Pittsburgh, PA – It was October thirty-three years ago that I walked into the Municipal Arena in St. Cloud and newly installed St. Cloud State University hockey coach Craig Dahl floated a practice roster to me from his viewing perch. For me, it began a journey of watching a program grow through the next three decades of mostly successful results.
I’ve witnessed all 22 of those NCAA tournament games in person and can confidently say I’ve been to more SCSU contests in the history of Division I hockey at St. Cloud State than anyone on the planet.
Fifteen NCAA tournaments later, the Huskies will be seeing the puck drop in their 23rd NCAA contest against the Minnesota State University Mavericks. Coach Dahl will be in the seats at the PPG Paints Arena no doubt reflecting on his 18 seasons behind the bench building a collegiate hockey program that has become one of the elites in the country. Dahl will also be watching with pride as he watches his former player, Mike Hastings try to lead the MSU Mavericks to their third all-time win in the NCAA tournament.
“Craig Dahl gave me an opportunity after my playing days to get into the coaching game,” Hastings explained in a recent press conference. “St. Cloud State University was very good to me. I didn’t think we’d have to come to Pittsburgh to play St. Cloud this year but at this time of the year, we’re glad we are playing and we are playing a very quality opponent and we’re looking forward to it.”
Dahl’s impact began to kick in after the 1999-00 season when the team qualified for its second NCAA tournament appearance vs the Boston University Terriers. They lost that game but it began a streak of four straight appearances before turning over stewardship of the program to Bob Motzko in 2005.
Motzko fostered immediate success steering the Huskies to eight more NCAA appearances during his 13-year tenure at St. Cloud State. The apex of his success was during the 2012-13 season riding a 50 point season by Hobey Baker winner Drew LeBlanc to the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh at the then-named Consol Energy Center.
It was not the most powerful or winningest season but they peaked at the right time behind the leadership of captains Ben Hanowski, Drew Leblanc, and Nick Jensen. Current SCSU assistant coach Nick Oliver was a member of that team and despite not being a point-producer was a gritty forward much like current center Will Hammer and was honing his natural leadership abilities leading to a future team captaincy and ultimately the coaching profession.
Motzko’s team fell short in the opening game of that 2013 Frozen Four against Quinnipiac but it ushered in another four NCAA appearances before moving on to the head coaching position at the University of Minnesota in 2018.
The team’s NCAA tournament history is littered with disappointment, mainly in the first round of the tournament and it wasn’t until their 7th NCAA appearance that they finally won their first game, a 4-3 double-overtime win over Northern Michigan University. There was also the heartbreak of losing to the lowest seed, Ferris State University 5-4 in overtime in 2016 after a watermark 31-9-1 season and excruciating losses to lowest seed Air Force Academy 5-1 in 2018 and 2-1 to American International College in 2019.
With head coach Brett Larson firmly planted in his third year, there’s a different feel to the direction of this team. A protegee of college hockey’s top strategist, Scott Sandelin, the team has a clearly different style than previous teams. “In SCSU I think you can take the jersey and change it from maroon (UMD) to black, ” remarked MSU coach Mike Hastings. “They are about as honest as it gets, they play in all three zones but they look like Duluth from a structural standpoint. Their forwards are creative and they are relentless. Their defensive group is big, hard, and mobile. They are well-coached and well-disciplined and they are going to be a hard out. That’s what I’m expecting out of St. Cloud State.”
This new look Huskies proved their point in the Northeast Regional powering their way past Boston blue bloods Boston University and Boston College by a combined 10-3 margin. It was perhaps one of the most strategic coaching exhibitions by an SCSU staff ever regrouping after a season-ending injury to leading scorer Easton Brodzinski to outscore the ultra-talented Eagles by a 4-0 score and outshoot them 25-16 in the final two periods.
Suddenly it’s the Huskies who are exerting their presence on others in a manner the Huskies were on the receiving end in past tournament appearances. “Our game plan doesn’t change a lot from the Northeast Regional,” explained Brett Larson. “We will try to get on the forecheck hard, with a lot of speed through the neutral zone, and maintain offensive zone pressure as much as we can. I think Mankato has a lot of the same strengths. They are one of the best forechecking teams I’ve seen all year so it’ll be critical for us to control the neutral zone and try to force dumps before they want to. ”
I’ve known Mike Hastings since his early coaching years as an assistant at St. Cloud State. He’s always been a defensive-oriented coach throughout his years in junior hockey and at the collegiate level. However, this year, his Mavericks, who are one of the oldest teams in college hockey are 5th in offense, in addition to 1st in defense in the nation. They also have one of the top-ranked goaltenders in the country in Dryden McKay. That’s a formidable combination to face.
“I thought we were tentative against Quinnipiac (in the West Regional) but we found a way to right that in the second period and found a way to get our first win,” said coach Mike Hastings. “After that, we played a lot freer and we were more aggressive from the drop of the puck. We’ve been leaning on a couple of veteran defensemen, Jack McNeely and Riese Zmolek and two young guys that have come along in a short time are Akito Hirose and Jake Livingstone. When we are successful, we play in groups of five.”
SCSU coach Brett Larson understands the MSU goaltender will be a challenge. “McKay is very competitive and technically, he’s very good. It’s the oldest story in the book. If he can see it he can stop it. So, our ability to make him uncomfortable, getting in his vision, and getting in that tough area creating havoc around the net, and trying to create second and third opportunities are going to be a huge part of the game. For us, we have to make life tough on him, get in his face and knock him off his game and try to score some dirty goals.”
The Huskies have the dilemma of replacing the leading goal scorer, Easton Brodzinski in the lineup. In my previous game preview, I suggested a Kyler Kupka move to the line with Micah Miller and Nolan Walker and inserting Joe Molenaar onto the fourth line and that appears to be the moves. Kupka has been a scorer his entire hockey career and this could be his opportunity to shine. Molenaar played well on the fourth line when Kupka was out with an injury.
“Joe Molenaar will be in the lineup,” said coach Larson. “He’s done a good job for us whenever he’s been in the lineup and he’s been a victim of depth this year. We didn’t take him out of the lineup because he was playing poorly. He’s been playing well for us and he’s a smart player and his teammates and staff have full confidence in him.”
In this crazy season and in a return trip to Pittsburgh, the Huskies need two more wins to capture a national championship and complete their most successful season in school history. There’s a different feel to things as the Huskies approach their first game in the Frozen Four.
After following this team for 33 seasons, maybe it’s just a hunch but this return trip to Pittsburgh could be something special. Or, maybe it’s the coincidence that my wife will be wearing a jersey with the number “33” on it tonight.