WeldieBlog: Huskies Frozen Four Bound?
Gordon Lightfoot once sang about Lake Superior’s stormy weather and gloomy skies in November.
The song may be about a famous shipwreck in 1975, but the gloomy skies are taking its toll on the Minnesota Duluth Bulldogs as they got swept by the St. Cloud State Huskies by scores of 5-3 and 5-0 last weekend.
The series kept the hometown Huskies undefeated in its first seven games and it was the first time the Bulldogs have been swept in 21 series.
Jacob Benson had a tremendous weekend with a goal and an assist in each game. Mikey Eyssimont looked like a return to his former self on Saturday with a goal and an assist of his own. He also added an assist on Friday.
Friday’s game was a penalty filled mess. Both teams combined for 45 minutes worth of time in the sin bin. Nine total penalties were called in the second period alone taking all flow out of the game.
Huskies coach Bob Motzko took referees Todd Anderson and Andy Thackaberry to task after the game.
“There was no hockey with all of those calls,” Motzko said. If you have a chance, take some time to listen to his comments. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DhYVq1FW74k&t=135s)
Bulldogs goalie Hunter Shepard made some outstanding saves Friday. While the game log won’t say it, he kept the Bulldogs alive all game with a mix of lucky shots off the post and a fair share of outstanding saves.
He didn’t turn in the same performance on Saturday, giving up four goals on just 11 shots and was pulled in the second period. Shots that went off the post on Friday found the back of the net on Saturday.
Goalies Jeff Smith and David Hrenak split time over the weekend, with Hrenak earning his first career collegiate shutout Saturday.
The Huskies will be ranked number one in the polls by noon on Monday. The last time the Huskies were ranked number one was back in December of 2013 for one week. That team finished the season 22-11-5 and lost in the West Regional Final to the University of Minnesota.
The 7-0 start to the season is the best start since the Jeff Finger led 2001-2002 squad. There are plenty of reasons to be excited if you’re a fan of the cardinal and black. However, I think it’s a good idea to take a step back and look at the big picture. I’m going to give you three reasons why the Huskies are as good as its record and three reasons why fans should temper expectations.
Why We Should Ride this Hype Train to the Frozen Four:
This Huskies team has depth at every position that I haven’t seen on a college hockey team in a long time. Five players are averaging over a point per game. All three Poehlings have brought their game to another level and has combined for 20 points so far. Freshman Kevin Fitzgerald has been a diamond in the rough. He has five points in six games. He wasn’t getting a lot of attention from fans before the season, but he sure is turning heads now.
The defense so far has been tremendous. Jimmy Schuldt leads the nation in points per game as a defenseman with 12 points in seven games. Jack Ahcan is a wizard with the puck and always knows what to do once he has it. Luke Jaycox, who switched his commitment to St. Cloud from Northern Michigan after Walt Kyle’s contract wasn’t renewed, has played six games this year and hasn’t looked out of place.
The big question for this team was supposed to be the goaltending. Both Smith and Hrenak have been very good, earning a combined .937 save percentage. I’m normally not a fan of rotating goalies, but this system is working. No reason to change it.
- Special Teams
After the penalty filled slog that was the second period of Friday’s game, it should come as a no-brainer that special teams can make the difference in tight games. Both came huge this weekend in key situations.
The Huskies went 4-for-10 on the man advantage against Minnesota Duluth. Benson scored two on the advantage, Easton Brodzinski got the first of his career and Eyssimont sniped one after the defenseman was pulled out of position.
The penalty kill was great as well, killing off the five-minute major on Friday and all six chances on Saturday. The penalty kill is sitting at 88 percent on the season, which second in the NCHC to North Dakota.
- Who Else?
Looking at all conferences, I can’t say there is anyone else that should scare St. Cloud. Every other team has glaring weaknesses and you can’t point to one on the Huskies.
I know what you all are thinking. And to a certain extent, I agree. The Denver Pioneers are the reigning champs and has returned a lion’s share of talent. But the loss of Will Butcher, who has been a monster for the New Jersey Devils, has left a large hole on the blue line. They are giving up an average of over three goals per game and somehow let in 13 goals over the weekend to a Western Michigan squad that lost a majority of its scoring from last year.
