ST. CLOUD, Minn. — There were pauses at the beginning of the season and in the middle of it due to COVID-19 protocol and there were no nonconference games.
But the St. Cloud State women's hockey team not only persevered, but they tripled their number of wins in the WCHA from the previous season despite playing five fewer games than in 2019-20. The Huskies were 6-12-1 and finished in seventh place in the conference, one season after going 2-21-1 to finish last in the WCHA and 6-25-4 overall.
It was the Huskies' best winning percentage in the WCHA since going 9-15-4 in 2015-16. St. Cloud State won three of its last four games, including picking up their first WCHA series sweep since 2018. The Huskies, under head coach Steve Macdonald, swept a series at Bemidji State to finish the regular season.
"We were playing some excellent hockey, playing with a lot of confidence in a lot of areas," said Macdonald, who completed his second season as head coach and seventh in the program. "A lot of the details were really clicking ... It felt like a lot of the pieces finally came together."
- Huskies Hockey Insider podcast: Women's coach Steve Macdonald talks about his team tripling its WCHA wins, positive signs out of the season, dealing with COVID-19 and recruiting his own players a second time
It was their first WCHA sweep (and WCHA road sweep) since sweeping the Beavers on Feb. 9-10, 2018. Unfortunately for the Huskies, they did not have a chance to see if that would lead to any postseason upset possibilities. That's because the WCHA decided to have just the top four teams compete in the conference tournament this year.
"Obviously, it was really tough news," Macdonald said. "We were extremely disappointed in that decision. With Bemidji, Mankato and ourselves — we wish it would have been an all-team tournament. Especially during this year because it was a tough year for everybody.
"They were dealing with a lot and overcoming a lot in order to have that opportunity to play," he said, including regular testing and schedule changes. "For that decision to be made so late in the season (the first week of February) made it more difficult. Delivering that news on the Monday after I heard was .... obviously that wasn't a fun meeting.
"But I'm extremely proud of our team. Even with that news, they came out and beat Mankato the week after and then we had a bye week," he said, referring to Ohio State being shut down because of COVID-19 protocol. "But then we go and get a sweep at Bemidji. I'm extremely proud of how resilient our team has been all year."
The strength of this season's team was its penalty kill and its goaltending.
At 7.6 minutes-per-game, St. Cloud State was the most penalized team in the WCHA. But the Huskies were ninth out of the 30 teams that played in NCAA Division I this season in penalty kill at 88.5% (54-for-61).
The Huskies gave up 39.32 shots-per-game (28th in Division I), so the goaltending needed to be strong for the Huskies to be competitive. Senior Emma Polusny (12 games played, 3-7-0, 3.29 goals-against average, .919 save percentage) and freshman Sanni Ahola (10 GP, 3-5-1, 3.11, .918, 2 shutouts) nearly split time. Ahola was named to the WCHA All-Rookie Team.
Polusny is one of six seniors (forwards Laura Kluge, Emma Bigham, Mckenna Wesloh and defensemen Hannah Bates and Kenzie Wylie) on this year's roster, though all players are receiving another season of eligibility from the NCAA if they choose to return.
"A really unique situation, but a really great situation," Macdonald said. "Those conversations started happening way back in September, before we knew that they were going to do that waiver for everybody. We started to get a little more serious with those conversations in November and December ...
"There are some who are deciding to move on and they're ready to get on with life and they have a great plan and we're excited for them. Every team around the country is going to handle it differently. We chose to handle it by talking to them like adults."
And then there is the recruiting situation that is different for women vs. men.
"We don't recruit as young as some other members of our league and that provides us with some flexibility," Macdonald said. "It provided us the ability to pull back the reins on some of the high school seniors we were recruiting. It's going to work out great for us and we're still going to have room on the roster to add if it makes sense."
Unlike men's hockey, which has a strong feeder program developed with junior hockey (players ages 16-20), there are not as many options for women's players after they graduate from high school. Macdonald said that there are some Under-19 programs in North America and some options for players in Europe.