Column: Key things to watch for in SCSU's second half
For the second straight season, the Huskies are 10-6 after the first 16 games. SCSU is No. 7 in the PairWise Rankings as it prepares for the second half. Here are some items to keep your eye on as the Huskies push for, what they hope will be, a return to the Frozen Four
ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Going into the season, the St. Cloud State men's hockey team knew it had a tough first half schedule, but also knew that it had an experienced and deep team.
The results going into the holiday break were not bad. The Huskies are No. 7 in the PairWise Rankings and are 10-6 overall, which includes wins over No. 2 Minnesota State University-Mankato, No. 3 North Dakota, No. 11 Minnesota and No. 12 Nebraska Omaha.
The downside is that St. Cloud State did not exactly ride triumphantly into the break, having lost four of their last five games.
So what should people expect out of the Huskies in the second half? Here's five things to keep an eye on:
Stay out of box
One area that needs to be improved on for the Huskies in the second half it is staying out of the penalty box. There's a lot that goes into wins and losses, but spending a lot of time killing penalties is not a recipe for success.
Let's go back to those four losses: the Huskies averaged 19 penalty minutes per game. Those minutes include misconduct penalties, but still. St. Cloud State had 20 minutes in minor penalties in a 5-3 loss at home to North Dakota to go into the break. Yes, the Huskies killed 6 of 7 power plays.
But Easton Brodzinski, the team's leader in goals, had three minor penalties in the game and, after Nick Perbix got the Huskies within 5-3 with a goal with 6:11 left in the game, Jami Krannila took a cross-checking penalty after the whistle 10 seconds later. Krannila is third on the team in goals.
As was mentioned, the Huskies are a deep team that will roll four lines and play seven defensemen in games ... when it stays out of the penalty box. Killing penalties keeps key players off the ice and negates the team's greatest strength — its depth.
Can special teams keep up this pace?
All that said, the Huskies lead NCAA Division I on the power play (32.9%) and are 19th on the penalty kill (84.7%).
Of St. Cloud State's 58 goals, 48.3% of their goals have come via special teams. The Huskies are 23-for-69 on the power play and have five short-handed goals, while they've given up 12 special teams goals (nine on the power play, three short-handed). So they are a plus-16 in special teams.
Five Huskies (Zach Okabe 5, Kevin Fitzgerald 4, Brodzinski 4, Krannila 3 and Nolan Walker 2) have two or more power-play goals and SCSU is 8-2 when it scores a power-play goal, 1-3 when it does not. The Division I program record for power-play efficiency is 31.3% (73-for-235) set in 2001-02, while the program record for most short-handed goals in a season is 14 (1993-94).
St. Cloud State has had success on the power play despite having Minnesota Wild draft pick Sam Hentges for just five games. It typically gets tougher to score on the power play in the second half of seasons, so the likelihood of records being set is unlikely. But it will be fun to keep an eye on it.
Schedule does not get easier
Adding to the possibility of the power play losing some of its charge is that the schedule in the second half may be tougher than the first half. In the second half, the Huskies have two series (home, Jan. 7-8; away, March 4-5) against No. 6 Minnesota Duluth, a series at No. 4 Denver (Jan. 14-15), at North Dakota (Jan. 28-29), home against No. 6 Western Michigan (Feb. 4-5) and at Nebraska Omaha (Feb. 18-19).
The Huskies were the preseason pick to win the NCHC regular season title, but winning the conference looks unlikely with that schedule and being 12 points behind North Dakota in the standings already. The good news is that if the Huskies play above .500 in the second half, that will get them back into the NCAA tournament. Then, anything is possible.
Offensive zone time
SCSU believes it has nine defensemen that could be playing regularly, though they typically dress seven. It is a deep and talented group that is a combination of puck movers, defensively sound and can play physical. The Huskies, with goalie David Hrenak (9-5, 2.01, .922) off to an impressive start, have given up the ninth-fewest goals (34) in Division I.
The feeling among the team in the first half, though, was that it knew its defense was sound and would rely on it more than it needed to. This is not a statistic that is kept in college hockey, but the Huskies are looking for more consistent offensive zone time in the second half. Yes, they've had four games where they have scored five or more goals. But SCSU has also been shut out twice and had six games where its scored two or fewer goals.
The Huskies have four lines with the ability to score. But they need to be spending more consistent time in the offensive zone to make that happen.