This Week in D-I: Feb. 20, 2009

Playoff bound though it is, as it heads into the final weekend of the WCHA regular season, St. Cloud State isn’t going anywhere.

They ain’t movin’ up and they ain’t movin’ down.

They are staying right there in fourth place behind that trio of juggernauts, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Duluth.

“I keep telling our kids,” said St. Cloud coach Jeff Giesen, “we’re in fourth place, but we’re in fourth place behind the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 4 team in the country. And that’s not a bad place to be.”

Don’t think for a second, then, that the Huskies’ momentary lack of mobility (upward or downward) will lull them into any lackluster effort during these final two games. Not with the No. 1 team in the land, Minnesota, on the docket for a home-and-home series.

Indeed, this weekend St. Cloud has nothing to lose, and everything to play for.

“I think playing the Gophers going into the playoffs,” said Giesen, “is going to be an advantage for us. Regardless of the outcome. Because it’s going to make us perform at a higher level, and a higher speed. We’re hoping that’s going to help.”

Coaches crave consistency over all else, preferring a flat line hum over a white-knuckle roller coaster ride any day.

Right now, the Huskies aren’t playing consistently well enough to suit Giesen.
He cited a 4-3 win at Duluth one weekend, followed the next by a tie and loss to lesser light Minnesota State as examples of his team’s lack of reliability.

“We’re still looking for that high level,” he said. “The consistency thing hasn’t been there for us. (Not) for the last four or six games, either.”

Of course, it’s difficult to get traction when you are playing “the Big Three” a dozen times collectively each season. The eight Frozen Four titles those schools have amassed among them stems from something called “a culture of winning.”

That culture is something Giesen, now in his third season as bench boss, is trying hard to install and instill.

“It’s been a longer process than we thought (it would be),” he said. “But that’s our goal. Higher expectations, and then finding players with those same expectations.”

Giesen said that such a culture is made up of four distinct qualities. The “team”, preparation, academics, and the recruiting of players with the passion to play.

“It’s a matter of changing expectations,” he said. “If you’re not going to expect to be in the top, then you’re probably not going to be.”

When it comes to players with passion, Giesen thinks of diminutive junior defenseman Danielle Hirsch as passion personified.

“There’s no question,” Giesen said. “She brings it every day. For being five-foot-nothing, she can play a physical game. She skates well, does a lot of the little things, and has a great attitude. She’s happy as a lark to be at the rink every day.”

Hirsch actually stands 5-foot-2, and is the freshly minted team record holder for assists by a defenseman — 18 of them and counting.

“She’s a really good skater,” said Giesen, “and really handles the puck well. She actually can shoot the puck pretty well, too. But she’ll be the first to admit that it doesn’t show by the amount of goals she’s scored (just three in three seasons) over her career.”

Giesen and his staff have been busy recruiting more players of Hirsch’s ilk. They may have found a good one in forward Alex Nelson, who will enroll at St. Cloud this fall.

Nelson is one of five finalists for the Ms. Hockey Award, presented each anum to the top female high school senior player in Minnesota. Nelson, who plays for Andover High, scored an eye-popping 109 goals (and 101 assists) in her first three seasons.

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