HOCKEY IS BACK! I did not care for last weekend's bye and the WCHA has made it up to me with a huge weekend series up in St. Cloud. In case you haven't been checking the WCHA standings recently, SCSU currently sits atop the table with a
2 3 point lead over UNO and a 3 5 point lead over the Gophers (ED NOTE: Math is hard) . In other words, they are having a good year. To help us find out more about the Huskies, I turned to Jeremy Larson (@jclarson02) from the SCSU blog Husky Hockey Time.
The Daily Gopher: Coming into the weekend the Huskies are alone atop the WCHA (though the U does have 2 games in hand). What are your thoughts on the season thus far? What were your preseason expectations? How do you see the season playing out for SCSU?
Jeremy Larson: I think the SCSU Huskies are having a great season. They have been playing their best hockey in the last 3-4 weeks and I think this current quality of play should continue through the rest of the season. My preseason prediction for the Huskies was ending in 4th place in the WCHA behind the UofM, UND, and DU and I believed they would be a bubble team to make it into the NCAA tournament. A couple of the unknowns going into the season were how was Drew LeBlanc going to play after last years season ending injury, how well some of our freshmen were going to play, and if goalie Ryan Faragher would be able to take the reins officially as the starting net minder. So far, all those unknowns have turned out to be great for SCSU. I believe SCSU should be a contender for both/either the MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy. I also believe they should make it into the NCAA tournament. The Huskies have not had a great record in the NCAA tournament and have not played well so far this season non-conference, but I think if they continue playing as well as they have lately, the could make some noise there as well.
TDG: I'm the less knowledgeable hockey fan among the TDG writing staff so my knowledge of personnel on the other conference teams is limited. In your mind, who should I be keeping an eye on this weekend and why?
JL: First and foremost you should be keeping an eye on senior captain Drew LeBlanc. He is leading the nation in assists and is second in the nation in points. He has the best vision on the ice for a college player that I have seen in probably 10 or more years. After coming off a season ending injury last year, he was invited to the Wild's prospect camp and offered a contract. Instead he choose to play as a 5th year (red-shirt) senior. I have heard that at least 3 NHL teams have already been in discussion with LeBlanc for his career after SCSU (he is undrafted). He is also a clear candidate to me to be one of the top 3 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award.
Also keep an eye on Ben Hanowski. He has been good at finding the net lately and always seems to play very well against the Gophers. I think a lot of the success this weekend will be dependent on goaltending, so you should probably keep an eye on Ryan Faragher. Finally, take a look at some of the Husky freshmen like Kalle Kossila, Jonny Brodzinski, and Ethan Prow who all look to be bringing a bright future to the Huskies.
TDG: How do you feel about the demise of the current WCHA? What are your thoughts about moving to the NCHC next season? Anything that you'll miss most about the WCHA (I'm assuming the officiating crews won't top this list)?
JL: I, like most fans in the WCHA, am disappointed about the demise of the current WCHA. I honestly think it is not only one of the best college hockey conferences in the nation, I also believe it to be one of the top college conferences in any sport in the nation. The WCHA has a rich history and it will be sad to see it change so drastically.
That being said, I am excited to see the new NCHC next season. I don't think it can be argued (too much) that some of the teams that made the WCHA so great and dominant will now be in the NCHC. I love that we will still get to play UND, UMD, DU, UNO, and CC while getting some fresh competition from Western Michigan and Miami-Ohio.
There are a lot of things I will miss from the WCHA. One of the tops on that list is this UofM vs. SCSU rivalry. I will also miss not having all the Minnesota Div. 1 schools in one conference. I think that was a pretty great thing for the State of Hockey. I will also miss the Final Five tournament down at the Xcel Energy Center. I think that the Final Five was the best conference college hockey tournament in the nation (and often times just as good or better than the Frozen Four...in my opinion).
TDG: I'm glad that Minnesota has kept a yearly series with the other Minnesota schools. As time passes, what do you think the ideal format for these series should be?
JL: Well that is a good question that I have toyed around with in my head since realizing the teams would no longer be in the same conference. I would love to (at least) see a Minnesota only college hockey tournament. I think it would be great if they could find a way to get all 5 teams in every year (even if that means there needs to be some sort of "play-in" game for two teams with the lowest points in there conference or some kind of "first round bye" for the top team or something). I think it would be awesome to have the tournament down at the Xcel Energy Center over Christmas to allow a lot of people to come and see it (maybe even become a holiday tradition in some college-hockey-loving households). I have also thought it might be great to make it an annual outdoor game at TCF Bank field, but I am not sure if that would get stale.
TDG: I saw a retweet by you today of the SCSU twitter feed's lament to John Buccigross that the Minnesota Cup has such a lame name (no argument from me BTW). If you had a say, what would you call it?
JL: I am not a creative person so do not expect any creative names from this guy. I have heard a couple of food related names (I guess as some sort of play off the Beanpot) such as the "Walleye" or "Hotdish". I am not really a fan of either of those. I would prefer some name that pays homage to the history of hockey in Minnesota. Something like the "North Star Classic" or the "Herb Brooks Trophy" or the "Mariucci Cup" (Yes, I realize the last two are a little UofM related, but they both did enough for hockey in the state that I would find no objection to using their names) or even the often used "State of Hockey Championship".
TDG: Returning focus to this weekend, what do you think the Huskies need to do in order to beat the Gophers?
JL: Honestly, if they can do what I have seen them do against BSU, UND, DU, CC and even UNO in there last 5 WCHA series I think they will be just fine. However, if we see the team that lost 3 out of 4 against "easy" non-conference teams over the Christmas break, then the Huskies will have a problem. I think Faragher will need to continue playing very well. The Huskies are going to need to continue to stay out of the penalty box. The Huskies top scorers like LeBlanc, Hanowski, Dowd, Kossila, and Brodzinski are going to need to keep shooting they way they have been. And if the top defenders like Jensen, Gravel, Prochno, and Prow keep doing there thing from the blue line the Huskies should be just fine.
TDG: The HATE level towards the Gophers on the part of SCSU fans seems higher than from the other Minnesota schools (not a bad thing IMO as I relish good interstate rivalries). In fact, one of our other writers remarked that he thinks the only city in the WCHA with more Gopher hate is Grand Forks (a bold statement given the people I know here in Madison). Would you agree and if yes, why do you think that is?
JL: I would agree wholeheartedly. The "HATE LEVEL" towards the Gophers is very high for all Husky fans. As for why, there is probably many reasons. One would be the "interstate rivalry" and the general proximity of the two schools. Another reason would be having a history of some pretty classic Husky/ Gopher games. Also (and I do hate to admit this) that the Huskies may have a kind of "little brother" against "big brother" thing against the Gophers. It is a fact that the Gophers have have more wins, more championships, and more success in producing NHLers than SCSU. This is a by-product of the Gophers being a Div. 1 team much longer than the Huskies and the Huskies will (probably) always be trying to "catch-up" to the UofM. However, that is what makes the "little brother" or underdog taking down the "big brother" such a sweet victory.(ED NOTE: Here is an image from Jeremy's blog...LOVE the hate!)
TDG: Predictions for Friday and Saturday?
JL: I am going to go with a Husky sweep. Yes, that is an ambitious prediction (ED NOTE: Just a little), but I think the Huskies have the tools to get it done.
Thanks to Jeremy for answering my questions! If you haven't already be sure to check out Jeffrick's SCSU preview and stop back tonight for the always fantastic OPEN THREAD. Seriously, you better be here. Don't make me talk to myself on a Friday night.