The college hockey season is a six-month march that starts in October and ends in early April — at least for four fortunate teams — so there are bound to be times when one’s mind might wander and look ahead, aren’t there?
Not at St. Cloud State, according to Bob Motzko.
“We’ve been doing this all year long — all we talk about is the step in front of us,” said Motzko, the Huskies’ 13th-year head coach. “I’ve always thought college is really just a series of mini playoff series all year long. … We just concentrate week to week, put our focus into that. We don’t have a standings board in our locker room; we’ve never had one.”
Come Friday and Saturday at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center, Motzko and his No. 1-ranked Huskies will have another of those mini playoff series, though this one will carry added weight. Arriving in St. Cloud will be No. 3 Denver, the defending national champion, and at stake will be a chance for the Huskies to clinch the National College Hockey Conference regular-season title. St. Cloud State (20-6-4, 14-4-2 NCHC) leads the NCHC with 45 points, five ahead of the second-place Pioneers (17-7-6, 11-5-4). A sweep would deliver the title to the Huskies with one week remaining in the regular season, while Denver would take over first place if it wins both games.
Motzko, who guided the Huskies to the 2013 NCAA Frozen Four, sees the series as a chance to gauge his team.
“I still think Denver is the best team in the country. They showed us that when we were out there early in the year,” said Motzko, pointing to the Pioneers’ 4-2 and 5-1 sweep in November. “We just want to see if we’ve closed the gap — maybe we can catch up to them.”
The national rankings say St. Cloud State has closed that gap and overtaken Denver, at least this week. The Huskies returned to the No. 1 spot in both the U.S. College Hockey Online and USA Hockey polls after Notre Dame was swept by Michigan and Denver split a series with Colorado College. In the PairWise Ratings, the Huskies remain No. 1 entering Thursday.
The significance of the Denver series isn’t lost on Huskies junior forward Mikey Eyssimont, the team’s second-leading scorer with 32 points on 14 goals and 18 assists who happens to be from Littleton, Colo.
“We were flat-footed and not very good when we went out to Denver,” Eyssimont said. “This weekend’s been circled.”
Eyssimont is part of a deep team that features six players with 20 or more points, helping St. Cloud State rank second nationally with 3.90 goals per game. Led by junior forward Robby Jackson’s 34 points (14 goals, 20 assists), the Huskies roll four lines.
“We rarely match lines; we let our guys play,” Motzko said. “It’s a great luxury to have.”
The Huskies also get a lot of production from their blue line, led by junior defenseman Jimmy Schuldt, a Hobey Baker Award candidate from Minnetonka. Schuldt has 31 points (seven goals, 24 assists), is a plus-20 and has a team-high 62 blocked shots.
“I check stats once in a while to see how many blocked shots I have,” he admitted. “I get competitive with that.”
St. Cloud State will get a boost when minute-munching defenseman Will Borgen, a fourth-round draft pick of the Buffalo Sabres, returns from Olympic duty with Team USA. In his absence, Motzko has spread the minutes, building depth.
“When we get Will back, our defensive corps is going to be in a much deeper place than we he left,” he said.
St. Cloud State entered January with the No. 1 ranking but went through a 1-4 stretch that began with a 2-0 loss to the Gophers and featured three games in which it gave up five or more goals. Since then, the Huskies are on a 6-0-1 roll.
“We had a little rocky start to the new year, but I think that was kind of good for us in a way — to have it happen then,” Eyssimont said.
With the Frozen Four in St. Paul, Schuldt acknowledged the Huskies could have some extra motivation to reach Xcel Energy Center but quickly echoed his coach’s one-game-at-a-time sentiments.
“We’re where we want to be right now,” he said, “but there’s a lot of season to go, a lot of big games ahead of us that we need to put all our energy into.”
In our weekly Frozen Focus, college sports reporter Randy Johnson will profile a team each week tracking toward the 2018 Frozen Four in St. Paul. Follow Randy on Twitter: @rjstrib.