ST. CLOUD, Minn. — The St. Cloud State men's hockey team moved into sole possession of first place in the NCHC on Sunday, Jan. 3 after beating Minnesota Duluth and earning four points in the series at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

The Huskies (7-4-0-1-2, 22 points) own a slim two-point lead over North Dakota (7-2-1-2-0, 20) and Minnesota Duluth (6-3-2-1-0, 20) and are three points ahead of Nebraska Omaha (6-3-1-1-0, 19). The Huskies and Bulldogs have played one more game than the Fighting Hawks and Mavericks, who had a series against one another rescheduled last week because of positive tests in the UNO program.

There is a ton of uncertainty about how many games teams will get in because of the pandemic. At the same time, if the Bulldogs and Huskies are able to play both games of this weekend's series in Duluth, those two teams will have played 13 games, the minimum needed to qualify for the NCHC playoffs.

Obviously, they've been able to stay healthy, but here are five other things that have gone right (in no particular order) for SCSU:

Third-period power

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When you look back at the Huskies' 2019-20 season, one of the reasons the team finished below .500 (13-15-6) was how it played in the third period. The Huskies were 9-0-2 last season when they led going into the third period, but 4-3-1 when the score was tied and 0-12-3 when they trailed after two periods.

This season, the Huskies are 2-3-0 when they trail going into the third, 1-0 when the game is tied after two and they have outscored opponents 13-5 in the last 20 minutes. That last number is a big turnaround from last season when they were outscored 37-30 in the third period.

St. Cloud State forward Zach Okabe (14) and defenseman Seamus Donohue (3) celebrate Okabe's goal on North Dakota in the second period Saturday, Dec. 12, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Donohue accidentally knocked Okabe to the ice in celebration. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service
St. Cloud State forward Zach Okabe (14) and defenseman Seamus Donohue (3) celebrate Okabe's goal on North Dakota in the second period Saturday, Dec. 12, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Donohue accidentally knocked Okabe to the ice in celebration. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service

Improved players

The Huskies needed to have a handful of players step up their play if they were going to be better this season. Here are three of the players who have stepped up and are playing bigger roles for SCSU: sophomore forward Zach Okabe, sophomore forward Kyler Kupka and junior defenseman Brendan Bushy.

Okabe was a minus-9 and did not have a point in his first 13 games last season. This season, he has eight points and is a plus-5.

Kupka was a healthy scratch in 15 of the team's first 20 games last season. This season, he has played all 11 games, scored his first two college goals and has been relied on as the left wing on a line with seniors Will Hammer and Jared Cockrell.

Bushy played in 32 games last season, did not register a point and had two penalty minutes. This season, he has two assists, 19 penalty minutes and is a plus-1. He's clearly playing more aggressively and with a willingness to jump up into the offense on occasion, something he did not do last season.

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Special teams

This has been an interesting mix. The Huskies started 2-for-20 (10%) on the power play in their first seven games, but are 7-for-18 (38.9%) in their last four games. It looks like they have found the right combination of players and forward Veeti Miettinen is clearly getting comfortable on the power play.

The penalty kill was nearly lights out at 91.7% (33-for-36) and ranked seventh in NCAA Division I going into the series with UMD. The Bulldogs went 3-for-9 (33.3%) on the power play. If the Huskies can hang around their current percentages (23.7% on the power play and the 86.7% on the kill), they are going to continue to win.

St. Cloud State forward Veeti Miettinen (29) skates the puck away from Minnesota Duluth forward Luke Loheit (16) In the first period Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn. Miettinen had two goals and an assist in sixth-ranked St. Cloud State's 3-1 NCHC win over fourth-ranked Minnesota Duluth. (Jason Wachter / The Rink Live)
St. Cloud State forward Veeti Miettinen (29) skates the puck away from Minnesota Duluth forward Luke Loheit (16) In the first period Sunday, Jan. 3, 2021, at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn. Miettinen had two goals and an assist in sixth-ranked St. Cloud State's 3-1 NCHC win over fourth-ranked Minnesota Duluth. (Jason Wachter / The Rink Live)

As advertised

If you are looking for a reason why the Huskies have seen their goals-per-game go from 2.76 last season to 3.18 this season, the addition of Miettinen, a freshman from Finland, is a big reason why. He leads the Huskies with seven goals, including a team-leading four on the power play. He set a Finnish junior record with 42 goals in 54 games last season. Take Miettinen out of the lineup and the Huskies are averaging 2.55 gpg.

St. Cloud State defensemen Seamus Donohue (3), Nick Perbix (25), and forward Sam Hentges (19) celebrate Perbix's goal on North Dakota in the second period Wednesday, Dec. 16, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service
St. Cloud State defensemen Seamus Donohue (3), Nick Perbix (25), and forward Sam Hentges (19) celebrate Perbix's goal on North Dakota in the second period Wednesday, Dec. 16, at Baxter Arena in the NCHC Pod in Omaha. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service

All-American play

Defenseman Nick Perbix was on the NCHC All-Rookie team as a freshman and is a sixth-round draft pick of the Tampa Bay Lightning, so it is no surprise that the junior from Elk River is having a good start to his junior season. What has been surprising is to see him play at a dominant level throughout the season.

Perbix had 15 points and was a minus-12 in 34 games last season. In 11 games this season, he has equaled last season's goal total (4), has 12 points and is a plus-5. He is tied for the Division I lead in points by a defenseman, leads the team in power-play assists (5), is tied for second on the team in blocked shots (16) and is fourth on the team in shots on goal (27).

Perhaps most importantly, when the team seems to be getting out of sorts or the Huskies need a big play, Perbix has had the unique combination of being able to calm things down on the ice and make things happen at the same time. Those are things that players who earn All-America status do.



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