When you play in a league as competitively brutal as the NCHC, a rest weekend during the season can be a godsend.
St. Cloud State was off last weekend, coming off a sweep of Miami that had restored some of their swagger, swagger that had been tarnished when the Huskies were swept in Western Michigan three weeks ago.
During the off weekend, Brett Larson and the coaching staff gave the players some rest, but they also started fine-tuning some parts of their game.
“We try to incorporate some rest and recovery and with working on some things that, you know, sometimes you don’t get a lot of time to work on,” said Larson. “That’s some faceoff detail, some four-on-three and five-on-three, three-on-three type situations, where sometimes you get into the grind of the year and you don’t have a ton of time to work on. So, we actually try to balance it out by fine-tuning a few of the things that we don’t get to work on very often and giving the guys a little bit extra rest.”
Despite the challenges of the COVID era, the NCHC is back to its usual footing, with teams battling fiercely each weekend for points. Heading into this weekend, North Dakota is on top, while St. Cloud and Minnesota Duluth are tied for second. Omaha is only three points behind those teams in fourth.
“That’s a good way to phrase it,” said Larson, when asked about the NCHC being brutal each night. “Yes, I feel like COVID or no COVID, every night’s a war in this league. There’s no easy night, there’s no off night, and if you don’t bring your best, you’re probably going to get beat. So COVID hasn’t changed that.”
Larson, the coaching staff, and the players also used the off weekend to focus in on what they need to do to be successful down the stretch, and Larson feels they identified two important areas.
“As a group, we had some team meetings over the break, and we’ve identified two areas where we want to get better: our consistency and our starts. We feel like we’ve been a good team that’s been able to bounce back from adversity all year, but we feel that we need to get off to a better start, and we feel we need to play more consistently. So those are two keys for us going down the stretch. It’s hard to play from behind consistently in this league. The other teams are too good, so those starts are too important.
“And then obviously our consistency level of all aspects of our game has to be locked in down the stretch, because as I said earlier, I would imagine we’re going to be in seven one-goal hockey games here and that consistency is going to matter.”
For St. Cloud to improve and play its best down the stretch, the Huskies will be looking to two players who have been leading the team offensively all year. One is Finnish rookie Veeti Miettinen, a sixth-round draft pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the 2020 NHL draft. Miettinen played for the Kiekko-Espoo U20 squad last season and has adjusted well to the NCHC, leading the Huskies in scoring and is tied for fourth in scoring the NCHC.
“Well, it’s funny, but I think it’s a little bit of a hidden thing that’s helped him transition so easy, and that’s just his hockey sense,” said Larson. “He’s an intelligent player. I guess I didn’t realize how smart of a player he was, but I think that’s helped him adjust to North American hockey faster than I thought he would. He’s able to pick up on things very quickly. He’s able to absorb coaching and understand a system. He’s able to communicate with his teammates better than I anticipated. I think that just general hockey sense and he’s a hockey player. He gets it. That’s helped him transition a little quicker than we thought might be possible.”
Another strong force for the Huskies has been defenseman Nick Perbix, who has more than doubled his points per game average from his sophomore season and is currently second on the team in scoring. Perbix has been strong at both ends of the ice for St. Cloud.
“Yeah, you know, he’s a guy that’s got the skill and the ability to make a play under pressure,” said Larson. “I think that’s been a huge part of his success and our success this year. When we needed somebody to make a play, when the game’s been on the line, Nick’s been able to do that. I think he’s handled that pressure very well this year. Obviously, it’s been a big part of our our early success here.”
St. Cloud has also been able to depend on its special teams play. Both the power play and the penalty kill are ranked in the top 10, and in a league as tight as the NCHC, those special teams goals and penalty kills are something every coach wants to be strong at.
“Well, I do think that it’s the key, especially in this league, because this league is so good and five-on-five is so tight that so many nights it comes down to special teams,” said Larson. “We’ve spent a lot of time on it. It’s been a main focus for us trying to find that edge in a game to get that extra goal, obviously on the power play or to keep it out of our net on the PK. I think it’s just been a commitment and a willingness to work at it week by week from our guys. We’ve really made it a focus all year knowing that that can be a big difference.
“Obviously, we have to keep working on it because we know the games get even tighter in this league down the stretch. We’re going to be in a bunch of one-goal games, I would imagine, in the last seven here, and a lot of those come down to special teams.”
This weekend, St. Cloud hosts Western Michigan for a rematch, and the players will be looking to flip the script from when they were swept three weeks ago.
“Western has been a really good hockey team,” said Larson. “Every time we’ve played them, they’ve done a great job of attacking off the rush, putting us on our heels, and dictating the game for the most part. We thought we bounced back and had a better Saturday night, but still couldn’t get it done. So for us, it’s just, we know that we have to play at the top of our game. We have to limit their rush chances, and we have to create more of our own.
“When you play Western, it’s a speed-based game, and we know that if we can do a better job of limiting some of those chances where they’re getting guys in behind our ‘D’ and they’re using their stretch guy to create odd-man rushes, we think we can have a better chance of being successful against them.”
Five NCHC goaltenders make Mike Richter Award watch list
Five NCHC goaltenders were announced on the Mike Richter Award watch list this week — Minnesota Duluth sophomore Ryan Fanti, St. Cloud State senior David Hrenak, Miami freshman Ludvig Persson, Omaha sophomore Isaiah Saville and North Dakota junior Adam Scheel. All have a save percentage better than .905, and Persson is one of only seven freshmen players on the list. He leads the NCHC in save percentage with a .936. Scheel leads the NCHC in goals-against average with a 1.99, and he has three shutouts.
The list will be whittled down to 15 in the coming weeks. Two NCHC goalies have won the award before. Zane McIntyre of North Dakota won it in 2015, and Tanner Jaillet of Denver won it in 2017.