After emotional roller coaster, St. Cloud State rides balance into Frozen Four

Like every other one of his teammates had before, Nic Dowd exited the locker room at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn., with the same long face without much expression.

St. Cloud State had just went one-and-done in the WCHA Final Five, losing to Wisconsin in the semifinals. The loss could’ve kept the Huskies out of the NCAA tournament despite tying for the WCHA regular season title.

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“We were pretty disappointed our fate was left in other teams’ hands,” said Dowd, a junior. “We knew that loss was a significant factor in whether we’d get in or not.

“We sat back and thought we won our conference and we’re not even guaranteed a spot in the tournament. We came to the rink the next day for practice, not even knowing if we really needed to be there.”

The Huskies were pushed to the bubble and had to do a little scoreboard watching, but were able to sneak into the tournament field.

Given new life, they got ahead early in their NCAA regional wins against Notre Dame and Miami and advanced to their first Frozen Four.

The Huskies are riding a tidal wave of emotion right now, but the feeling wasn’t quite as easygoing that afternoon in St. Paul.

“We were happy to get the opportunity we thought we deserved,” said senior Ben Hanowski. “We won the MacNaughton Cup (WCHA regular season trophy) and that’s not an easy task. There was a chance we weren’t getting in but when we did, the guys were pumped and ready to go.

“The Midwest Region was a tough field. Notre Dame and Miami are perennial powerhouses in the CCHA and they always seem to be there.”

And now St. Cloud State is one of four teams that seem to have an equal chance to win the national championship. It definitely has the right players to make it happen.

The Huskies got major contributions all season from Hobey Baker Award Hat Trick finalist Drew LeBlanc, a senior center who’s held the national assists lead (37) since Dec. 14. While LeBlanc cooled off a little down the stretch — he hasn’t recorded a point since the first round of the WCHA playoffs on March 16 — SCSU has spread the production around.

“We get a lot of production from our defensemen scoring points for us all year,” said Hanowski, a wing with 17 goals and 14 assists. “We a lot of guys who’ve come up big in certain situations and we have good depth up front and along the blue line.”

Balance has been a key contributor to St. Cloud State’s success during the stretch run and into the playoffs. The Huskies won seven of 10 games in March, and nine players recorded between six and eight points.

Joey Benik, Andrew Prochno, Hanowski and LeBlanc all recorded eight points for the Huskies in March. Cory Thorson and Dowd had seven each in that stretch and Jonny Brodzinski, Jimmy Murray and Nick Jensen all had six.

“I’d say right now, we couldn’t be happier with our depth,” Dowd said. “Hopefully, our top two lines get it going again and our third line stays hot.”

SCSU’s third line — Benik, Thorson and Brooks Bertsch — scored six of the team’s nine goals in the regionals. Benik also scored one on the power play.

Brodzinski leads the Huskies and freshmen across the county in goals with 22. Nick Jensen is one of the more talented puck-moving defensemen in the nation with 27 assists (second-most in Division I) but he’s a good puck-stopper too, earning himself the WCHA defensive player of the year award.

One of St. Cloud State’s problem areas, statistics-wise, has been its power play. The Huskies were operating the man advantage at 16.4 percent (31st in the nation) going into the playoffs. They’ve turned it around and have the 10th-best power play (25 percent) since then.

The Huskies top unit includes LeBlanc and Dowd on the wings, Jensen on the blue line and Brodzinski and Kalle Kossila patrolling the middle. Hanowski also sees time on the top unit.

“Coach [Bob Motzko] changed [the power-play units] up a little bit,” Dowd said. “He said the power play was getting a little stagnant. Last year, we picked it up [on the power play] toward the end and hopefully we can keep that going.”

When the Huskies returned home from their regional championship in Toledo, a couple hundred fans packed the small airport terminal in St. Cloud to greet them.

The team was overwhelmed by the support.

“Going into it, we thought there was only going to be about 10 people there waiting for us and it would be kind of embarrassing for us,” Dowd said. “The turnout was unbelievable and we couldn’t ask for anything more from our fans.

“We felt like we accomplished something we set out to do. We knew we hadn’t really won anything yet, even though it kind of felt like it.”