WeldieBlog: The Exorcist
Things can't be going much better for the St. Cloud State Huskies men's hockey team.
The Huskies captured the Penrose Cup Saturday night at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center with a 4-2 win over defending Penrose Cup and National Champion Denver Pioneers. The Penrose cup is awarded to the team that finishes the regular season with the most points.
The Huskies may have slogged through the Winter Break and January with mediocre results, but since have gone on a nine-game unbeaten streak. They currently sit at a 95% chance of being the top-overall seed in the NCAA tournament. The Huskies could also drop as low as four, which means the Huskies will be the top seed in whatever regional they play.
I live in Minnesota, which means I naturally have a pessimistic view on sports. I'd love to not have that feeling, but I can't help it. The teams I've cheered for make me this way. Because of that feeling, I believe this Huskies team will have to exorcise some demons fans have been dealing with over the past five years. Let's break them down.
Demon One: Huskies Last Penrose
The championship hangover from the Huskies' last Penrose Cup hit fast and hard, much like a half-price margarita night. The 2013-2014 Huskies were swept in the playoffs at home to a plucky Miami Redhawks team. In the first game, the Huskies were down late in the third. With the extra attacker, Kevin Gravel managed to tie the game with .1 seconds left on the clock. It became the second time I've seen the Huskies score with the extra attacker with .1 left on the clock (Ben Hanowski against Alaska-Anchorage). Midway through overtime, Riley Barber ended up cashing in to take the series lead.
In the second game, the Huskies blew a two-goal lead going into the third period. Miami stormed back and with the game tied at three, unlikely hero Justin Greenberg scored with just three seconds left to earn the sweep on the road. Huskies failed to advance to the Frozen Faceoff.
History has repeated itself as the Huskies will host the Redhawks in the first round of the NCHC Playoffs. Time for redemption.
Demon Two: The Ferris Fall in St. Paul
The last time the Huskies were a top-seed in a regional is a weekend fans and players would love to forget. The Huskies were the second overall seed. The West Regional was in St. Paul. The incredibly weak WCHA only got the conference champion into the tournament. Ferris State was ranked 30th in the Pairwise. This game should have been a slam dunk.
Slam dunk it wasn't. Defensive breakdowns combined with Ferris State out hustling the Huskies all game led to a disastrous afternoon. The Huskies were trailing for much of the game, but were able to claw back and tie it in the third. However, just 18 seconds into overtime, Jared VanWormer was able to knock the puck past Charlie Lindgren to secure the second biggest Pairwise discrepancy upset in NCAA tournament history.
You're probably now asking about Holy Cross' upset over Minnesota, thinking that was the biggest. The Crusader's upset over the Gophers was the biggest upset because it marked the first time a four-seed knocked off a one-seed. It also signified the start of parity in college hockey. It was no longer the 'same old boy's club.' Talent was coming from everywhere and going to unlikely schools. But Holy Cross' Pairwise ranking was at 21 during the time of the upset. That's barely outside the bubble of an at-large bid.
The biggest discrepancy came just one year before the Huskies-Ferris State game. It was the only time a number one overall seed lost in the first round when Minnesota State lost to Rochester Institute of Technology. At that time, RIT was ranked 38th in the Pairwise. It's an important lesson to note that once the NCAA tournament starts, everything can be thrown out the window. Parity makes the game much more unpredictable. The 'boy's club' is dead. There are no 'sure-things' in college hockey. You have to always put yourself in the best position to win.
Let's learn from history. How do we put ourselves in the best position to avenge the two demons that hang over the cardinal and black?
As much as I hate North Dakota will a passion, the Huskies should look at resting some players.
I know, it sounds asinine. At first, I hated the idea. The prospect of knocking North Dakota to a road series in the playoffs and potentially out of the NCAA tournament is VERY tempting. North Dakota has been struggling lately, winning only two of its last 11 games. They currently sit at 14th in the Pairwise (lowest it's been all season) and firmly on the bubble. I'd love to force the Fighting Hawks to have to travel to Omaha or Western Michigan.
But the Huskies need to look at the long game. This shouldn't be confused as 'tanking'. I will never suggest we should throw games against North Dakota. But some players deserve a night off. Players like Clark Kuster, Will Hammer and Tyler Anderson should play all weekend. Will Borgen should also play since he got snubbed in PyeongChang (more on my feelings about that later). But some players like Jimmy Schuldt, Jack Ahcan, Jon Lizotte, Mikey Eyssimont, etc. earn a Friday or Saturday off.
