Friday, March 02, 2012

UMD Heads to Unfamiliar Territory

It's been 860 days.

The last time UMD made a trip to St. Cloud, Trent Palm and Mike Montgomery were the top defensive pairing, Brady Hjelle was the starting goalie, and the programs had a rather healthy rivalry, much of which was left over from the 2007 WCHA playoffs.

(That year, UMD won the opener of a best-of-three series in St. Cloud, then lost consecutive overtime games, including a triple-overtime game Sunday, as the Huskies made the Final Five.)

Oh, and UMD still played home games at the DECC.

Since that 2009 weekend set, the teams have met for exactly one league series (last January at Amsoil Arena), and St. Cloud was swept out of the WCHA playoffs by UMD last season.

It's been over seven years -- November 2004 -- since UMD's last regular season win at the National Hockey Center. If that streak is to break this weekend, UMD may have to weather a storm.

There is much excitement on campus Friday, as SCSU is set to hold a groundbreaking ceremony for work to be done on the National Hockey Center. Then again, perhaps the excitement is a bit tempered. As evidence, the school has offered two-for-one tickets for this weekend's games in hopes of filling more seats in the NHC.

(UMD's visit in 2009 drew a shade over 12,000 fans for two games. SCSU's last home series -- against Alaska Anchorage -- drew under 9,000.)

St. Cloud State has plenty to play for this weekend. The Huskies are still in a spot where they can earn home ice advantage with four points and some help this weekend. The fact SCSU is here is a testament to the will of their older guys, and the work of goalies Ryan Faragher and Mike Lee. Lee missed a big chunk of the season with a lower body injury, and his return has provided a boost. