With its blizzard-delayed adventure from Omaha on Sunday behind it, St. Cloud State’s men’s hockey now must navigate another challenging trek – a trip to a top-10 team followed by a home series against the defending national champion to close the regular season.
“So far, so good,’’ Huskies coach Brett Larson said, but cautioed, “it’s not how you start, it’s how you finish. We’ve just got to keep getting better.’’
St. Cloud State, No. 1 in the national rankings and the PairWise Ratings, begins the two-week push to the playoffs at No. 10 Western Michigan, which is sits third in the NCHC standings and is battling second-place Minnesota Duluth and fourth-place Denver for playoff positioning.
“Right now, being No. 1 in the polls isn’t our goal,’’ Huskies senior defenseman and captain Jimmy Schuldt said. “We’re playing together pretty nicely and having fun.’’
That fun was on display last weekend, when St. Cloud State swept a series at Nebraska Omaha, securing the NCHC regular-season title and Penrose Cup trophy. The Huskies have fashioned a 23-4-3 record on the strength of a balanced, veteran group. They’re averaging 3.9 goals per game, and seven players have 20 or more points this season. And they’re more than happy to share the wealth.
“We just want to win hockey games,’’ said Schuldt, who has eight goals and 19 assists. “It doesn’t matter who scores the goal. Guys get just as excited when someone else scores a goal.’’
Larson, the Huskies’ first-year coach, replaced Bob Motzko, who left to coach the Gophers. Formerly the top assistant at Minnesota Duluth, Larson knew he didn’t need to make sweeping changes to a team that was ranked No. 1 for much of last season before losing to Air Force in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
“They did such a good job of building this team, Bob and [assistant coach] Mike Gibbons,’’ Larson said. “The cupboard was full, not only with good hockey players but of good character kids. … They had the right recipe, and I just wanted to make sure I didn’t screw it up.’’
He certainly hasn’t, with the Huskies racing to a 13-1-2 record through December. They haven’t lost consecutive games, and the only time they haven’t posted at least one win in a series was when they had a pair of ties at Miami (Ohio) on Nov. 30 and Dec. 1.
Larson will face his old team, reigning NCAA champion Minnesota Duluth, and his old boss, Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin, on March 8-9 in St. Cloud. He knows that series will be special.
“There’s a lot of respect between both programs. I have a lot of respect for Coach Sandelin; he’s the guy who gave me the opportunity in coaching,’’ Larson said. “When I was growing up when I was playing street hockey against my buddies, there’s nobody you want to beat more that your best friend.’’
After that comes the NCHC playoffs, then the NCAA tournament. Last year’s quick exit – a 4-1 loss to Air Force in the West Regional in Sioux Falls -- left a lasting impression on the team.
“That was a tough one to swallow,’’ Schuldt said. “We’re just trying to learn from it and not let it happen again.’’