some slight line juggling as Ryan Poehling has been cleared to play otherwise expect the same line combinations. Christensen and Fladeby are scorers and the Huskies will need to keep an eye on them. For the Huskies, it’s probably pretty simple. Throw a lot of rubber at Skog and test him early. The Yellow Jackets are allowing close to three goals per game. That simply won’t be good enough against the Huskies who only allow 2.18 goals per game.
“We focused all week on being at our best. Playing our game and not caught overthinking too much. ” coach Larson said. “The big thing for us is to focus on Husky Hockey. We want to be first. First to the puck and first to win battles. We want to dictate play.”
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