ST. PAUL, Minn.—If you binge-watch the National Geographic TV series “Aerial America,” plowing through six or seven states in one sitting (hey, we all have our issues) or if you groove on the current craze of drone camera footage, you would love watching hockey from the press box at Xcel Energy Center. The media is perched high, high above the ice, providing a bird’s-eye view of the action even when the Fighting Hawks aren’t playing there. (Sorry, NoDak fans. Too soon?)
Prior to last weekend’s North Star College Cup, the St. Cloud State Huskies—currently ranked among the top three in the nation—hadn’t played there in more than a year. The Huskies were the odd team out for last year’s “Minnesota Beanpot” so they hadn’t been on the ice of the X since the 2014 West Regional title game, where they fell 4-0 to Minnesota. Which is a shame, because when there’s an opposing player in the penalty box, the Huskies are amazing to watch, especially from high above.
The Huskies are a solid team top to bottom, backstopped by one of the nation’s better goalies in junior Charlie Lindgren. And they score goals by the handful. But the real fun begins when they go up a man.
More than a dozen years ago when he was an assistant coach at Minnesota, Bob Motzko’s power play was the most feared in the nation and a big reason why the Gophers won back-to-back national titles in 2002 and ’03. A few years later, Motzko went to coach his alma mater, taking that man-advantage sorcery with him, and in the decade-plus he’s been at SCSU, no opposing coach has figured a consistently effective way to counter what the Huskies do on the power play.
“Their timing is some of the best we’ve faced,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said after his team fell to SCSU 5-4 in the opening game of the tournament. “Once they get it down by the goal line, they’ve got movement that is pretty precision-like. Their guy gets into a good position and if you don’t defend him, he’s going to shoot it quick. If he does hold it for a second, it’s going back door. So you have to have good coverage.”
The skycam view is enjoyable, watching the passes connect on the perimeter until a forward sneaks open on the back door, as freshman Mikey Eyssimont did twice versus the Mavericks. Invariably there’s a quick cross-ice pass and a tap in. The Huskies head into the meat of the NCHC schedule clipping at nearly 32 percent on the power play. And when you’re prepping to play the Huskies, it’s in your head, with coaches preaching the need to stay out of the penalty box.
“You discuss it because it’s a vital piece of their entire team,” Hastings said. “They draw energy from it. As soon as that arm goes in the air they get excited. And they’ve got guys that can play with poise.”
The Mavericks allowed four power plays in their game with SCSU. The Huskies scored on three of them, including the game-winner with less than five minutes to play.
“I thought it was a good hockey game, but when you take a penalty with five minutes left, you’re playing Russian roulette and they’ve got more than one bullet in that gun,” Hastings said.
When asked if his power play was in the opponents’ heads, Motzko took a jovial tone.
“They’ve never let me in on any of their team meetings, so I don’t know what they’re saying over there,” the coach said with a smile. “But we all know when the power play is going, it’s won us some games this year. Obviously people have to take notice. It’s dangerous. We have two units that can score and they’re taking turns right now.”
In the same conversation, Motzko acknowledged that it gets tougher to score late in the season, which might have been proven on Sunday when the Huskies won that “interesting” wooden cup given to the tournament champion by beating Bemidji State, 5-2, despite going 0-for-2 on the power play. The Huskies have four NCHC series left with which to try to make up their current three-point deficit with North Dakota, and three are on the road.
To counter those obstacles, the Huskies have a pair of power-play units that are clicking and fun to watch no matter where you sit And they have their sights set on a return trip to the X for this year’s NCAA West Regional.
“We’ve got a lot of talent and there’s a lot of confidence in these two units,” Motzko said, referring to four players with four or more power play goals. “It will have ebbs and flows and it gets harder in the second half of the year. But right now they’ve got good confidence.”
— Jess Myers