St. Cloud State Happy Under the Radar
by Tony Jovenitti/CHN Reporter
Here’s a trivia question: Which team became the first to sweep Denver in a WCHA series in more than four years.
Hint: Their captain leads the nation in assists, and they’re at the top of the league standings.
No, it’s not Minnesota.
St. Cloud State finds itself fighting for the top spot in the WCHA after an impressive home stand against the Pioneers last weekend, racking up 10 goals in the two-game series.
The spotlight may be on teams like Minnesota, but that’s just fine with Huskies senior captain Drew LeBlanc.
“Maybe we’re not a well-known name as some of the other teams in the top of our league. But that’s fine with us,” LeBlanc said. “We’re good with flying under the radar, as long as we can keep playing well.”
LeBlanc hasn’t had a problem playing well this season. After losing most of his senior season last year to a broken leg, he returned this year for his redshirt senior season. He leads the NCAA with 27 assists, and sits in second place for total scoring with 34 points.
St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko saw flashes of LeBlanc’s scoring touch last year, when he got off to a 12-point start through 10 games. Because of LeBlanc’s injury, Motzko said they all “got cheated out of one of those special years.” But he feels lucky to have LeBlanc back for his fifth year.
“We’re fortunate that, at a time when kids leave early, we get an athlete back for his fifth year. And especially such a high-level player that he is,” Motzko said. “He’s as talented as a hockey player as I’ve ever coached, and more importantly, he’s just a tremendous young man and leader.”
LeBlanc’s not the only leader in the Huskies' locker room. Fellow senior captain Ben Hanowski and senior defenseman Taylor Johnson all played in the NCAA tournament in 2010. Those players bring experience in high-pressure situations, including playing in the WCHA championship game and winning a double-overtime game against Northern Michigan in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.
“Those are the experiences that will definitely benefit you,” Hanowski said. “It was a long time ago, but you definitely grow from that. And I just try to tell the guys that it’s just a game. It doesn’t matter how big the stages are. We just need to keep plugging away and play our game.”
“We don’t have a lot of upperclassmen, but the ones we do are awfully high quality,” Motzko said. “They have a good work ethic. And our team really feeds off of that.”
The Huskies got off to a solid start in the first half of the season, going 11-7-0 overall and 9-5-0 in WCHA play. But they stumbled out of the break, splitting a series with RPI before getting swept at home by Northern Michigan.
“We just weren’t playing very good hockey,” Motzko said. “Prior to that, in the first half, we were very consistent.”
Then, the Huskies enjoyed a bye week before taking the ice and pounding the Pioneers 5-2 and 5-1 – becoming the first team to sweep Denver in a WCHA series since another St. Cloud State team did it in November 2008.
So what changed during the off week?
“I wish I had the answer,” LeBlanc said.
Motzko said that his Huskies simply “turned the page” and moved on.
Now, St. Cloud State sits tied for first place with Minnesota. The Huskies may be flying under the national radar, but Hanowski knows that the rest of the league isn’t overlooking them.
“I think other teams know that we have a pretty good team,” he said. “We can go out on weekends and compete with any team that we’re facing.”
The next few weeks will be crucial for the Huskies, as they head to North Dakota and Bemidji State before coming home to face Minnesota. Considering that St. Cloud State hasn’t played a road game since December 1 at Alaska Anchorage, heading to Ralph Engelstad Arena will put the Huskies out of their comfort zone.
St. Cloud State plays on a larger sheet of ice than most teams. The National Hockey and Event Center’s ice is 200 feet by 100 feet, whereas most rinks are NHL-sized – 200 feet by 85 feet. Add to that the Ralph’s raucous atmosphere, and the Huskies face a significant challenge.
“That environment is one you really can’t duplicate,” LeBlanc said. “There’s going to be times when that building is really loud, and when they score, it’s even louder. They’re going to come at us with a push and we need to be ready to push back at them and weather a few storms.”
Hanowski said the key is to try to score the first goal on Friday night to quiet the crowd and set the tone for the weekend.
North Dakota is lurking just two points behind St. Cloud State – an indicator of just how crowded the top of the WCHA standings are. Three points separate the top seven teams. But Motzko doesn’t think this weekend is about putting some distance between his Huskies and the rest of the pack.
“You just have to survive,” he said. “And to survive, you have to take points every weekend. This is just another opportunity to get after it.”
While the Huskies have their eye on the prize - home-ice advantage in the WCHA playoffs and another berth in the NCAA Tournament – LeBlanc’s journey has taught him to not take anything for granted.
“Right now, I’m just thankful to be playing the game again and not watching.”