ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Since the NCHC's first season in 2013-14, the St. Cloud State men's hockey team has been a regular participant in the Frozen Faceoff. The Frozen Faceoff is the semifinals, third place and championship games and has been played in the Twin Cities annually.
There have been two times that the Huskies missed qualifying for the semifinals: 2014 and 2017. In 2014, St. Cloud State was the regular-season champion and got swept by eighth-seeded Miami at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. The Huskies were already in a good enough position in the PairWise Rankings to make the NCAA Division I tournament.
In 2017, the Huskies took fifth in the NCHC during the regular season, which meant a series at North Dakota. UND swept the Huskies to end their season.
The other four years of the conference tournament (2015, 2016, 2018 and 2019), St. Cloud State has made the championship game, winning it in 2016.
St. Cloud State (13-15-6) goes into this postseason after finishing fifth in the NCHC and has a formidable road test this weekend when it plays fourth-seeded Western Michigan (18-13-5) at 6:05 p.m. Friday, Saturday and, if necessary, Sunday in Kalamazoo, Mich. The two teams played one series during the regular season and the Broncos swept the Huskies, 6-2 and 6-2, on Jan. 24-25 at Lawson Ice Arena.
"We had just come off the (home series) sweep of Duluth and, at the time, we were talking a lot about how we hadn't followed up success with success," said Huskies coach Brett Larson, whose team was 8-12-4 overall after those losses. "We were really trying to gain consistency at the time.
"That series was a wake-up call for our team that we couldn't keep that up and that was when the turnaround started."
St. Cloud State went 5-0-2 in its next seven games to get within a point of fourth place, but lost its last three games of the regular season to Denver and Minnesota Duluth. So all hope is lost for the Huskies going into this series, right?
Well, just hold on for a second. There is a precedent for St. Cloud State not only getting past this round of the playoffs, but making it to the NCAAs.
Similarities to 2014-15 team
In 2015, the Huskies had lost three of their last four games to finish the regular season 16-17-1 and had to go on the road for the opening round of the playoffs. St. Cloud State had a best-of-three series at Nebraska Omaha and the Mavericks had swept the Huskies at CenturyLink Center during the regular season.
Nick Oliver, who is in his second season as an assistant coach for the Huskies, was a senior and the team's captain in 2014-15.
"I think it's pretty similar to this team in that we didn't have (Nic) Dowd, (Kevin) Gravel or the (Nick) Jensens of the world anymore," Oliver said, naming off three Huskies who have played in the NHL this season. "It was similar to this year. It takes a while for guys to step up into different roles and define different roles and for your team to find an identity.
"That (2014-15) year, it took us half to two-thirds of the year to figure it out. We had a commitment to team defense and to playing the game the right way. We knew we had talent enough to score — and this year's team does as well — but it wasn't going to come as easy. We put together a heck of a run at the end."
That run started with a sweep of the Mavericks. St. Cloud State got the game-winning goal from David Morley at 9:49 of the second overtime to beat UNO 2-1 in the first game. Then Oliver scored the final of his seven career college goals for the game-winner in St. Cloud State's 3-1 win the next night to advance.
"When you're playing a short series, there are a lot of little plays that create so much positive or negative momentum," Oliver said. "I think there is a distinct turning of the page from the regular season to the playoffs. Once that short series starts, there's those little moments and you want to ride that positive momentum. But when that negative momentum hits, you've got to find a way to stop it in a hurry."
That was a very good Nebraska Omaha team that was led by Jake Guentzel, who has gone on to be an NHL All-Star with the Pittsburgh Penguins, All-American Austin Ortega and goalie Evan Wenninger. Despite the series loss, the Mavericks qualified for their first Frozen Four that season.
It definitely should be mentioned that Huskies goalie Charlie Lindgren stopped 80 of 82 shots in that series.
A similar core group
St. Cloud State went on from that series win to beat North Dakota 3-1 in the semifinals before losing 4-3 to Miami in the championship game. The Huskies were the No. 3 seed in the NCAA West Regional and beat Michigan Tech 3-2 in overtime, before losing 4-1 to UND in Fargo.
At No. 24 in the PairWise, this St. Cloud State team needs to win the Frozen Faceoff to advance to the NCAA tournament. This Huskies team has wins over No. 1 North Dakota, No. 4 UMD and No. 5 Denver during the regular season. It's not likely for the Huskies to run the table, but there's a chance and that's what the postseason is about.
St. Cloud State has 13 players and goalie David Hrenak who were regulars on last year's regular season championship team who will play against Western Michigan.
"Like this year's team, my senior group and the group below us had done a lot of winning and had a lot of success," said Oliver, who played in the Frozen Four in 2013 and also reached the NCAA Regional championship game in 2014. "Getting to those moments, there wasn't any disbelief that we wouldn't get the job done.
"It's the same this year. There's an older group that's been through a lot and they've been through a lot this year. But they're not too far removed from having very successful seasons and playing in games like this, which I think will help them."
This column is the opinion of The Rink Live's Mick Hatten.