WeldieBlog: Here Comes UA(F?)
Nothing compares to opening weekend. The exhibition game can give you a taste, but opening weekend is where it finally boils over. Shuttle buses will be lined up on 4th Avenue, the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center will be filled with diehard fans and the Dogg Pound will be banging on the glass in anticipation.
The University of Alaska Nanooks make the trip to St. Cloud for a pair of games. Friday’s game starts at 7:37 and Saturday’s game is at 7:07. Both games can be heard on The River 96.7 FM.
Many questions revolve around the Huskies’ opponent. Why did they drop the city of ‘Fairbanks’ from its name? Do they still have Nanooks considering the rising temperature of the ice caps? Is a Nanook an actual polar bear or more of a state of ‘being’ for polar bears? Why did they stop using this video as the intro video for home hockey games? (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K9cYcRotufU),
Michael Bay movies have fewer explosions.
All joking aside (except for the intro video question), the Nanooks provide a great test for the Huskies this weekend. It would be a big disservice by saying Alaska is a great team to play as a warm-up to the season. Hockey, especially at the college level, is full of surprises. I felt Ferris State was a good ‘warm-up’ team in the NCAA tournament and look how that ended up.
But this is a good team to play for your home opener. That’s because the Nanooks are going to be a smart, structured team that won’t beat themselves. These disciplined teams are the perfect opponents to play with lines and find the chemistry between teammates. Huskies coach Bob Motzko said he wasn’t thrilled with how the forwards played in Mankato and said the pieces aren’t put together just right. This series will give him the perfect opportunity.
The key for the Huskies is to play smart over flashy. Alaska isn’t the team to run and gun with, because that’s how mistakes happen and counter-attacks. If the Huskies utilize their depth and play smart hockey, it’s hard to not see them coming out with two victories. Even if we don’t come out ahead in these games, you learn a lot more about a team playing against well-structured teams than a run-and-gun game.
Scoring has always been a problem for Alaska, only averaging 2.19 goals per game last season. The Nanooks failed to beat a non-conference opponent, dropping all five games to non-WCHA teams. Two of those games were against Notre Dame, there they failed to register a goal.
But that’s last season. This year breathes new optimism for every team, and the Nanooks are no different. Ex-coach Dallas Ferguson went to the Canadian Hockey League. New coach Lance West, who was the longtime assistant, has been promoted to head coach, albeit with the interim title.
While Alaska didn’t have a double-digit goal scorer last season, they do return plenty of the scoring they did have. Six of their top seven point producers return, lead by Chad Staley and Troy Van Tetering.
Alaska opened up the season with a tilt against Air Force, which is one of the favorites to win Atlantic Hockey. Alaska lost 3-2 (where they allowed the first goal) and tied 1-1 (where they scored the first goal). Against teams that have historically struggled offensively, the getting the first goal and off to a fast start is the key to success. Alaska had trouble playing from behind and went 5-16-2 when the opponent scores first.
In net, Alaska is very young. They don’t return anyone who stopped a puck from last season. For Alaska to pull off a victory, the will undoubtedly need a strong goaltending stint. Anton Martinsson played both games last week and did a strong job. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t start both games this weekend.
Make no mistake; this team is a team that can be frustrating to play. They will try to slow the game down to a crawl and capitalize on mistakes. The Huskies will have to utilize its weapons and have to play an up-and-down style, especially on the Olympic ice sheet.
I’m really looking forward to seeing how Motzko prepares the lines for this series. Mikey Eyssimont has been practicing and should be ready to go this weekend. Motzko was also very high on Kevin Fitzgerald’s game Saturday. He doesn’t have the hype that Blake Lizotte or Easton Brodzinski have, but Motzko loves to reward his players when they are playing well. If he didn’t, I’m not sure Jon Lizotte would have a letter on his jersey.
I also expect both freshman defenseman to get into the mix this weekend. I originally thought Luke Jaycox would play one night and Tyler Anderson to play the other, switching places with Clark Kuster and Mika Ilvonen. However, Motzko did say he is concerned with Jack Ahcan after a hit he took against Minnesota State, so it wouldn’t surprise me to see him sit for Friday’s game.
I’m also speculating Jeff Smith starts Friday and, barring another shutout, David Hrenak to get the nod on Saturday. I think a Smith getting a majority of the starts would be great for his consistency, but wouldn’t burden him too much toward the end of the season.
In the end, I do expect the Huskies to be too deep for Alaska. This weekend is Huskies Fight Cancer to promote Breast Cancer Awareness. If you wear pink on Friday, you get it for $10 and there is a jersey auction on Saturday. I always love when two hockey teams play in opposing color uniforms so I’m really looking forward to how the games both aesthetically and as a hockey fan.
Let’s kick this season off with a bang.