Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Know Your Enemy: St. Cloud State

This week's edition of "Know Your Enemy" is actually a team Tom is fairly well familiar with - he did his graduate work at St. Cloud State and covered the program for a couple of seasons for USCHO as his first foray into sports journalism. He also regularly put together a "Husky Bracketology" for SCSU fans, the forerunner to the same methodology that became "Engineer Bracketology" during the 2010-11 season here at Without a Peer.

This series came about after SCSU was bumped from this year's Great Lakes Invitational in favor of Western Michigan, since the GLI will coincide with the NHL's Winter Classic in Ann Arbor this season. The natural solution for WMU to drop its games with RPI, and for SCSU to pick them up.

St. Cloud State
Nickname: Huskies
Location: St. Cloud, MN
Founded: 1869
Conference: WCHA
National Championships: 0
Last NCAA Appearance: 2010
Last Frozen Four: 1987 (Division II)
Coach: Bob Motzko (8th season)
2011-12 Record: 17-17-5 (12-12-4 WCHA, 6th place)
Series: RPI leads, 4-2-0
First Game: January 15, 1988 (St. Cloud, MN)
Last RPI win: November 22, 2003 (Troy, NY)
Last SCSU win: November 1, 2002 (St. Cloud, MN)

2012-13 games: December 27-28, 2012 (St. Cloud, MN)

Key players: F Ben Hanowski, sr.; F Drew LeBlanc, sr.; D Taylor Johnson, sr.; F Nic Dowd, jr.; D Nick Jensen, jr.; D Kevin Gravel, jr.; D Andrew Prochno, so.; G Ryan Faragher, so.; D Jarrod Rabey, so.; F Garrett Hendrickson, fr.; F Joey Benik, fr.; F Ville Jarvelainen, fr.

For several years, St. Cloud was perhaps best known as the butt of everyone's jokes when it came to the NCAA tournament. It was hard to blame people for laughing, considering that the Huskies had frequently put together some very competitive teams only to fall flat on their faces in their first NCAA opportunity, losing their first nine NCAA games (including four seasons in a row). They broke that streak against Northern Michigan in 2010, but still have yet to get over the hump and reach the Division I Frozen Four.

As could be expected with Minnesota schools, hockey goes back quite a ways at St. Cloud. A formal team began during the 1930s, and despite the fact that college hockey would not become a legitimate pathway to the NHL for several more decades, two outstanding NHL goaltenders came through the then-St. Cloud State Teachers College: Hall of Fame inductee Frank Brimsek, who won two Stanley Cups with the Boston Bruins and was their goalie of choice during the 1940s, and Sam LoPresti, who set an NHL record by facing 83 shots in a single game against Brimsek and the Bruins in 1941.

These early teams were very successful, leading legendary Minnesota coach John Mariucci to say that St. Cloud "did more for collegiate hockey in the '30s and '40s" than any other institution.

The Huskies' program went on hiatus during World War II from 1942 to 1947, but returned with a bang, putting together 10 seasons out of 11 at .500 or better while playing outside of the NCAA's newly established championship, mostly against a variety of Minnesota and Wisconsin based teams. In 1956, Jack Wink became St. Cloud's first long-term coach, bringing the team to some high highs (including a perfect 11-0-0 record in 1962 after a 12-1-0 year in 1961) and some low lows (the team went 6-42-0 in his final three years from 1966 to 1968).

St. Cloud spent 16 seasons under the tutelage of Charles Basch from 1968 to 1984. During this time period, the Huskies joined Division III's NCHA in its inaugural season of 1980, a year after the team competed in the NCAA's D-II/D-III tournament for the first time. SCSU competed well in the NCHA, but their star turn came in 1987, with the arrival of a major name in the history of hockey: Herb Brooks.

Brooks came to St. Cloud with his legacy already written: three NCAA championships with the University of Minnesota, the gold medal as the legendary head coach of the 1980 Miracle on Ice team, and three-and-a-half seasons as the head coach of the New York Rangers. Brooks and his protege, Craig Dahl, had one thing in mind for the Huskies: Division I. Using his considerable pull with USA Hockey, Brooks proposed that the campus host the National Hockey Center, the first building in the nation with two Olympic-sized rinks, as training for international events. This would be the bedrock for the school's long-term plan for Division I hockey.

