At last season’s NCAA West Regional in Grand Rapids, No. 2 seed St. Cloud went into its second-round matchup against No. 3 seed Michigan with a bad case of “competition anxiety.”
“We were intimidated by (Michigan’s) storied history,” St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl said. “We had never played Michigan in a game before, and I think our players were a little taken back in the first period when we played them.”
The Wolverines jumped on the Huskies in that first period, taking a 2-0 lead into the first intermission. St. Cloud fought back to cut Michigan’s lead to one at 4-3 with just under five minutes to play, but it was the Wolverines and goaltender Josh Blackburn who had the last laugh, earning a berth to the Frozen Four with a 4-3 victory.
“I feel that our players feel they didn’t put their best foot forward last year,” Dahl said. “Now we want to make sure that we play the type of game that we are capable of playing.”
The Huskies will get that opportunity tomorrow at 8 p.m. at Yost Ice Arena, when they duel with the Wolverines for a chance to play No. 1 seed Denver in the second round. Is revenge for last season’s crushing defeat a motivating factor for Dahl’s team?
“There is no revenge factor,” Dahl said. “I think now that our players have played them before, it is not the same mentally.”
St. Cloud will be the most explosive team Michigan has played this season – by a long shot. The Huskies are scoring 4.3 goals per game while allowing just 2.1, and the Wolverines are lighting the lamp just 3.5 times per game while allowing 2.3 goals per game. St. Cloud is the second-highest scoring team in the WCHA, but Dahl still isn’t satisfied, as his team is emphasizing scoring goals in its preparation for this weekend’s action.
St. Cloud forward Mark Hartigan – a Hobey Baker candidate – leads the WCHA in scoring (37-38-75) and has more points on the powerplay (12-19-31) than all but three of Michigan’s players have all season. Hartigan, like the Wolverines’ Mike Cammalleri, is the type of player who can take over a game at any moment.
“He’s got the best shot I’ve seen in college hockey this year,” Michigan associate head coach Mel Pearson said. “He really shoots it.”
“We have to make sure that we don’t just rely on Hartigan and that we have other guys to score goals, too,” Dahl said.
That shouldn’t be a problem, as the Huskies have six players aside from Hartigan who have scored more than 30 points this season, including Nate DiCasmirro and Ryan Malone. Each has put up more points than Michigan’s leading scorer, John Shouneyia.
St. Cloud got off to a hot start this season against top competition such as Minnesota, Colorado College and Maine, and held the No. 1 ranking in the nation at one point. But the Huskies lost some games they shouldn’t have in the middle of the season, and lost the WCHA regular season title to Denver.
“I think our players got a little lazy mentally in the second half of the year,” Dahl said. “They were able to get by with only a little bit of effort. The playoffs have been able to get us back in that mindset.”
Coming off a disappointing finish in the WCHA Tournament last weekend, in which the Huskies lost 4-1 to Minnesota and 2-1 to Colorado College (both of which are in the West Regional), Dahl is concerned that his team has lost its scoring touch at the wrong time.
“We’ve had trouble scoring,” Dahl said. “That has been the number one thing. We are getting back into tournament style of play. We outshot Colorado College 36-25, but we couldn’t score.”
One area the Huskies haven’t had trouble with is their powerplay. They boast the top unit in the nation, scoring 71 goals compared to the Wolverines’ 37. St. Cloud scores a powerplay goal one out of every three times it’s on the ice with the man advantage – more than enough to earn the respect of the Michigan coaching staff.
“They’re very dynamic and give you a lot of different looks,” Pearson said. “It’s harder to defend than most powerplays. They’re all very skilled with the puck, and they play off each other well. They all shoot the puck hard. They shoot to score, especially Hartigan.”
Much like the Wolverines’ powerplay, the Huskies like to shoot from the point, and it all starts with Hartigan and his ability to one-time the puck. St. Cloud also operates from behind the net, giving its opponents a lot of looks for which to prepare.
The Huskies’ tallied two of their three goals last season against Michigan on the powerplay, and Pearson believes there is just one way to keep the unit grounded for an entire game – being disciplined and committing a minimum number of penalties.
“I don’t care how good your penalty killing unit is,” Pearson said. “If you’re taking penalties against a team like this, that gives them a life. The best way to defend their powerplay is to stay out of the box.”