Most of these players haven't had a day off since December. That's a long stretch, even for top collegiate athletes. We have nothing major to play for, so why not take advantage of this weekend? I'm not saying we should take the games easy. We are in a unique position to take advantage of having the Penrose locked up. St. Cloud State should take advantage of it.
Secondly, every big game needs to have David Hrenak between the pipes. Huskies coach Bob Motzko looks to have come to this conclusion by giving Hrenak both games against Denver. Hrenak is 10-4-1 on the season (which isn't as good as Jeff Smith's 11-2-4 record), but his goals against average (1.89) and save percentage (.929) are both stellar. He is prone to the long distance goal every now and then, but his lateral moment is better than any goalie I've seen at St. Cloud State. He gives the Huskies the best chance to win night in and night out.
With that being said, I think Smith should start Friday's game and put Hrenak in there on Saturday. The Huskies have been rotating for most of the season, so this makes sense. The only other time Smith should start would be in the hypothetical third-place game (which I can't believe still exists). I'm hesitant to give Hrenak the weekend off because goalies are creatures of habit.
The Huskies are in a unique scenario to end the season. I tweeted back in July (https://twitter.com/MoarClappers/status/882745911423717376) about how terrible this part of the season would be. No way would I have predicted the Penrose would already be wrapped up.
Now is the best chance to reset and get ready for the final sprint. This national championship has been eluding the Granite City for too long. It's time to become a true powerhouse in college hockey.
- The NCHC twitter account addressed an issue regarding the NCHC website (https://twitter.com/TheNCHC/status/967447421369270272). The website didn't give the Huskies a point after Denver's 3-on-3 victory, and thus didn't look like the Huskies could clinch the Penrose on Saturday. I know mistakes happen, but if it's own conference has trouble giving out points for overtime games, how are new fans suppose to grasp it? We need to make the rules more simple for new fans, not more complex.
- Will Borgen didn't get a chance to play in the Olympics. He was scratched for the whole tournament. Borgen may not publicly come out regarding how he feels about Wisconsin coach (and Team USA coach) Tony Granato, but I can. Borgen left his team in the middle of a stretch run to represent his country. The first three games were all in a round-robin to determine seeding for the knockout stage. But when Granato scratched Borgen for the first game, which was a loss to Slovinia, why wasn't a switch made to put him in? It wouldn't have been a big snub if he was left off the roster. So all Granato did was remove a key defenseman from a team in a conference race to have him ride the pine all Olympics. He stripped a once-in-a-lifetime moment all for a seventh-place finish.
Todd Milewski from the Wisconsin State Journal asked about Borgen's absence. His response (https://twitter.com/ToddMilewski/status/968618217668259840) is lackluster at best. My comments on it could be another whole blog post, but look at my twitter feed (https://twitter.com/MoarClappers/status/968661578529869824)if you want to know what I think about Granato's comments. I'd say I expected better, but from a Wisconsin coach, I shouldn't be surprised.
- Continuing on the last point, I should elaborate on why I hate Wisconsin so much. So much of the appeal of college hockey are the bigger schools traveling to and playing at the smaller schools. Look at the glory days of the CCHA and WCHA. The biggest draws were the Big Ten schools playing the teams like St. Cloud State, Northern Michigan, Michigan Tech, etc. Since the Big Ten was formed, many of those schools have thumbed their nose at playing in schools that they view as 'beneath' them. Teams like Wisconsin tend to only play smaller schools on their terms (like playing Northern Michigan in Green Bay). Motzko stresses give and take when it comes to scheduling a series (play at home against a team then travel to their barn next season, or vice versa). Wisconsin, Penn State and others tend to think it's just a privilege to play them. I don't like that attitude in a program.
Oh, and it doesn't help that I think they are the worst culprits of over-committing. According to the College Hockey Inc. website (http://collegehockeyinc.com/commitments.php), Wisconsin has 31 players committed to be Badgers ranging from coming over the next three years. Unless the NCAA magically decides to expand the roster to 60 players, they aren't going to play. All Wisconsin is doing is tying up recruits through the 'Gentleman's Agreement' (not talking to players that are verbally committed) and just picking which players pan out and tossing aside the remainder. That's not far to the kids and not to the spirit of the Gentleman's Agreement. Some of those players will just get tossed aside. It's sad, really. Come to think of it, this actually explains why Granato didn't play Borgen. He over-commits in everything he does.
- The Selection Committee is going to have quite the decision on its' hands if both St. Cloud and Minnesota State end up being one seeds. If North Dakota does make the tournament, they might want to avoid the inter-conference match-up and move St. Cloud east. But being on the bubble and trending downward, the situation may still work itself out.