ST. CLOUD, Minn. — The St. Cloud State men's hockey team goes into this weekend's NCHC series against Denver after an unscheduled bye week.
The Huskies (4-4 NCHC, 12-6 overall) go into the weekend No. 3 in the PairWise Rankings, which try to mimic the criteria used by the NCAA to determine the 16-team Division I tournament field. The Pioneers (5-3 , 12-5-1) are No. 5 in the PairWise and are also coming off a bye week.
Last weekend, the Huskies were supposed to play host to Minnesota Duluth but that series was postponed due to COVID-19 protocols at UMD. The announcement of the postponement came on Jan. 5, which allowed the Huskies to make practice adjustments due to the lack of games.
"We got some really good work in early in the week (last week), had some really good practices and I was really excited about the weekend because I liked how the team was feeling and how they were looking," Huskies coach Brett Larson said. "Basically, we had Thursday-Friday to get some extra work done, keep pushing them a little bit and keep the legs moving. They had a workout Saturday morning and then had rest the rest of the weekend.
"We treated this week almost like we treated the week going into play against Bemidji," said Larson, whose team did not play a game from Dec. 4 until playing Dec. 31 at Bemidji State. "We feel like we're coming out of a break again, just starting with the basics and hitting the reset button again."
Unfortunately for college hockey, games and series getting postponed have happened a lot in the last two seasons. But having some experience with dealing with off time due to the pandemic has been helpful.
"Last year, a lot of it was, 'Let's find a way to roll with it. Let's be the best team adapting to changes. Let's not let it throw us off,'" Larson said. "Those were a lot of good lessons we learned last year that we certainly apply to this week ... We've got a really important week, preparing to play a really good Denver team."
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The Pioneers are leading the nation in goals-per-game (4.65) and are third in power-play percentage (25.88%). They are led by forward Bobby Brink, a junior from Minnetonka who leads the team in assists (19), points (26) and is tied for second in plus/minus (plus-14). Sophomore forward Carter Savoie (12 goals, 22 points), senior forward Brett Stapley (22 points), freshman forward Massimo Rizzo (21), senior center Cole Guttman (20) and freshman forward Carter Mazur (18) are all off to strong starts.
"We're preparing to play as talented a group of forwards as we'll see," Larson said. "That's certainly nothing against the 'D' and goaltending, because they're good there, too. But their talent level up front is extremely high with Savoie, Brink, Guttman, Stapley and on and on ... They're fast, they're creative. Our ability to defend and man to the puck is going to be critical. We don't want to give them a lot off the transition or too much time in our end."
Adjustments to Larson's Olympic absence
The Huskies are also preparing to make an adjustment to when Larson is gone. Larson was named an assistant coach to the USA Olympic men's team on Jan. 5. He will remain with the Huskies before leaving for the Olympics in Beijing on Jan. 31 and plans on returning on Feb. 21.
"There's a lot of (COVID) testing on the way out there, which is a good thing because they're trying to create a bubble like they did in the Stanley Cup (playoffs)," said Larson, who is fully vaccinated. "My biggest concern right now for me, personally, is not to get COVID before the end of the month where I wouldn't be able to go.
"They have plans for if people get people out if they get COVID over there. There's only a five-day quarantine over there right now. There's some weird concerns that have gotten out there publicly that aren't major concerns at all. Nobody is getting left over there for extended periods of time or anything like that.
"Here, I'm really lucky. Dave Shyiak, our associate head coach, was a head coach in Division I hockey for eight years (at Alaska-Anchorage). There's a waiver form that we're going to fill out so that R.J. Enga can coach and (assistant coach) Nick Oliver has done a great job since he's been here."
Enga is St. Cloud State's director of hockey operations/video coordinator. Enga joined the Huskies this fall after being an assistant coach for Colorado College from 2014-21.
"Those guys will be handle things and I'm fully confident that they'll be able to do it," Larson said of his staff. "Not only do I feel comfortable with them, but I feel really comfortable with our leadership group in the locker room."
This is not the first time that the majority of the Huskies have played without Larson behind the bench. He was an assistant coach for Team USA at the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championships.
"The demeanor around the rink shouldn't change," SCSU fifth-year senior forward Easton Brodzinski said. "Just because he's gone, it doesn't mean we can't be fulfilling what he'd want. We still have to come to the rink every day and get to work. Losing a couple guys and our head coach isn't the death of our team.
"I don't think it changes our demeanor in the locker room, but the other coaches, maybe. They've got to step up a little more than usual. It's just something we've got to live with and more forward with."
Larson said that the full Olympic roster will be released on Thursday and there is a possibility that some Huskies will be going with Larson to China.
During the time that Larson will be gone, the Huskies have two NCHC series scheduled (Feb. 4-5 vs. Western Michigan; Feb. 18-19 at Nebraska Omaha).