Lee’s impending return gives St. Cloud State depth in goal

St. Cloud State could soon have a bit more competition in the crease.

There have been reports in the last week that Mike Lee’s return from injury could be this week against Minnesota, or at least, very soon.

Lee will be cleared to play in the near future but whether he returns to the crease right away is in question.

“I don’t let it bother me or get in the way of anything,” said Ryan Faragher, who has occupied the Huskies’ crease for most of the season. “I’m glad that he’s back and practicing. I’d hate to have to sit out that long. It will make us a better team.”

Faragher took over for Lee when the latter underwent hip surgery in October. Faragher had his struggles but he’s been hot lately, stopping 247 of 265 shots (.932 save percentage) against No. 14 Denver, No. 8 Western Michigan, No. 8 Colorado College and No. 17 North Dakota.

Faragher gave up eight goals on 78 shots (.897 save percentage) in his first two games against Minnesota in November. Lee is 2-0 all-time against the Gophers, allowing three goals on 85 shots (.965 save percentage).

NHL career off to a ‘Rau’sing start for former CC star

For former Colorado College standout Chad Rau, who scored in his NHL debut for his hometown Minnesota Wild last Saturday in St. Paul against Dallas, the “stars” could hardly have been more aligned.

Not only was he afforded the opportunity to play his first NHL game in front of friends and family but his beloved Tigers of CC were just a few miles away at Mariucci Arena facing the Gophers and younger brother Kyle, a freshman forward at Minnesota.

Although he wasn’t able to see his alma mater play, the annual Hockey Day Minnesota celebration across the state meant a 5 p.m. start time for the WCHA clash. The early faceoff gave his parents and brother a chance to scoot down the freeway after the game in time to catch the beginning of the Wild’s unusual 8 p.m. puck drop.

Wearing the No. 36 sweater, Rau wasted little time in making a splash against his home state’s former pro hockey franchise.

Just 33:51 into his NHL career, Rau scored what turned out to be the game winner on the second of what became a team-record barrage of three goals in 59 seconds to propel the Wild to a 5-2 victory over the Stars.

After being checked to the ice behind the Dallas goal, Rau picked up a loose puck and drove to the crease area, where his first attempt was thwarted by Stars netminder Kari Lehtonen. But Rau immediately snared the rebound and fired a shot that caromed off the stick of Dallas’ Brendan Morrow before crossing the goal line.

“It’s a pretty good debut right there,” said Wild coach Mike Yeo. “If you like guys who want to go out and score a game-winning goal in their first game, that was pretty good.”

“I noticed the [defenseman] was down so I just took it to the net, shot it and got the rebound,” said Rau, who was given the postgame shaving cream treatment by teammate Cal Clutterbuck. “I really didn’t even see it go in.”

But his parents Mike and Lynn did witness it in what ended up being just another day at the “X” for the Rau family.

The last time a Rau played on Xcel Energy Center ice was last spring when Kyle scored in overtime for Eden Prairie High School in the title game of the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament.

Yeo praised Chad for his willingness to go to the hard areas of the ice to make plays and, based on what Kyle has demonstrated as a WCHA rookie, Yeo’s words could easily describe the younger Rau.

“He’s willing to be F1 on the forecheck and help create a turnover down there and take that puck to the net,” said Yeo. “His goal was a hard-working goal for a guy who has skill.”

Rau confessed to, as he put it, “quite a bit of nerves” but relaxed as the game went on and left the ice with memories to last a lifetime.

“I couldn’t have asked for anything better than this,” said Rau. “It was just awesome.”

Message comes through loud and clear for ex-Badgers defenseman Gardiner

It only took 42 games but Jake Gardiner may have finally got the memo.

The former Wisconsin star and Toronto Maple Leafs rookie defenseman scored his first NHL goal in Tuesday night’s 4-3 road win over the New York Islanders, but it did not come without much prodding from coaches and teammates alike to send more pucks toward the net.

“We’ve yelled at him a few times to shoot the puck, [but] he’s still electing to find a better play,” Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson told reporters after the game. By Tuesday’s game, teammates Dion Phaneuf and Phil Kessel were taking turns screaming at Gardiner to shoot.

Gardiner, who passed his way to 56 assists to go with 19 goals in three seasons with the Badgers, entered the game having taken 39 shots through 41 games with 12 assists but no goals to show for it.

“I’ve always got away with passing more at the college level, but it’s harder here — there’s better athletes and they read that well,” Gardiner told Mark Zwolinski of the Toronto Star. “I just tried to get it on net and I guess good things happen that way.

“I’m happy to get the first one out of the way.”

The first one came as a result of what appeared to be a fairly ordinary, almost nonchalant attempt.

The puck came back to Gardiner at the right point and, as the left-handed shooter moved along the blue line to his left, he turned and let go of a wrist shot that threaded its way through heavy traffic in front of Islanders goalie Al Montoya and in at 1:47 of the third period.

