ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Nick Perbix had not played much chess since about the third grade. But when the St. Cloud State men's hockey team went to Omaha, Neb., to play for three weeks in the NCHC Pod, a teammate brought a chess set.
Perbix and hotel roommate Kyler Kupka ended up getting into a routine where they would play a game of chess before games in the Pod.
"After a meal and before we'd nap, one of our game day routines was to go up and play one game," said Perbix, whose team started the Pod 3-0. "It was kind of funny because he beat me our first three games and we started out 3-0. Then I won the fourth one and we ended up losing that game (2-1 to Western Michigan). I ended up thinking in my head, 'oh, oh. Am I going to have to intentionally lose these chess matches if we want to keep winning?'
"But I won the fifth one and we won that game (5-3 over North Dakota), so I was able to try to win. I'm too competitive. I don't know if I could intentionally try to lose anything."
The Huskies ended up going 6-3 on the extended road trip and are two points out of first place, having played one fewer game than conference-leading North Dakota going into the break for the holidays. One of the reasons for St. Cloud State's success is the play of Perbix, a junior from Elk River, Minn.
He leads the team in goals (4), assists (5) and points (9), is second on the team in plus/minus (plus-5), third in shots on goal (25) and fifth in blocked shots (12).
"I thought he took his game to a new level," Huskies coach Brett Larson said. "We were asking him — and we believed — that he could become our go-to guy on the blue line. I thought he stepped up and filled that role.
"The thing I liked the best was he played really well at both ends of the ice. We've been working on him with his defensive play, trying to kill plays quicker, close on guys, be a little more aggressive to get puck turnovers. I really liked his growth, not only on the offensive side, but on the defensive side of the puck as well."
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New defensive partner
Perbix was able to pull that off with a new defensive partner in college for the first time. His first two seasons, he was partnered with Jack Ahcan, a two-time All-American and the program's career assists leader for defensemen in the Division I era.
Larson and his staff ended up putting Perbix with Seamus Donohue, a graduate transfer. Donohue had played the previous three seasons for Michigan Tech.
"I'm really excited at how well Seamus Donohue has done and he's stepped right into a top (defensive) pair in the NCHC and filled that role very well," Larson said of Donohue, who leads the team in plus/minus (plus-6) and blocked shots (17). "They're both smart and they're both mobile. Seamus looks more mobile at his size (6-foot, 190 pounds), but Nick (6-4, 200) is mobile, too. So you've got two mobile puck movers back there and I think they complement each other well."
Donohue, a two-time WCHA Scholar-Athlete for Michigan Tech, said that it is easy to be a partner with Perbix. He has been impressed of what all the Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick has brought to the team in the first month.
"He makes such great plays at the right time," Donohue said. "When he jumps (into a rush), it's there. He does create something out of nothing sometimes. But he's not constantly trying to, either. If he needs to make a simple play, he'll make a simple play.
"But it did take me a little getting used to because sometimes he'd get the puck and, from my angle, it looked like he had nothing and he was jumping around a guy. I just need to make sure I support him when he's going to make a play like that. I've got him backed up."
Perbix said he's also happy to provide backup for Donohue when he jumps up into a play. He also admits it took some time to get used to not playing next to Ahcan for the majority of games.
"It was definitely weird because I had played every college game with him as a 'D' partner," Perbix said. "I've played the majority of games with Seamus and he's great. We've definitely figured each other more throughout the bubble. I'm just excited to keep growing as a pair.
"I think he's reliable with the puck and he's reliable as a player, as a whole," he said of Donohue, who is seeing time on the power play. "He definitely has that offensive ability, too. If I see him jump up, which I know he can and will in the future, he has that ability and the green light."
Big man, soft hands
If there was one part of Perbix's game that stood out the most during the first nine games, it was how well he handled the puck, how much he handled it and how few turnovers he made with it.
"He's got that big frame and he's got really soft hands and he's got a low panic point with the puck," Larson said of the former Omaha Lancer. "He can make good plays under pressure.
"We thought he made a lot of really good puck decisions. We just thought his overall game took a major step from last year."
And Perbix has wanted the puck in big moments in games and delivered. He scored the game-winning goal with 27.1 seconds left against Western Michigan on Dec. 1, then scored with 18.2 seconds left in a one-goal loss to Western Michigan on Dec. 9.
Against Colorado College, he scored the game-tying goal with the goalie pulled with 1:21 left in regulation and then had the primary assist on Sam Hentges' game-winning goal on Dec. 18.
Donohue said that he and Perbix were watching a close game together and Perbix made a statement that may sum up his approach.
"It was coming down to the end of a game and we both saw the same play happen and the way it happened," Donohue said. "He said, 'It drives me nuts when guys don't want the puck when it's the end of the game and a team needs something to happen.'
"I was like, 'I know you feel that way, Perby.' When he has the puck on his stick there's a calmness to it and he doesn't get rattled. Even if he's in trouble, I don't think he knows he's in trouble because he's usually getting out of it."
Perbix is also getting the puck on net more. Last season, he had 58 shots in 34 games (1.7 per game). This season, he is averaging 2.8 per game. He credits new assistant coach Dave Shyiak with that adjustment.
"One of my first meetings with Shyiak when he came in, that was one of the keys for me was just to get pucks to the net," said Perbix, whose first goal of the season was knocked in by an opposing player. "My first goal of the year, when you throw things on the net, good things happen. I'll continue to try to do that."
And will he continue to play pre-game chess with Kupka now that the team is away from the Pod?
"We might have to," he said. "My mom had me and my brother in a chess club in third grade, so I had an idea of how to play. (Kupka) had never played before. There was a group of 5-6 of us who played. By the end, I think we got pretty decent at it.
"It took your mind off a lot of what was going on. If you're playing chess, you really can't think of anything else or you'll just get exposed."