Craig Dahl used to point to the fact his team had been to the WCHA Final Five plenty of times, but had never won one.
Can’t use that one anymore. St. Cloud State won a wild championship game against North Dakota last season to win the school’s first title in the WCHA.
But if Dahl’s looking for some motivation for his players near the end of this season, there’s one record that stands out.
It’s the Huskies’ all-time record in NCAA tournament games. It’s a loss in 1989, another in 2000 and the most excruciating of the three, a 4-3 loss to Michigan in the quarterfinals last season.
Last season’s run was St. Cloud’s best chance to make a Frozen Four, and it fell apart. The Huskies worked all season for a first-round bye, then got it and were rewarded with having to play Michigan in Michigan.
You could say that last year is last year and it’s old news, and you’d be partially right.
But it appears the sting of that loss wasn’t lost on the SCSU players in the offseason.
“I’ve been doing this for 24 years, and this year’s team came in in the best shape, and certainly they’ve been all business,” Dahl said. “There’s been no screwing around or goofing around. They’ve been all business in preseason workouts.”
The Huskies no doubt have a lot of work ahead of them this season to match or better their 2000-01 season.
It’s going to be difficult because of the painful losses from last year’s success story — the first time the team has reached the 30-win mark. All-American goaltender Scott Meyer jumps out as the biggest loss, but then there are forwards Brandon Sampair and Tyler Arnason and defenseman Duvie Westcott, each an all-league member.
Dahl is focusing on the goaltending, where Meyer is gone but the Huskies still have a familiar face in Dean Weasler.
Weasler’s tale is a fascinating one. He’s already been a starter for SCSU, but lost that job to Meyer in the 1999-2000 season. For the last two seasons, he’s been biding his time on the bench, waiting for his opportunity to come back.
With Meyer at the top spot last season, Weasler entered the year planning to redshirt. That way, when Meyer graduated, he’d still have two years to play.
But that changed one night last season. When Meyer was injured during a game, Weasler was the first one to jump up.
“He told me about a week and a half before Scotty got hurt, ‘Coach, if you ever need me, I’m willing to give up my redshirt year in order to play,’” Dahl said. “So when Scotty got hurt, I turned to [Weasler] on the bench and said, ‘Are you sure you want to do this?’ He said, ‘I want to go in. They need me and I want to do it.’”
Weasler’s dedication to the program is evident, but it remains to be seen whether he can be as effective as Meyer. Plus, Weasler, a senior, has endured problems with his knees in recent years, making it essential for the Huskies to find a capable backup to give him a rest once in a while.
Jake Moreland played in four games last year, and Dahl is high on Jason Montgomery, an all-league selection last year in the British Columbia Hockey League.
But what the Huskies are really looking for is consistency.
“Inconsistency in the nets kills you,” Dahl said. “Every goalie’s going to give up a bad one once in a while, but you don’t want a bad one once a game.”
Westcott’s early departure takes the star from the Huskies’ defensive group. The team doesn’t list a senior on defense, but that doesn’t mean it’s inexperienced, either.
— Craig Dahl, whose Huskies hit the ice without star netminder Scott Meyer this season.
Derek Eastman played in 38 games last season and, as a junior this year, is the top veteran. Jeff Finger had a good freshman season, making his physical presence felt in all 41 games St. Cloud played.
Newcomers Jim McNamara and Matt Gens, both of whom played for the U.S. National Team Development Program, should get plenty of experience this year.
“We’re not particularly deep, but we have skill on the blue line,” Dahl said. “We can throw out six guys that can play the game.”
The offense is built around centers Mark Hartigan and Jon Cullen. Hartigan, a senior, scored 27 goals and added 21 assists last year. Cullen had 40 points.
“You couldn’t ask for much more out of them,” Dahl said.
With Ryan Malone and Nate DiCasmirro at left wing and Joe Motzko and Chris Purslow on the right, the Huskies have a solid top two lines.
The Huskies are also expecting a larger contribution from Matt Hendricks. The 6-foot, 205-pound sophomore showed great scoring touch in high school at Blaine (Minn.) The Nashville Predators pick scored only three goals and 12 points in 37 games in his freshman season.
“I think he’ll come into his own this year,” Dahl said.
Dahl has a plan for his offense, but is also prepared for things not to go the way he expects.
“We have things fairly well mapped out, but we’re dealing with human beings and things don’t always work out the way you think they’re going to,” Dahl said. “And that’s a positive and negative because sometimes guys surprise you, and it’s always happened here.”
Dahl is starting his 15th year at the school, a fact he said he tries not to notice. But it’s clear he’s happy with the fact some of his former players are making it to the big leagues.
“With us having so many guys recently sign professional contracts, it’s pretty much, ‘If you do what coach says, it’s probably going to work for you if you’re good enough,’” he said.
The Recruits: Not Much Room
It’ll be tough for many of the newcomers at forward to crack the starting lineup, but some will get their chances.
Dahl pointed to Mike Doyle and Dave Iannazzo, two players with big numbers from the United States Hockey League, as potential scorers.
The Schedule: Tough Stretches
Two areas of the Huskies’ schedule stand out to Dahl. The first is a stretch of two weekends in early November when they host North Dakota and Colorado College back to back.
A few weeks later, the Huskies play a home-and-home series with Minnesota, followed by a trip to Colorado Springs.
“Our first half of the season is really a tough sled,” Dahl said. “We have some real important games. We only play North Dakota twice, and that’s in the first weekend in November. We’re done with Colorado by Christmas — four times. The first half of the year is really important, and we’re going to have to make some hay there.”