Team of the Week: St. Cloud State
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
Late last Friday night at Minnesota's Mariucci Arena, St. Cloud State faced the very real possibility — indeed, a very real probability — of starting the season with three consecutive losses, as the Huskies trailed the Gophers by a score of 5-2 with less than 10 minutes to play in regulation.
At the time, Minnesota, picked to finish first in the 2016-17 Big Ten hockey preseason coaches' poll, was cruising towards the finish line in the first game of the weekend's home-and-home series between the in-state rivals.
And that's when everything changed.
St. Cloud stormed back, winning the game 6-5 in overtime while outshooting the Gophers, 23-5, from the start of the third period. The Huskies completed the weekend sweep on Saturday — again turning a deficit, this time of two goals, into a 3-2 triumph.
With the dramatic pair of wins, St. Cloud State is CHN's Team of the Week.
Last season, the Huskies won 31 games and lost in OT in the first round of the NCAAs. Under head coach Bob Motzko — who will serve as the head coach for the 2017 U.S. National Junior Team — St. Cloud has been built into a near-perennial contender.
But the Huskies lost their top six scorers from last season (five to graduation), as well as goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who chose to forego his senior season by signing a pro contract. As Motzko said during the NCHC's Media Day last month, St. Cloud is "hitting the 'start over' button."
Well, on Friday, facing a 5-2 deficit and a likely defeat, the Huskies started over. Propelled by a suddenly potent power play, St. Cloud tied the game on the strength of a Judd Peterson hat-trick — completed when the junior scored an extra-attacker at 18:47 of the third.
And while on the power play in overtime, Jack Ahcan found a wide-open Jake Wahlin with a pinpoint circle to circle pass, and the rookie fired the puck into an open net for the stunning game-winner.
"It definitely starts with the leadership," said St. Cloud sophomore Mikey Eyssimont, who scored a power play goal from a sharp angle on Friday to cut Minnesota's lead to 5-4 with six minutes to play. "Judd took a huge role in that game, obviously. He got us going. But I attribute a lot of it to having a young team that's just excited to play every night.
"A lot of teams, when they're losing 5-2, I think they get down on themselves and they realize, 'Ok, we're probably going to lose this game and start 0-3 now.' But our team is young. We're excited to play, and we don't care what the score is. We're just going to play our hearts out, whether we're up 5-1 or down 5-1."
Saturday, the scene shifted to the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud. Minnesota jumped out to a 2-0 lead, but again, as the defense began to block shots and frustrate the Gophers, the Huskies chipped away.
Jack Poehling and Jacob Benson scored two goals in less than a minute, both which began as a result of forcing turnovers by the Gophers, and both which beat goaltender Eric Schierhorn high to his blocker side.
And with seven minutes left in regulation, Eyssimont — who had been denied just seconds earlier, as well as on a second period breakaway — scored his second goal of the weekend, a wrist-shot over Schierhorn's left shoulder.
Said Eyssimont, "The locker room was ecstatic after the game. It was a great environment. Obviously, Friday was a huge comeback, but Saturday was just as important. Getting that sweep, and making those comebacks — I think it's a really good sign for our team."
Still, while the weekend sweep improved St. Cloud's record to 2-2, the Huskies were a bounce or two away from starting the season 0-4. If that were the case, the conversations this week, and the feeling in Motzko's locker room, would be considerably different.
"We have to realize that, after that weekend series against the Gophers, we could be an 0-4 team," said Eyssimont, a fifth round draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings in the 2016 NHL Entry Draft. "But we're fortunate enough that we played our hearts out and came out of it 2-2. We have to realize that it could have gone the other way too, and we have a lot of stuff to work on in practice."
One of those areas is the penalty kill — currently ranked last in the country with only a 63.6 percent success rate. The Huskies host Alabama-Huntsville this weekend before kicking off their NCHC regular season schedule with a two-game home series against Minnesota-Duluth.
For now, though, this young St. Cloud team proceeds with more confidence than they had after a pair of season-opening losses to Minnesota State.
And beating the mighty Minnesota Golden Gophers? That never hurts, either.
"There's a lot of hatred between the two hockey programs, but a lot of respect, too, with two great coaching staffs and two really good hockey teams," said Eyssimont. "To get the better end of the stick, two games in row, there's a lot of pride to it.
"It's one that we're still really excited about but, we're going to have to put it behind us."