“There was [a] shot that he just threw at the net and, through a screen, it manages to go in,” Wilson said of the goal. “It wasn’t a hard shot so hopefully he’s learned his lesson from that.”

Gardiner added an assist, giving him 14 points (1-13–14) in his rookie campaign.

Saunders vs. future opponents

With no more WCHA opponents left on Alabama-Huntsville’s schedule, the next time UAH goalie Clarke Saunders will face WCHA shooters, he’ll be in the league. Whether he wins the starting job at North Dakota over Aaron Dell is a debate for next season (although it’s probably unlikely).

It’s important to note how Saunders did against WCHA teams this season: 39 goals against on 339 shots faced (.897 save percentage). But he had a lot of success against some of the WCHA’s toughest teams.

Saunders made 233 saves in six games (38.8) against Nebraska-Omaha, Denver and Minnesota-Duluth with 18 goals against (.928 save percentage). Those three teams are all in the league’s top half.

He struggled against Minnesota State and Bemidji State, allowing 21 goals on 127 shots (.835 save percentage).

WCHA PP struggles

Nineteen percent is the most average rate for successful power plays across the country but since Christmas, only four WCHA teams have power plays higher than 19 percent. They are Denver (40 percent), Minnesota State (26.9), St. Cloud State (23.3) and Wisconsin (20.8).

Minnesota’s power play, which had once been on top of the Division I rankings, has converted only four times in 27 chances since Christmas.

Between the dots …

Although the Alaska-Anchorage penalty kill rate is just 78.5 percent on the season, the Seawolves penalty killers are a perfect 16-for-16 in their last four games. … Goaltender Phil Cook continued his recovery from early-season misery by stopping 74 of 80 shots for Minnesota State in a split with Nebraska-Omaha last weekend. Cook is 3-1-0 with a 1.72 goals-against average and a .951 save percentage in his last four starts to lower his season goals-against average from 6.68 to 3.99 and raise his save percentage from .791 to .881. …

Senior defenseman Brad Hunt, whose 80 assists in 135 games for Bemidji State leaves him one short of tying the school record at his position in that category, has been held without a point since Dec. 17, a streak spanning four games. Big deal, you say? That hasn’t happened since Nov. 27-Dec. 11, 2009, when Hunt was a sophomore. … With a goal and four assists last weekend against Alaska-Anchorage, Wisconsin junior defenseman Justin Schultz moved into ninth place on UW’s all-time points list among defensemen while his 36 career goals ties him for third overall at his position in Badgers history. Schultz’s commanding presence can be seen in the fact that he has been on the ice for 53 of his team’s 76 goals overall (70 percent), 20 of 25 power-play tallies (80 percent), and nine of Wisconsin’s 12 game-winning goals (75 percent). …

St. Cloud State defenseman Andrew Prochno is turning heads with his rookie season performance. With four points (goal, three assists) last weekend against North Dakota the freshman has 11 points (1-10–11) in his last seven games and leads the team in assists (16) and is second in points (20) this season. … The Huskies have stopped 21 of 23 power plays (91.3 percent) since Dec. 17. SCSU’s penalty kill is 11th in the WCHA for the season (76.8 percent). Only one team, Alaska-Anchorage, has a higher-rated PK than SCSU since Dec. 17. … Michigan Tech‘s eight conference wins this season matches its total for the past three seasons and 10 Huskies have notched 10 or more points this season to better last season’s total of six. …

Saturday’s 3-2 win over St. Cloud State was North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol’s 200th of his career. He joins John “Gino” Gasparini (392 wins, 1978-94) and Dean Blais (262, 1994-2004) in UND’s 200 win club. … North Dakota has lost all three games this season in which it has exceeded 40 shots on goal, the latest being Friday’s 3-1 loss to SCSU in which UND outshot the Huskies 42-30. … Denver‘s Joey LaLeggia continues to lead the nation’s freshmen defensemen in scoring with 24 points (9-15–24) and has 11 points on his current six-game points streak. …

After not allowing an opponent more than 35 shots in the season’s first 22 games, Nebraska-Omaha has given up in excess of 40 shots in its last four games. … In the last 12 games, Mavericks’ opponents have managed only two power-play goals in 40 opportunities, a 95 percent success rate for UNO penalty killers. … Colorado College goalie Josh Thorimbert has started nine of 11 games for the Tigers, going 6-3-0 with a 1.67 goals-against average and a .943 save percentage. …

Jack Connolly’s two-goal, two-assist weekend in Minnesota-Duluth‘s sweep of Alabama-Huntsville extended his NCAA-leading points streak to 22 games, matching the team record set by former U.S. Olympian and All-American center Mark Pavelich in 1978-79. Connolly’s 40 points (15-25–40) leads the nation in overall scoring. … Ironman goaltender Kent Patterson has played every minute in net for Minnesota this season. He leads the country in minutes played with 1,618:54 in 27 games and is tied for first in the nation with six shutouts. Patterson leads the WCHA with a 1.94 goals-against average and is second in the conference with a .927 save percentage.