First Place On the Line in St. Cloud
by Dave Starman/Columnist
(Tonight marks the first big game for the NCHC as a conference as long time former WCHA rivals North Dakota and St. Cloud State battle on CBS Sports Network for first place. The game is 9 p.m. (ET) and a sellout is expected at the Herb Brooks Center in St. Cloud. College Hockey’s veteran trio of Ben Holden, Dave Starman and Shireen Saski are on the call.)
Jarrod Rabey is a house-sized 6-foot-2, 240-pound defenseman for St. Cloud State. Now a junior, he has seen his share of games between the Huskies and North Dakota. His assessment of this game tonight is right on: “There will be no free ice.”
Despite a few more feet of ice between the hash marks and the boards at the home rink in St. Cloud, it will be hotly-contested ground as these two battle for first place in the NCHC. SCSU brings its flowing transition style of game to battle against North Dakota and its relentless forecheck and north-south approach. The clash of styles is there but when you look at the teams at this point in the season you could argue they are a lot closer in system and structure than one would imagine.
St. Cloud can really flow and have a top nine that is pretty dynamic offensively. While struggling a bit at home earlier in the season, the Huskies are 3-0-1 in their last four there. Watching the two games against Duluth two weekends ago, they showed a real understanding of the dynamics of their home rink and its dimensions than they had earlier and that is a nice sign of growth as a team.
The backline loses a body tonight as Andrew Prochno appears to be out. He and Ethan Prow have been together since day one this year and the role of Prochno will be filled by rookie Niklas Nevalainen. Nevalainen is similar to Prochno in his offensive ability and has had the aforementioned Rabey as his partner most of the year, so he is used to having a defensive rock on his right side. Prow fills that role nicely. The thought here is these two mesh right away but Nevalainen doesn’t have the same confident get up and go the veteran Prochno does, so that is worth watching early on. How offensively dynamic will that pair be? As written here before, when Nevalainen gets the confidence in his feet that, say, a Dillon Simpson does, watch out.
North Dakota comes in still on a roll. After a road sweep of Duluth (which is never easy) it is a team that truly understands what it is, how it has to play, and with a tremendous attention to detail. Senior Fd Mitch MacMillan found his way back into the lineup last week and scored a game-opening goal off a rush chance created by Bryn Chyzk and Brendan O’Donnell. His veteran experience will help.
NoDak is playing with the same second-half swagger we have seen with many North Dakota teams in recent years. This group knows it is the sum of its parts and no one player alone can tip the scales in their favor in a matchup like this one or the ones they will play en route to what they hope is date for a title in Philly in April. Coach Dave Hakstol and his staff have done a masterful job of crafting a group of real good players (but non superstars) into a legit National Title contender.
Despite seasons that have been flashier in terms of players and games, this might be the best job Hakstol and his staff have done in his decade behind the bench. The interaction we have been fortunate to have had with him all season has allowed us as a broadcast crew to really understand the systematic process he follows and the environment of team development he creates.
Inside the boards tonight is a great matchup of a skilled power-play unit for St. Cloud against an aggressive penalty kill unit by NoDak. North Dakota likes to come at you hard early and then systematically wear you down as a game goes on. I liken it to how Joe Frazier liked to box; tenderize you early and knock you around all night until you win. SCSU is extremely good at going back and getting pucks and moving them up quickly and the extra room in the defensive zone and corners should present an interesting tactical challenge for NoDak in terms of how and where it pressures the puck.
As Hakstol said to me earlier in the week, “the critical areas of the ice are the same size no matter the size of the rink” and he was referring to the prime scoring areas in both ends. How his group uses the areas that are a little wider is a key and a player like Rocco Grimaldi, who doesn’t need much space to begin with, could have a field day in this environment.
The goaltending has been good for both clubs lately so the feeling is leakers don’t play a role here. Penalties could, as St. Cloud doesn’t take many while NoDak can always be susceptible to being over-aggressive at times. Playing whistle to whistle is a message that will be in both dressing rooms.
Dean Blais of UNO said this week that winning teams tend to give out a lot of ice bags after games. Expect those to be prevalent in both rooms after this one.
by Sam Obermyer
St. Cloud State comes into this weekend series with North Dakota as winners of four of their last five games, including a 3-0 shutout victory last Saturday night in Oxford against Miami.
This is a welcome change of pace for the Huskies who had struggled in the eight games prior to that going 2-4-2. With the struggles of a month ago behind them, coach Bob Motzko likes how his team is playing.
"I think we have been fairly consistent, the big thing in the second half is the competition has gotten much tougher, the hockey is much tougher. I still think we are playing very good hockey," Motzko said. "We play a very good strong defensive game, we have had a few lapses of that in the second half, but we seem to be making progress these last six games where we seem to be playing better defense and I think that is a great tend for us as we try to get ready for the playoffs."
St. Cloud and North Dakota faced off in a series on the first weekend of November in Grand Forks with the Huskies sweeping, but Motzko said both teams have changed a lot since that meeting.
"It's so deep into the year that it is distant memory now and obviously there is no team hotter in the country right now than North Dakota," Motzko said. "They are on a great run, the emergence of their goaltender who is playing outstanding hockey for them, in (Zane) Gothberg, and how their D-corps is matured. I think it is the best D-corps they have had since I have been in the league. Those young guys are maturing and I think they are a much different team than they were in the beginning of the year."
With all of the changes to college hockey, St. Could State-North Dakota is one of the rivalries that remains strong with both teams leaving the WCHA and joining the NCHC.
"Back in the WCHA we played four times every year. We had to meet a handful of times in the playoffs, in the final five and we have had a handful of games that were important," Motzko said. "We are in a great location for fans to travel to each other's buildings so we have a great following up in Grand Forks and they have a great following here in St. Cloud and that leads to some great excitement in the buildings. We have just had some great hockey games over the years."
While first place in the NCHC is on the line this weekend, the Huskies main focus is continuing to player their best hockey heading into the playoffs.
"You are in a battle right now so we do acknowledge it, but we don't put a lot of emphasis on it throughout the season. We have always said in the last few weeks if you got a shot at it of course you go for it," Motzko said. "Hockey is a sport built that no one remember a whole lot of what you do in the regular season but they sure remember the playoffs and that is the great thing about our sport."