In 1987, his only season in St. Cloud, Brooks brought the Huskies to the NCHA regular season championship, tying a school record with 25 wins in a single season and advancing the team to the NCAA Division III Frozen Four. The Huskies fell 5-2 to Oswego State in the semifinals, ending their hopes of a national championship, but they bounced back with a victory over Bemidji State for 3rd place.

Just as St. Cloud was beginning its Division I adventure, Brooks was hired to be the head coach of his hometown Minnesota North Stars, and it fell to Dahl to guide the team into the elite ranks of college hockey. While the NHC was under construction, the Huskies were Division I independents from 1988 to 1990, picking up an independent bid to the NCAA tournament in their second season but dropping two games to the defending national champions, Lake Superior State.

SCSU joined the WCHA in 1990, a year after the NHC opened, and reached the middle of the pack right away, finishing 5th in the nine-team league in 1991. The team gradually improved its competitiveness throughout the 1990s, finishing 4th in 1994 and 3rd in 1997, the team's first two 20-win seasons in Division I. By the turn of the century, Dahl had molded one of the better programs in a league that was establishing itself as the best in the nation. The Huskies returned to the NCAA tournament in 2000, and arguably had its greatest season to date in 2001, winning 31 games, attaining a #1 national ranking for the first time and winning the WCHA championship, but falling to Michigan in the NCAA tournament, just one win away from the Frozen Four thanks to the top-seed bye.

The Huskies would reach the NCAA tournament in four consecutive campaigns from 2000 to 2003, but never picked up that elusive first victory. Dahl remained on board for two more seasons, the second of which saw St. Cloud finish next-to-last in the WCHA for the first time. Dahl left the team near the start of the 2005-06 season, and was replaced by SCSU alumnus Bob Motzko, who had just joined the team as an assistant coach after winning two national championships at Minnesota as an assistant.

Motzko turned SCSU's fortunes almost immediately. In 2006, his first year behind the bench, he guided the team back to the WCHA Championship game, and the following two seasons back to the NCAA tournament. It was not until 2010, however, that Motzko and Huskies would get over the hump and pick up their first NCAA victory on their 8th try. SCSU has had only one sub-.500 season under the coach entering his 8th year this season, coming in 2011, a disappointing result for a team that was expected to be among the best in the WCHA.

Last year, the team put together a .500 season with very little in the way of expectations. They overcame adversity, with LeBlanc, one of the team's top threats, lost to injury early in the season, as well as Mike Lee, the team's top goaltender. They lost forward Cam Reid to major junior midway through the season, and yet rebounded in time to get a home ice position for the WCHA first round and make an appearance at the Final Five in St. Paul.

LeBlanc, who was a senior last year, was granted a medical redshirt and will be back this season. While the Huskies do lose a pair of top goal scorers to graduation, they are expected to have their best forward back in Hanowski, a scorer of 23 goals and 20 assists last season as a junior who appears to be returning for his senior year. Dowd returns off of strong a season last year, and the return of LeBlanc with the addition of touted freshman Hendrickson could make SCSU difficult to stop offensively, cushioning the blow from David Eddy's decision to forego his senior year.

The defense will be backstopped by Faragher following the early NHL departure of Lee, who was Jerry D'Amigo's roommate in Saskatchewan when the US junior team won the gold medal in the 2010 championships. Lee missed most of last season after suffering an injury in October, but helped guide the team to a 7-3-1 record after the month of February, when he returned. Faragher proved at least a capable backup in Lee's absence from November through January, though the team was not as successful during that stretch. On the blue line, the team boasts some outstanding puck-moving defensemen in Prochno and Jensen, with some experienced toughness from Johnson.

All told, the Huskies have five NHL draft picks on their roster and are led by a talented senior class that has tasted NCAA success. With the team set to leave the WCHA for the start-up NCHC next season, this is a team that could be well positioned to leave the league on a strong note, and that could make for a couple of very difficult games for the Engineers in the Granite City.

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