TMQ: St. Cloud State making waves in NCHC play, Riley family hits milestone at Army West Point

Jami Krannila and Veeti Miettinen celebrate a St. Cloud State goal during NCHC pod play last month in Omaha (photo: Mark Kuhlmann).

Each week during the season, we look at the big events and big games around Division I men’s college hockey in Tuesday Morning Quarterback.

Jim: First off, Paula, let me take this chance to thank Dan Rubin for filling in for me in last week’s TMQ. What would’ve been a crazy day trying to write TMQ and call an afternoon hockey game at UMass Lowell a little more relaxed.

On to this week, and what could’ve been big news – undefeated No. 1 Minnesota lost for the first time this season – was a little muted as the teams below them didn’t do anything notable enough to unseat Minnesota from the top spot. Yes, North Dakota pulled off a Sunday road win at Colorado College and will get a chance to complete the sweep Monday evening (after this column is filed), but that was only enough to boost the Fighting Hawks to No. 2 in the poll.

But there was one team that stood out to me, and that’s St. Cloud State. The Huskies rallied in the third period for a win on Friday night, then scored the only goal in 3-on-3 overtime to complete a weekend sweep of Minnesota Duluth. I think we both felt bullish about St. Cloud State after the NCHC pod, and the last two weekends, where the Huskies won three of four games against a solid Minnesota Duluth club, solidifies them as top-five team in my mind. I had them fourth on my ballot and that’s where they fell in this week’s poll, receiving one first-place vote, in fact.

With 13 games played, I am comfortable saying this team – maybe lacking a little bit in household names – is proving its depth offensively and on the blueline and will certainly the challenging in both the NCHC and nationally.

Do you agree?

Paula: I completely agree, Jimmy, but I still haven’t put my finger on why the Huskies are so successful.

Like you, I had St. Cloud State fourth on my ballot this week. That 9-4-0 record is impressive: wins in three of four games against Minnesota Duluth, a split with North Dakota, a split with Omaha.

You mentioned a lack of household names on this Huskies team, and that moment before recognition is always an interesting one for emerging (or re-emerging) programs. We saw that a few years ago as Minnesota Duluth rose to dominance. We’re seeing that with Minnesota State and Bowling Green, guys whose names come to mind more easily to national audiences than they did even a season ago. (An example that comes to mind is BGSU senior forward Cameron Wright, who’s continuing the outstanding performance of his junior year.)

But in addition to the relative unknowns on the St. Cloud team, collectively the team hasn’t put up impressive numbers with the exception of combined special teams, which is fifth nationally. SCSU’s scoring offense is 23rd nationally and the Huskies’ defense is 15th. Goalie David Hrenak’s numbers don’t put him in the top 20 nationally in either save percentage or goals-against, but his win percentage is 12th. The Huskies don’t have a nationally dominant player offensively, but seven different scorers have accounted for their nine game-winning goals.

Even if little looks like it’s dominant nationally, everything appears to be working in concert. Can this be the recipe for sustainable success for the Huskies – or any team?

Jim: So I am, personally, a big fan of a balanced, deeper team rather than having one or two star players who you have to rely on for everything.

It is often better to have four “second” lines than a rock star first line and three lines that can’t compare to most team’s third line. Does that make sense?

The other thing working for St. Cloud State is that one of the recognizable names on this Huskies team is the goaltender, David Hrenak. Even though, as you point out, Hrenak doesn’t rank top 20 in GAA or save percentage, he does plenty for this team.

Getting back to a team I mentioned in my opener, Minnesota, they lost to Wisconsin this weekend, the first loss for the Gophers. I actually don’t want to talk about Minnesota, which at 11-1-0 is in great shape, as much as Wisconsin. At times this season, I’ve tried to figure out just how good this Badgers team is, still hovering at .500 overall. But the reality is this weekend showed me a lot. Wisconsin seemingly has plenty of strengths and it’s probably sensible to say that the Badgers are the second-best team in the Big Ten right now.

Am I overstating?

Paula: Overstating … maybe. It’s certainly hard to argue against your assessment, given that Wisconsin is the only B1G team aside from Minnesota with a record above .500.

I think there are two things that are contributing to Wisconsin’s success this season. One is that the Badgers seem to be playing with more consistency in every aspect of their game than they did last season. The second is that this year’s Wisconsin team seems to be tapping more into the potential that the Badgers showed last season.

Does that make them second-best? I guess it depends on how you define “best.” Right now, they have the second-best record and are playing better as a team than other teams behind them. That can be enough to keep them in second place or better, certainly.

And the Badgers are loaded with talent. Wisconsin has 14 different players who have scored at least a goal, led by one of the best forwards in the country, Cole Caufield. I like the way that Robbie Beydoun has been playing in net. I’m sure that Tony Granato would be the first person to tell you that the Badgers can improve in several areas, but he’d also be the first to tell you how improved they are this season from last.

If by “best,” you are referring to performance in the moment, then the Badgers are the second-best team in the Big Ten.

The conference as a whole, though, is talented and improved over last season. Just look at that Michigan State-Michigan series. The Wolverines are as talented a team as I’ve covered in a long, long time, and after unloading on the Spartans 9-0 Friday, they couldn’t seal the proverbial deal when they had a lead in the closing minutes of Saturday’s game.

Every B1G team plus Arizona State played this past weekend, and each series was a split. I can’t predict who will be second-best when the season ends.

Jim: That’s a very good point. When you go through a Big Ten conference weekend without a sweep, it’s hard to grade teams subjectively. That said, two teams thar faced one another – Michigan and Michigan State – both often show brilliance. But I feel like both teams lack full-weekend consistency. Both seem to play one great game each weekend. Two would go so much further.

Before closing this week, I wanted to tip the cap. On Sunday, Army West Point upset AIC. The win was a major milestone for both head coach Brian Riley, as well as his family.

Since the 1950-51 season, there has been a Riley behind the Army bench mentoring and leading future Cadets not just on the ice but through the always difficult military academy. After father Jack followed his son Rob and then his second son Brian as coach. Sunday’s win was the 1,000th win by a Riley head coach at West Point, a remarkable achievement that I’m not sure we’ll ever see repeated again. In terms of coaching achievements, so impressive.

Paula: That is an incredible milestone – and what a family tradition.

Congratulations to Brian Riley and congrats to the impressive legacy that the Riley family has built at West Point.

Let’s end this week by allowing a few other people to have the last word.