St. Cloud MN – The US College Hockey Online rankings surfaced at noon on Monday, January 20th and the St. Cloud State University Huskies received one vote in the poll. Maybe a little surprising after the Huskies limited the defending national champion and 11th ranked UMD Bulldogs to one goal on the weekend in earning a hard fought sweep and six league points. Currently ranked 34th in the all-important Pairwise, the Huskies have been trying to dig themselves out of a hole after struggling through a 2-6-4 start through the first two months of the season. Since that time, they’ve gone 6-4-0 including an overtime loss to Omaha three weekends ago.
Comedian Rodney Dangerfield (1921-2004), was known for his one-liners and his catchphrase “I don’t get no respect!” The Huskies too, have had an identity crisis this season after adding ten new faces after the departure of seniors Jimmy Schuldt, Jon Lizotte, Patrick Newell, Robby Jackson, Jacob Benson and David Zevnik. They also saw the departure of two of college hockey’s top centers in Blake Lizotte and Ryan Poehling, currently in the NHL. This was an awful lot of experience and talent to lose and a rebuild was obvious.
As a result, the team has structured itself around three players – senior defenseman and captain Jack Ahcan and senior forwards and assistant captains Nick and Jack Poehling. All three have a high compete level, are outstanding leaders who “lead by example” and are players accustomed to success. Sometimes that competitiveness has surfaced in frustration as they’ve racked up a combined 64 minutes of penalty time, one-third of the team total. But, they’ve also combined for nearly one fourth of the teams points and all three are in the top five in points.
Twenty-two games into the season, we have enough of a body of work to begin to see a new team identity surface. With the 5th strongest strength of schedule in college hockey, they’ve shown they can compete with the top teams in the country defeating top Pairwise teams Minnesota State (#2), sweeping UMD (#12), Northeastern (#14) and Northern Michigan (#17). Two close games on the road at #1 North Dakota yielded an overtime loss but seemed to be the turning point in the season. They are doing it with a new cast of characters contributing and taking ownership of this team.
Most encouraging this past weekend was the defensive play of a team ranked 53rd in the country entering the series with the Bulldogs. High expectations were there for a team returning seven defensemen, most with significant playing time last season. But, it hadn’t played out that way through the first several months. The same held true for the penalty kill which entered the weekend ranked 57th. Yielding a single goal in 120 minutes of play vs UMD was a signal as to the progress this team is making on the defensive side of the puck. Holding the Bulldogs to one power play goal in seven attempts was also a key to their success as the Bulldogs power play was ranked 4th in the country with a 28% success rate.
Drilling down further, the Huskies were a bit on their heels yielding four grade “A” chances in the low slot in the first period on Friday but only two grade “A’s” the balance of the game and only two other shots in the high slot the rest of the game. On Saturday, they allowed five grade “A” chances including five shots on goal in the slot, three of which were the high slot. The Huskies were doing an excellent job boxing out the Bulldogs and keeping their shots from the perimeter most of the weekend. That’s an obvious contrast to how the defense was victimized earlier in the season.
That leads us to David Hrenak, who put forth his best performance of the season, stopping 59 of 60 shots on goal for a .980% save percentage. He entered the weekend at .89% and based on his performance on Friday forced the coaching staff to start him again on Saturday.
St. Cloud State goaltender coach Matt Bertram told me “Right now, I think our goaltending is giving our team a chance to win every night. All three goalies have been very good in practice, pushing each other in a healthy competition. This past weekend is some of the best hockey I have seen David play. He was tracking and square to every puck, and had great battle/compete both nights.”
It’s been fun to watch the growth and confidence of the five first-year forwards but also upperclassmen like Will Hammer and Jake Wahlin who were regular lineup scratches last year. They’ve already matched the total number of games they played last season. Hammer was dominant Saturday in the faceoff circle winning 11 of 14 draws.The unique thing about Brett Larson’s coaching style is that he is not hesitant to place the first-year line of Brand, Okabe and Krannila or his fourth “Gold” line led by Hammer and Wahlin on the ice late in the game in crucial moments. It’s obvious how this has elevated their confidence and this has improved the balance of the entire lineup. Additionally, sophomore forwards Nolan Walker and Micah Miller have suddenly become more prominent in the lineup with Walker producing seven points in the last eight games and Miller with four goals in the same stretch. Seeing how often Walker and Miller end up in front of my lens while snapping game images is a further indication how prominent their play has become.
In the NCHC, it’s a battle every weekend regardless of the team. In this highly competitive league, a team’s biggest game of the season is their next NCHC opponent. For the Huskies, all eyes are on their next opponent, Western Michigan. Following the win Saturday, coach Larson said “We’ll enjoy it for a few hours and then focus on Western Michigan next week.”
For the Huskies, with some success against the Broncos, who knows, maybe some respect will finally come their way.