This is the second of four team previews for the teams that have reached the Frozen Four this week in Pittsburgh.
ST. CLOUD STATE
Season record: 16-9-0
How they got to Pittsburgh: Beat Boston University 6-2, beat Boston College 4-1 in the Northeast regional
Top players: Freshman forward Veeti Miettinen (11-13-24), sophomore forward Jami Krannila (11-12-23), junior defenseman Nick Perbix (7-16-23), sophomore forward Zach Okabe (6-15-21)
Top goalie: Dávid Hrenák (16-9, 2.50 GAA, .910 SV%)
Why they will win the national championship: St. Cloud has just about been scoring for fun lately. The Huskies scored a combined 10 goals in Albany against two Hockey East powers, and SCSU hasn’t been limited to under two goals scored in a game in over a month.
Why they will not win the national championship: Senior forward Easton Brodzinski (8-5-13) is out with a broken right femur suffered in the Northeast regional final, and the Huskies will miss his presence enormously.
Although this is a NCAA tournament where none of the four regionals’ top-seeded teams made it to the Frozen Four, St. Cloud State is perhaps playing with as much proverbial house money as any team left in the field.
The Huskies found themselves in the “others receiving votes” column in USCHO’s preseason poll, and they were listed fourth in the NCHC’s own preseason media poll. Forget all that, because SCSU sure as heck did. The Huskies reached the NCHC playoff final and then won the Northeast Regional, beating Boston University and Boston College by a combined score of 10-3.
SCSU will show a different look in Pittsburgh with Brodzinski out injured. Seven more seniors will have a big say, though, on how their team fares in its first Frozen Four appearance since 2013, and just the team’s second all-time.
“Obviously it’s been our goal from the start of the year,” third-year coach Brett Larson said of SCSU’s run to Pittsburgh. “We were a team that, at the beginning of the year, wasn’t picked to be in the top 20, and we had a goal for ourselves to finish in the top half of our league and make a run in our league tournament and make the NCAA tournament and eventually make the Frozen Four.
“I think, right now, they feel like they’ve accomplished a few of their goals, and they’re hungry to accomplish another one.”
The Huskies will have plenty of motivation still, and not just from the national championship trophy. They’ll also be playing for Brodzinski, an All-Region selection this season who had 55 goals and 98 points in 140 career college games.
“He’s incredibly disappointed,” Larson said of Brodzinski’s injury. “He’s a guy that has put his heart and soul into this program for four years. His name is synonymous with the program, obviously, and all of the hard work he’s put in, and now he can’t go be a part of this, it’s really tough on him.
“He just wants this so bad for this team and this program, and that’s tough. On the other hand, our guys, I think from the moment he went down, used it as kind of a rallying cry. We all know we need to bring a little bit more when we lose somebody like that, so I think that’s the feeling in the room right now: we want to do it from Easton.”
And they have been. Brodzinski left the Northeast Regional final about a minute into the second period after receiving a clean hit in Boston College’s zone. SCSU was down 1-0 at the time, but goals later in that period from Luke Jaycox, Will Hammer and Nolan Walker turned the game on its head. Micah Miller put a bow on the come-from-behind win with an empty-netter in the game’s final minute.
Brodzinski, Jaycox, Walker, Perbix and Hrenák all earned All-Regional honors. Hrenák was named the most outstanding player of the tournament, beating out BC goalie and Mike Richter Award finalist Spencer Knight.
Speaking of awards, Larson is up for the Spencer Penrose Award, given to the NCAA men’s hockey Division I coach of the year, for the second time in his three seasons behind SCSU’s bench. He also knows a thing or 20 about what it takes to put together a national championship-caliber squad. Minnesota Duluth won NCAA titles in 2011 and 2018 with Larson on the staff at his alma mater,
This season’s SCSU team is on a mission, but it’s also a program that has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time. The Huskies were the No. 1 national seed in the 2019 NCAA tournament, fell at the first hurdle against American International and then went 13-15-6 last season.
It’s not hard to see why SCSU was unfancied by many outsiders heading into this season, but those lowered expectations and pain from two years ago are now specks in the Huskies’ rear-view mirror.
“I answered this question a lot going into (last) week, and to be honest, it almost frustrated me because I felt like this is a new team, and I use COVID as an example,” Larson said. “With no playoff last year, and being almost two years removed, it felt fresh, it felt new. The team wasn’t looking back, they weren’t looking ahead, and I think part of that might be COVID because, with COVID, you can only count on the day you’re in.
“You don’t know what’s going to happen the next day, so the past doesn’t really matter so much, the future doesn’t really matter so much, and this team always just felt like a very fresh, new mentality of being thankful for the day we have and making the most of it. I think that’s the attitude we’re going to continue here with.”