When the eight NCHC teams gathered in the Omaha Pod to play 38 games over three weeks starting in early December, story lines were sure to develop. One of those emerged quickly: St. Cloud State is a contender in this conference.
Coach Brett Larson's team emerged from Omaha with a 6-3-0 record for 18 points in the NCHC, tied for third place with Minnesota Duluth, two points behind league-leading North Dakota and one behind second-place Nebraska Omaha. The Huskies and UMD both have a game in hand on the Fighting Hawks and Mavericks, so a tight race is shaping up at the top.
The Huskies' accomplishments in Omaha included a sweep of perennial contender Denver and a victory over then-No. 1 North Dakota. That has enabled St. Cloud State to move up to No. 6 in the U.S. College Hockey Online rankings. More importantly, it helped Larson learn a lot about his team.
"Playing so many games in a short amount of time exposed some of your weaknesses but we saw some of the strengths that we were hoping to see,'' Larson said. "… We talked about the most important thing in the bubble was continuous improvement, and that was our goal. We wanted to be playing our best hockey by the end of the bubble. We felt down the stretch we played pretty well.''
After two weeks off for the holidays, the Huskies jump right back into the deep end of NCHC play, playing host to fourth-ranked Minnesota Duluth, the two-time defending national champions. The Saturday-Sunday series at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center won't have the usual big crowd because of COVID-19 restrictions, but Larson sees no issue with his team finding the proper energy to face the Bulldogs.
"You know what will create the energy? Seeing the maroon and gold across the bench,'' said Larson, a former UMD assistant in his third season with St. Cloud State. "It's a rivalry, and I'm pretty sure we could play this game on a lake in downtown St. Cloud and there'd be that energy.''
The series will be the first of four meetings between the in-state rivals in an eight-day span, with the Huskies visiting the Bulldogs on Jan. 8-9.
After the Huskies won the NCHC regular-season title in Larson's first season in St. Cloud in 2018-19, a rebuilding squad took its lumps early in 2019-20 before finishing strong.
"We like our team. We took a step and built off last year's foundation,'' Larson said of the Omaha experience. "But to be competitive in this league in the second half, we have to take another step. The one thing I've seen in this league is it's the team that keeps getting better throughout the year is the one that's going to have success at the end.''
Mirroring the Huskies' development has been freshman forward Veeti Miettinen, an Espoo, Finland, native who couldn't join the team immediately this fall because of visa issues. Miettinen, a sixth-round Maple Leafs draft pick in 2020, ranks second on the team with four goals and four assists. He's riding a three-game goal-scoring streak.
Miettinen has proved to be a quick study in adjusting to college hockey. "It's a smaller rink here, and guys are so much stronger and faster,'' he said. "I like that, and I like the way they play.''
Larson saw the experience in Omaha work as a crash course for the Finn.
"He just got more and more comfortable playing hockey in North America each game,'' Larson said. "Everything was brand-new, and the bubble was great for him in a way. It allowed him to very quickly get comfortable in our style and our system. He showed really good steps toward becoming an impact player in this league.''
Helping ease Miettinen's transition is Huskies sophomore Jami Kranilla, a Nokia, Finland, native who plays on the same line as his countryman.
"He's been a big help for me,'' Miettinen said. "It's fun to play with him because we can speak Finnish at the rink, and no one knows what we mean.''
The language every Huskies player can understand so far has been winning while improving, a step-by-step process that's going well.
"Our goal is not to be satisfied with a good bubble,'' Larson said. "Our goal is to make sure we push ourselves and hold ourselves accountable and keep working to get better.''