Handed the keys to a college hockey program that entered the 2018 NCAA tournament as the No. 1 overall seed and returned the bulk of its talent for this season, Brett Larson knew what he shouldn’t do.
“They had the right recipe,” Larson, the first-year St. Cloud State coach, said earlier this season, “and I just wanted to make sure I didn’t screw it up.”
Consider that goal accomplished so far, as the Huskies carry a 29-4-3 record and the nation’s No. 1 ranking to Xcel Energy Center on Friday for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.
St. Cloud State, the conference regular-season champion, faces No. 6 seed Colorado College in the 4 p.m. semifinal, which will be followed by No. 4 seed Denver against No. 2 Minnesota Duluth at 7:30 p.m.
With so much already wrapped up — the Huskies have a stranglehold again on being the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament — is Larson easing his foot off the accelerator?
Larson, the top assistant for UMD last year, sees the Frozen Faceoff as the perfect opportunity to prepare his team for the NCAA tournament.
“It’s not going to get any tougher than this, as far as the type of opponent you play,” Larson said.
Larson wants his team sharp once NCAA play begins, likely next Friday in the West Regional in Fargo. Last year, St. Cloud State, under coach Bob Motzko, reached the NCHC final before falling 4-1 to Denver. Six days later, the Huskies were bounced 4-1 by Air Force in the NCAA first round, and Motzko left shortly after to take the Minnesota job.
St. Cloud State has a deep, talented lineup that is motivated by last year’s bitter ending. Defenseman Jimmy Schuldt, a Hobey Baker Award finalist last year, returned for his senior season with an NCAA title in mind. He and leading scorer Patrick Newell are among the 10 Hobey finalists this year, and they have a lot of help, as eight other Huskies have 20 points or more.
They’ll face a Colorado College team that won a quarterfinal series at Western Michigan. Though the Tigers are 17-18-4 and went 0-3-1 against St. Cloud State, they held third-period leads in all four meetings.
“We’ve played well, and that’s a good thing for our confidence level,” Tigers coach Mike Haviland said.
In Friday’s second semifinal, two familiar, high-end opponents will meet. Minnesota Duluth (23-11-2) is the reigning national champion, and Denver (21-10-5) edged the Bulldogs in the NCAA final a year earlier. The Pioneers beat UMD in last year’s conference semifinals, and the teams have split the four games this season.
Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin sees this tournament as a chance for his team to improve. Minnesota Duluth is 7-5 since Feb. 1. “You’re still trying to build to be a better hockey team,” he said.
The fact UMD is returning to the X, where it went 0-2 in the NCHC tourney before winning the national championship there three weeks later, isn’t lost on captain Parker Mackay.
“If you could’ve chosen to win two games last year at the X, those would have been the games,” he said, laughing. “But at the same time, you’ve got to put that past you. We’ve got two huge games to play.”
The Bulldogs face a Pioneers team that is 7-4-2 since Feb. 1 but ended North Dakota’s season with a sweep last weekend. First-year Denver coach David Carle likes the NCHC grind.
“It’s going to be arguably the best tournament of the year,” he said. “You have three of the top five teams in the country.’’