We can do this with any team. North Dakota doesn’t have nearly the high-end talent in the past and longtime goaltender Cam Johnson suffered an injury. No clue when he will be back. Even healthy, the Bulldogs lack consistent goal scoring and defending. The Minnesota Golden Gophers talent takes a nosedive once you get past Casey Mittlestadt, Tommy Novak, and Rem Pitlick. Any team in Hockey East isn’t worth mentioning. Any team in the WCHA has trouble scoring.
This is the right time to win it all. Every other team has a big flaw to its game. You can’t pinpoint a weakness for St. Cloud State.
Why Fans Should Slow Their Roll:
Okay, I lied. There is a big flaw in St. Cloud State’s game. It doesn’t incorporate time. Heck, it can’t. This is a small sample size and it just so happens to be at the start of the season, when other teams haven’t developed any chemistry. The Huskies went through a little bit of a rebuilding year, but this is largely last year’s team. That chemistry is what other teams are still figuring out.
The Huskies just have a head start on the competition. They have scored five or more goals in five games. They are currently at 4.71 goals per game, which is very unlikely to stay up there for long.
The biggest key factor in looking toward sustainability is looking at an advanced stat called PDO. People can gripe and moan all they want about advanced stats, but I take a lot of stock in PDO because of how many times I’ve seen it correctly predict a regression or resurgance. It’s a stat that can measure how much puck luck a team is getting.
PDO is a stat the adds together (normally 5 on 5 play) a team’s save percentage and team’s shooting percentage (multiplied by 100 for ease). Normally, a team will be at or near 100. Anything above 102 is considered high and will taper off.
Based on the limited stats I have at my disposal, I have to include power play shots and goals, so the numbers will run a little high. For comparison’s sake, last year’s championship game featured Denver (season ending PDO of 103.2) and Minnesota Duluth (102.4).
Right now, the Huskies’ PDO is at 107.9. Ridiculously high. It is near impossible to know when it will regress, but there is no way the Huskies can sustain this for the rest of the season. Hope it doesn’t fall off in late March.
- Slow Starts
Sorry, enough with the ‘fancy stats’. Here is something a little more concrete. The Huskies are guilty of some very slow starts and have been lucky to have the depth and tenacity to overcome. Alaska started the game up 3-0 in the first game of the season and was down 2-1 after two in the second game. First game against Boston College saw the Eagles take a 2-0 lead to about midway through the game.
This is scary. Eventually, teams will be much better at closing out games when they get up by multiple goals. The Huskies have been lucky enough where it hasn’t hurt them yet, but you don’t want to give good teams opportunities to clamp down. You won’t get back up.
On paper, fans can see the teams the Huskies have played and think it’s a good schedule to start the year. Minnesota State has been a power in the WCHA, Minnesota Duluth was just in the championship game and Boston College has been a powerhouse for the better part of two decades.
But if you look closer, there are a lot of reasons to be skeptical.
First, Boston College started 1-5-1 before sweeping lowly Merrimack last weekend. Minnesota State has been solid since the first game, but you have to take the first game with a grain of salt. That was just a one-game showdown and the return game won’t be played until Hockey Day Minnesota.
That was the only road game this season for the Huskies. This weekend will be the first time they leave the state of Minnesota, so we have no real clue how this team looks on the road.
We caught Minnesota Duluth at the right time with injuries. The Bulldogs limped into the series, missing key playmakers Joey Anderson and Nick Swaney. They left town with another key injury with defenseman Mikey Anderson. He was injured in Friday’s game after a hit from Huskies’ defenseman Will Borgen, who received a five-minute major on the play. No doubt the injuries and the short turn-around (Saturday’s game was at 4 p.m.) also played a role.
We also had a surprisingly hard time overcoming Alaska, needed a strong comeback in the first game and overtime in the second game.
After the Minnesota State game on January 20th, the Huskies only have two more home series the reason of the season. That’s a lot of trips to other barns when you are in the chase for the Penrose Cup. The schedule and a little bit of luck has really helped put the Huskies where they are currently.
There you have reasons to be excited and reasons to temper your expectations with this team. I’ll be back later this week to preview the first true road series of the year as the Huskies travel to take on Denver.
Feel free to follow me on twitter @MoarClappers and contact me if you have any thoughts, questions, or anything else you’d like to see.