PITTSBURGH, Pa. — If the St. Cloud State men's hockey team finds a way to get to its first NCAA Division I championship game, it is going to have to go through its third straight acclaimed goalie.
In the national tournament, the Huskies had to get past Boston University's Drew Commesso in the first round. Commesso, a USA Hockey National Team Development Program alum, was taken in the second round of the 2020 NHL Entry Draft by the Chicago Blackhawks. The Huskies beat the Terriers, 6-2.
In the Northeast Regional championship, the Huskies had to find a way against Boston College's Spencer Knight. Knight, also a NTDP alum, was taken in the first round (13th overall) of the 2019 NHL Draft by the Florida Panthers. The Huskies beat the Eagles, 4-1.
Next up is the national semifinals and the Huskies playing Minnesota State University-Mankato at 4 p.m. Thursday (ESPN2) at PPG Paints Arena. It can't get tougher for Huskies, can it? Well, Dryden McKay is a top 3 finalist for both the Hobey Baker Award and the Mike Richter Award. The Hobey Baker goes to the top college player and the Richter Award to the top goalie in the country.
"He's very competitive and athletic," SCSU head coach Brett Larson said of McKay, who leads the NCAA in shutouts this season with 10 and is 75-14-4 with a .934 save percentage and 1.49 goals-against average in his college career. "Those are two good qualities right there. Technically, he's sound as well. If he can see it, he's going to stop it. It's the oldest story in hockey.
"Our ability to make him uncomfortable, getting in his vision, getting in that tough (ice) area, creating havoc around the net and trying to earn second and third opportunities are going to be a huge part of the game. I don't see us beating him on too many clean shots. He's too good a goalie ... We've got to make life tough on him by getting in his face, knocking him off his game a little bit and trying to score some dirty goals."
Getting shots to McKay is no easy task, either, though. The Mavericks give up 19.6 shots-per-game, which is the fewest in the country. The Mavericks have been either first or second nationally in this category each of the last four seasons.
"We've got to keep their skill guys to the outside of the rink, getting our sticks and bumps in on them as well," Mavericks senior defenseman Riese Zmolek said of his team's keys to playing the Huskies.
St. Cloud State is 12th in the country in shots-on-goal against (26.86 per game) and 14th on the penalty kill (84.8%).
"I think the biggest key for us is to play against their defensemen," MSU-Mankato junior forward Julian Napravnik said. "They've got a lot of big guys in there and working them down low and playing behind them will benefit us. They're a very good team: fast and a very heavy team, just like us. So it's gonna be a battle."
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Both teams also have strong power plays. The Mavericks are fourth in the nation on the power play (25.8%); the Huskies are 16th (21.7%).
"We're good when we're on the attack, on a 5-man attack through the neutral zone, strong forecheck, not giving up the puck once we get it and doing what we call the body blow theory, trying to set the next line up for success," Larson said. "Strong over pucks, not throw it away. It starts with defending in our end first, defending hard, defending the right way to put our team on offense. And, obviously, David (Hrenak) playing big in the net."
Hrenak, a senior goalie and Los Angeles Kings draft pick, was the MVP of the Northeast Regional tournament after stopping 60 of 63 shots (.952 save percentage).
"I see two teams that are going to have a pretty similar game plan, I think," Larson said. "Our game plan doesn't change a lot from last week. We're going to try to get in hard on the forecheck with a lot of speed through the neutral zone ... I think Mankato has a lot of the same strengths. They have one of the best forechecking teams I've seen all year. It's going to be critical for us to control the neutral zone and try to force dumps before they want to."
Facing his alma mater
MSU-Mankato head coach Mike Hastings was named the winner of the Spencer Penrose Award on Tuesday. The award is presented annually to the CCM/AHCA Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Coach of the Year and it is the second time (2015) that Hastings has won the award.
Since taking over the Mavericks in 2012, Hastings has been named WCHA Coach of the Year four times, MSU-Mankato is 236-89-24, won six WCHA regular season titles, three WCHA playoff titles and made six NCAA tournament appearances. Before getting to Mankato, the longest coaching stint he's had was the 14 years he spent as the head coach of the Omaha Lancers in the United States Hockey League. He had a 529-210-56 record with the Lancers, never had a losing season and led Omaha to three Clark Cup titles as the league's playoff champion.
But his college playing and coaching career both started at St. Cloud State. Hastings played defense for the Huskies from 1986-88. His career was cut short by injury and then he spent two stints as an assistant coach for the Huskies (1990-92) and (1993-94) under head coach Craig Dahl.
"There are a couple really good things that happened (for me) at St. Cloud: 1. I bonded with a lot guys there as a player and then as I started to get into my coaching career," Hastings said. "I'd have to say the most important piece is I met my wife (Jean Ann) there. That was something that helped shape not only my life, but my career in coaching.
"Craig Dahl gave me an opportunity after I was done playing to get into the coaching game. St. Cloud State was very good to me. I'm excited that they're in the Frozen Four. You look at what's happened there with what Bobby Motzko's done and now with Lars and what he's doing. I didn't think we'd have to come to Pittsburgh to play St. Cloud this year. We know we're playing a very quality opponent and looking forward to it."