Twins Jack and Nick Poehling had a tight bond growing up in Lakeville. They were hockey teammates and earned spots on the Lakeville North High School roster as sophomores, helping lead the Panthers to a state tournament appearance in their first varsity season.
But there always was someone who wanted in on the action, too — brother Ryan, two years younger.
“He used to think he was a triplet with us,’’ Jack said, laughing. “We had to tell him, ‘No, you’re a little brother.’ ’’
Little brother isn’t so little anymore, and together the Poehling trio is helping St. Cloud State put together one of the best seasons in school history. The Huskies (30-5-3) won the NCHC regular-season title going away and earned the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA tournament. They open NCAA play at 6:30 p.m. Friday against American International in the West Regional in Fargo.
Since a January injury to center Kevin Fitzgerald, the Poehlings have been reunited on one line, with Ryan centering his brothers. It’s a combo that worked wonders in their high school days in 2015 when seniors Jack and Nick and sophomore Ryan led Lakeville North to a 31-0 season and Class 2A state championship.
“They just have a chemistry that not any non-brothers have,’’ Huskies coach Brett Larson said. “They can find each other out there, they can think ahead of the play. They’ve got skill, they’ve got compete and they’ve got character, so that’s a pretty good combination on that line.’’
The all-Poehling line will be back together for the NCAA opener. In last weekend’s NCHC Frozen Faceoff semifinal against Colorado College, Ryan lost an edge and crashed headfirst into the boards, suffering an upper-body injury. He missed the Huskies’ 3-2 double-overtime loss to Minnesota Duluth in the NCHC tournament final but has been practicing this week and is cleared to play.
Of the brothers, Ryan, 20, has the highest profile. The 6-2, 200-pound junior was a first-round draft pick (25th overall) by the Montreal Canadiens in 2017 and has starred for Team USA in the past two World Junior Championships, earning MVP honors in Vancouver, B.C., in January. On a star-studded Huskies team, Ryan ranks sixth in scoring with 31 points on eight goals and 23 assists.
“Ryan’s just a lot bigger, stronger and faster and just an all-around better player,’’ Jack said.
Playing on Ryan’s wings, 22-year-olds Jack (6-0, 187 pounds) and Nick (5-11, 185) supply energy and tenacity. Jack has nine goals and nine assists, while Nick has seven goals and 10 helpers.
“We play a hard game,’’ Ryan said, “so even if we’re not scoring goals, we’re doing something defensively and contributing to the team.’’
Added Nick, “We definitely feed off each other and make each other better.’’
All three are juniors for the Huskies, arriving on campus at the same time by different routes. After their senior year at Lakeville North, Jack and Nick played a year with Green Bay of the USHL. Ryan played his junior season at Lakeville North in 2015-16, then accelerated his high school studies that summer to graduate a year early and join St. Cloud State. The transition wasn’t easy for the 17-year-old.
“Maybe it wasn’t the right decision on the ice, but off the ice I matured so much as a freshman,’’ said Ryan, who had seven goals and six assists in 35 games in his debut. “It helped me grow a lot.’’
That growth, Nick said, has been impressive.
“He came into college as just a little kid who was still supposed to be in high school,’’ he said. “To see him go from that to calling him a man now as one of the most mature guys on our team and to see how he’s developed mentally and physically has been fun.’’
Fun for the Huskies would be winning their first NCAA championship. Since its only Frozen Four appearance in 2013, St. Cloud State has a pair of regional final losses and two first-round ousters, including a 4-1 loss to Air Force in the West Regional as the No. 1 overall seed last year.
“Last year was a tough loss, and a lot of guys are carrying that over to this year and using it as motivation,’’ Jack said. “We know what it takes.’’
Ryan sees it as chance for him and his brothers to summon some high school magic.
“At Lakeville North, we won their first-ever state title, and now we’re here and have a chance to win St. Cloud’s first title,’’ he said. “It’s pretty special.’’