SCSU Hockey Mid-Season Thoughts: Is the Glass Half Empty or Half Full

(Photo Prout)

St. Cloud, MN – Surprising as it seems, the St. Cloud State hockey team is pretty much at the mid-point of their 2021-22 season. They’ll complete the calendar year 2021 with a non-conference game at Bemidji State University, their 17th game, and then have a total of 17 games remaining to complete the regular season. The final 17 games include a single non-conference game with Bemidji State at home on New Year’s day and they complete the stretch run with 16 conference games – eight on the road and eight at home.

Following a euphoric 8-1 win vs #6/5 North Dakota on Friday they gained no ground in the NCHC standings with a 5-3 loss on Saturday. Honestly, it was predictable as it’s simply a tough task to sweep anyone in the highly competitive National Collegiate Hockey Conference. You knew North Dakota would come out determined to avoid a sweep after the embarrassing loss on Friday.

SCSU head coach Brett Larson conceded as much after the Friday win stating “North Dakota is going to come out hard tomorrow there is no doubt about it. They are a good hockey team, they are well-coached and you know they will come out with everything they have tomorrow night. It’s a heavyweight battle for sure.”

At the mid-point of the season, the Huskies who were the media favorite to win the Penrose Cup this season stand at 10-6-0 overall and 4-4-0 in the NCHC good for a tie for third place with Denver University with 12 points, six points behind league leader North Dakota and three points behind Western Michigan University, probably the hottest team in the country right now and #1 in the Pairwise. Note, however, Denver has played two fewer conference games than the Huskies.

(Photo Prout)

So, are you a “glass-half-empty” or a “glass-half-full” person concerning the Huskies’ results to date?

The Huskies are in fact still securely ranked 8th in the Pairwise and according to Krach have had the 6th toughest strength of schedule in college hockey. It’s not an embarrassment to lose to Western Michigan, North Dakota, Minnesota State-Mankato, or Omaha and Minnesota (debatable) in overtime. In fact, three of the six losses were by a goal – two in overtime.  All of these teams could be in the NCAA tournament.

However, it doesn’t get any easier as they face Bemidji State (13th PWR), Minnesota-Duluth (6th PWR), and Denver (8th PWR) in their next three series. A successful run will certainly solidify their Pairwise ranking and could create some separation in the race for the Penrose Cup.

SCSU head coach Brett Larson is in the “glass-half-full” category and rightfully so despite losing four of their last five games. “Anytime you’re in this league and you come out of the first half at 10-6-0 …. now, would we like it to be 11-5-0? Absolutely, but I still think we put ourselves in a good spot for a run in the second half.”

Certainly, there’s no need to panic, but the next three series are very important and the next two conference series with UMD and Denver will be telling. With three league points for a win, a team can make up a six-point deficit quickly but it’ll probably require a sweep along the way. Western has a very difficult schedule in the last twelve games and the question is whether they can sustain their success.  It’ll be a dogfight for sure the second half of the season. That’s what makes the NCHC so incredibly exciting to follow.

Micah Miller (Photo Prout)

Special Teams: Penalties an Issue

Prior to the weekend series with North Dakota, I noted in my series preview: ” The Huskies need to resuscitate their offense and power play and need to improve their on-ice discipline spending too much time in the penalty box as of late.”

I’ve been to every game this season and one of my big concerns is the amount of time the Huskies have spent in the penalty box. They entered the series with UND averaging 12.43 penalty minutes per game and increased that number to 12.50 after a weekend that included 13 penalties for 26 minutes. The Huskies currently rank 18th in college hockey out of 59 teams in average penalty minutes per game. That is a full two minutes more than 2020-21 when they averaged 10.48 penalty minutes per game.

The penalty kill still remains effective at 85%, ranking them 23rd in college hockey and it’s been bailed out with five shorthanded goals this season, tops in college hockey.

But it’s the toll these penalties have taken on the flow of the game for a team that excels at even strength. Thus far this season, on even strength, the Huskies have outscored their opponent 30 to 20 and have an 815 to 645 advantage in attempted shots on goal. It simply doesn’t do the team any good when you have three of your top four point-producing forwards leading the team in penalty minutes.

Following the weekend series with North Dakota head coach Larson explained ” It’s tough to come back when you’re killing penalties and you have some of your top players expending a lot of energy doing it. The timing of the penalties was the worse thing right when we were getting some momentum again and we weren’t able to make a good enough push. (As a result) you have some guys that aren’t playing much at all. You have some guys expending a ton of energy and then some guys getting out of rhythm and I thought that hurt us. I thought our penalty kill did a good job for the most part but it just takes away from the flow of the game.”

The power play is currently ranked first in the country at 33.33%  converting on 23 of 69 man-advantage opportunities. However, it’s a little deceiving. If you remove the “St. Thomas factor” converting 7 for 10 in their first game of the season vs the Tommies, the power play effectiveness drops to 27%. However, it would still rank in the top ten in the country.

In the four losses since the 3-2 overtime loss to Omaha on November 13th, the power play was 1 for 16 (6.25%) and the Huskies incurred 27 penalties for 99 minutes, for an average of 24.75 penalties per game. These numbers were skewed by several game misconduct penalties but still had an effect in other ways disrupting lines and flow of the game.

Sam Hentges (Photo Prout)

Injury Update 

Head coach Brett Larson alluded to the fact that injuries and sickness were affecting the team. “I’ll be honest, we are battling some sickness and injuries and I thought behind the scenes the guys really gutted it out this weekend,” said Larson. He didn’t specify but the flu has been hitting some collegiate teams and that certainly could have been the issue with the Huskies.

Sam Hentges, who has been battling an injury(s) may return to the lineup for the Bemidji State series. It’s caused a disruption in the lines and they obviously miss his speed, offensive ability, and explosiveness in the lineup.

With 27 days between games, one positive is the Huskies should be totally healed up and ready for the stretch run.

I’m in the “glass-half-full” camp. A healthy SCSU team will be dangerous at home or on the road in the second half of the season. If they can get their on-ice discipline in order and if their goaltending remains solid, it should be an exciting and successful second half of the season for the Huskies.

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