Robber Barons, Wanderlust, Crestfallen Fans and Sloppy Ice

American International celebrates their first goal of the game in the NCAA West Regional (Photo Prout)

St. Cloud, MN – It’s been about a month since the 2019 West Regional in Fargo and it’s still a head shaker. After a season lasting 173 days, it took the champions of the Atlantic Conference, American International College sixty minutes to end the season of college hockey’s top-ranked team. Improbable? In the minds of the Husky faithful who saw this team glide through the season undefeated on home ice and lose only five games –  absolutely. Even the Vegas odds makers anointed the Huskies a 2-1 favorite to win the national championship as opposed to eventual winner, University of Minnesota-Duluth at 4-1 odds. So, you can’t blame the fans, at least those with short memories, who had already booked flights, lodging and purchased tickets for the Frozen Four in Buffalo. In fact, there were many that saw Friday’s game vs the sixteen-seeded Yellow Jackets not worth blowing a day of vacation or incurring the additional expense of another night in Fargo. “We’ll be there Saturday for the championship game” was the logic. Sure, the number one ranked Huskies were dethroned by sixteen-seed Air Force in 2018 in Sioux Falls and fifteen-seed Ferris State in 2016 at the Xcel Energy Center but logically that couldn’t happen to this team. So, what did happen in Fargo?

American International coach Eric Lang knew exactly what he had to do to defeat a highly talented SCSU team that transitioned the puck like no other he had seen all season. He freely admitted before the game that “there’s a way the game has to go for us to have success. 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.”  Following the game Lang admitted  “We had a script the game had to go. We thought we had to block 20 shots, we had to turn less than 10 pucks over and give up no more than two odd-man rushes.” It wouldn’t guarantee success but if they could keep the game close it could create the opportunity for an upset.

Lang’s unconventional recruiting had him assembling a team top-heavy in Europeans and players from non-traditional locations like Texas, Florida and California. Surprise – these players had enough skill and the physical size to play the type of game the Yellow Jackets needed to hold their own against a skilled, free-skating, quick transition team like St. Cloud State. And, they couldn’t have played the script any better than they did in the first period matching the potent Huskies in shots 6-6 and scoring the lead goal of the game, a blue-collar but stoppable effort by Joe Kocur who whacked it between Hrenak’s body and the post. Another stoppable goal in period two by Brennan Kapcheck leaked through the pads of David Hrenak and gave the Yellow Jackets a two-goal margin. It was then a matter of following the “script”, keeping the game close and relying on goaltender, Zackarius Skog to make some inevitable big saves.

For the Huskies, it couldn’t have gone any worse. After a couple of early scoring opportunities by Nick Poehling and Sam Hentges it settled into a sloppy, turnover-filled game with little flow. Part of it was due to tight gap play by the Yellow Jackets and a congested neutral zone and part of it due to unacceptable ice conditions at Scheels Arena. The ice was soft, not setting properly and made it difficult to handle the puck or make passes with precision. Ryan Poehling fanned on or misdirected four one-time shots, the normally sure-handed Jack Ahcan struggled at times with the puck due to it sticking to the ice and passes were repeatedly behind or off the mark. Skilled players like Patrick Newell and Robby Jackson were noticeably absent for stretches of the game. Skilled puck handlers like Nolan Walker and Blake Lizotte resorted to trying to stick handle through a forest of players to get an entry into the AIC zone. If the Huskies weren’t turning the puck over in the neutral zone, AIC would relieve the pressure by simply icing the puck, lifting it out of the zone or Skog ringing it around the boards. Without consequence, AIC iced the puck a half-dozen times in the game. My count had nine turnovers by SCSU in period one, six in period two and three more in period three.

It was not the best night in the faceoff circle or on the power play for the Huskies. Top centermen, Blake Lizotte and Ryan Poehling were both out-dueled in the faceoff circle and AIC, particularly Shawn McBride, won key faceoffs in the AIC zone all three periods. Normally potent, the Huskies power play was largely ineffective getting only three shots on goal in four power play attempts. Two of the man-advantage opportunities failed to get a single shot on goal. And, the lone power play goal for the Huskies was a shot from below the goal line by Brodzinski that deflected off Shawn McBride’s helmet and into the AIC goal – a fortunate bounce. And, despite a highly dominant third period in terms of puck possession and shots on goal, the Huskies could never get closer than a one-goal deficit. Averaging four goals per game, the Huskies were unable to solve AIC goaltender Zackarias Skog. He entered the game with an 89.6% overall save percentage and a 5.09 GAA against NCAA tourney teams. He had an outstanding game, particularly in the third period stopping 14 of 15 shots on goal when the Huskies were pushing hard to tie the contest.

