The team didn’t have a trophy to show for it, but last season’s finish may have been exactly what Colorado College needed.
It put them in an even better position this year.
After putting on a good show in finishing third at the WCHA Final Five in St. Paul, Minn., the Tigers got an NCAA victory under their belt, a double-overtime one no less, before bowing out.
“It’s very hard to acquire anything close to that kind of experience without actually doing it,” said Scott Owens, entering his third season as CC’s coach.
The setup was perfect. That experience, plus some of the best forwards in the league, puts the Tigers in a small group of teams at the top of the WCHA this season.
“The run we had with the three games in St. Paul, and then turning around quickly and heading out east and playing the double-overtime game and then North Dakota, that’s experience that you can’t acquire any other way than getting your nose in there,” Owens said. “I think that’s going to be very helpful for us.”
The progression of Owens’ head coaching stint at CC is one that makes sense. He had a bit of trouble getting his team adjusted in his first year at the school. In his second season, things started to turn around and the Tigers got some national recognition.
— Minnesota coach Don Lucia, on CC forward Mark Cullen
In the third season, there’s a great chance it will all come together.
“We feel we’ve got a nice blend of experience coming back at forward and defense to help us,” Owens said. “But you never know how it’s going to go from one year to the next. We had really good chemistry and camaraderie last year, and you just kind of keep your fingers crossed and hope you can have that going for you again this year.”
And how can you not center this team around Mark Cullen? He’s one of the preseason favorites to be the league’s MVP at the end of the year following a 20-goal, 53-point season. Some strong play near the end of the year, including in front of the rest of the league at the Final Five, doesn’t hurt matters.
So how is Cullen not the focal point this year? Well, by surrounding him with Peter Sejna, Noah Clarke, Alex Kim and the like.
On paper, the Tigers have as much power as any other team in the league, though Minnesota would have something to say about that.
Cullen missed about a month with an injured neck last season, making his point total that much more impressive. His skills speak for himself, and they came out for the world to see in St. Paul last year.
“He’s one of those guys that can stickhandle in a phone booth,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said at the time. “You don’t see a lot of those guys anymore.”
Sejna made Owens’ jaw drop at the start of school this year. The league’s reigning freshman of the year reported at 207 pounds, 22 more than the roster says.
But it’s all muscle, Owens said, which should make him that much more effective than his 29-goal, 29-assist first season.
“He is so built right now, he has basically won every category of our preseason strength and conditioning contest,” Owens said. “He skated twice all summer, but he lifted and he got even stronger than he was. He’s the hardest working individual I’ve ever seen, and he just came in stronger.”
There’s some concern that the extra weight will slow Sejna down, but Owens is optimistic the 22-year-old will be at a good playing weight a few weeks into the season.
Clarke scored 12 goals and had 20 assists last year, but Owens said he has the potential to even improve on his fantastic freshman season of two years ago.
“There aren’t many people that would think this, but I think he had an off year last year,” Owens said. “Based on his summer and the shape he’s in now, I think he’s going to have a better year than his freshman year.
“He brings that speed and skill, and now he’s older and stronger, and he should be pretty good.”
The rest of the offense, i.e., getting some players to contribute on the third and fourth lines, is a concern. But perhaps of larger concern is the unsure situation on defense.
Paul Manning, who captained last year’s team and scored the double-OT winner against St. Lawrence in the NCAAs, departs with Mike Colgan and Brent Voorhees.
Owens, though, sounds excited about a talented trio of newcomers on the blue line — Jason Krischuk, James Laux and Richard Petiot.
“We’ve got three freshman defensemen, and even though they’re older, need to quickly fill the void,” he said. “But that’s one reason that we took some older guys, because we thought that would be our one area of concern, losing those veteran defensemen.”
Goaltending doesn’t rank as a concern, at least at this point of the season. Jeff Sanger is tops at his position, and should see plenty of action for the first time in his collegiate career.
And that’s what concerns Owens. He’s big on a two-goaltender system, which Sanger has been a part of in his first three years at CC. In his mind, it keeps the goaltenders fresher for the postseason.
“You just worry about the mental drain and the physical drain a little bit,” Owens said. “It’s 40-plus games, with a lot of pressure every game.”
Gian Baldrica and freshman Curtis McElhinney will battle for the rest of the time in goal.
The Recruits: Nowhere to Go
Despite losing only five players from last year’s team, Owens brought in seven recruits. Some, but not all, will see extensive time this year.
Forward Scott Polaski will play his share, Owens said, while the other incoming front-liners, Brandon Roberts and Nick Tsiantar, likely will have to wait for an opening.
“We lose a lot the following year,” Owens said, “that’s one reason we brought in a few more this year.”
The Schedule: Homeward Bound
When the Tigers return from a trip to Duluth on Jan. 4 and 5, they won’t have to leave Colorado for the next 10 games. They play nine out of their next 10 at the World Arena.
The only exception is the front end of a home-and-home series with Denver on Feb. 1.