For the crestfallen SCSU fans, this one hurt. It’ll take a while to get over it. For me, I had to watch that final game one more time before I put closure on the season. Maybe an off-season of reflecting on all the great things that occurred during the 2018-19 season will be the cure. An undefeated season at home, the Penrose Cup Championship, loads of individual awards and a near Hobey winner in Jimmy Schuldt. It was after all, a special season for coach Brett Larson and crew. An unfortunate ending to a memorable season.

Sloppy Ice 

As I alluded, the ice at Scheels Arena was unacceptable for the Friday contests between Denver and Ohio State and the nightcap between SCSU and American International. I had a former SCSU hockey player familiar with the rink ask why the Huskies would take the second contest of the night. His point was that the ice would be beat up from the first game and then ice conditions which are typically not good would be even worse for the second contest. From what I have been told, the #1 seed Huskies had no choice in the matter. The schedule was set for the second game and there was no option to change it.

The common response to the issue of poor ice is that “both teams have to play on it”. True, but it’s ridiculous to assume poor ice impacts each team equally. Wet ice is slow ice. A regular in the rink said he never wears a jacket in Scheels Arena. Air temperature can melt the ice and affect ice conditions. A team loaded with skilled players that thrive on moving the puck is going to have its game impacted by bad ice more than a less skilled team. Anyone familiar with this St. Cloud State team could clearly see their puck handling and puck movement was hampered by the poor ice. The broadcasters on ESPN alluded to it throughout the game. The puck was constantly bouncing – a sure sign of improperly chilled ice. It was obvious the Huskies ability to handle the puck and control it on entry into the zone was affected by ice that was not chilled properly. Rumor suggested they had two portable chillers on trailers brought in for the Saturday game. I’ve had no confirmation of that. However, the ice seemed to be in better condition for the championship game.

Heather Weems, the St. Cloud State University Athletic Director  pointed out that the ice had to be removed and the rink surface repainted before the weekend. As a result, the ice may not have been given enough time to set properly. Officials discussed the condition of the ice after the weekend and she stated “we know ice conditions need to be discussed at the national level. We owe it to our student-athletes on a national stage to provide them the best quality experience available.”

Scheels Arena in  Fargo has been awarded the Midwest Regional in 2020. It’s imperative the issue of ice conditions be addressed before the next NCAA regional.

Robber Barons and Wanderlust

With the college hockey season coming to a conclusion it’s that time of the year when the NHL robber barons surface looking for some “affordable labor.” It also the time of the year when young players are afflicted with wanderlust – that desire to move on. To date, 42 underclassmen have departed the collegiate ranks for professional hockey. Included are 13 players who just completed their freshman or sophomore season. Top-notch players like Blake Lizotte of the Huskies, Mikey Anderson of UMD, Filipe Larrson of Denver and Cayden Primeau of Northeastern are just a few that have departed prior to their junior season. For the dedicated college hockey fan it’s frustrating to see this talent drain. From the standpoint of the NHL it’s good business and to their advantage to lock a young player into an age-based Entry Level Contract for 2-3 years as opposed to letting him become a free agent. At the least, they can build depth in their minor league affiliates at a discount. With a cap hit for veteran players like Connor McDavid in excess of $12,000,000 per year its mere pocket change to sign a 21-year-old to a three-year deal with a cap hit of $925,000. The NHL Collective Bargaining Agreement is negotiated by veteran players on behalf of the Players Association. It’s a no-brainer that the veterans profit at the expense of those signing entry level deals.

I don’t disparage a youngster from signing a professional contract. They dedicate 15 years of their life to hockey and when there’s an aggressive push by a team it’s difficult to turn down something you’ve dreamed about. At that age, it’s probably not even about the money. It’s fulfilling a lifelong dream. If Ryan Poehling begins  next season with the Canadiens that’s a success story. However, does staying that extra year or two really hurt players like Jimmy Schuldt, Nic Dowd, Will Butcher, Jimmy Vesey, Jarid Lukosevicius and others who showed their loyalty to their schools and stayed for four years? I say no. If the player is good enough to reach the NHL, the financial end of things will even out. Those collegiate years can absolutely be the most enjoyable years of your life.

If Hobey finalist, Adam Fox of Harvard returns for his senior year, he’ll be a free agent to sign with anyone he wishes. That becomes an advantage for him. I doubt he’ll ever regret it.

Unfortunately, the real loser in this system are the collegiate teams that spend the time and resources to recruit, train and develop players only to see them leave for the professional ranks early. And, in many of these signings the coaches are on the outside looking in with absolutely no control over the process. It has to be frustrating. Is there any way to solve this. Probably not – we live in a free market society. With over 30% of the NHL rosters former collegiate players the NCAA is doing a good job preparing these players for the professional ranks. How about the NHL contribute $200,000 to a collegiate hockey fund each time they sign an underclassmen to an ELC? That might curb their insatiable desire to sign as many players as they do this time of year. Just a thought.

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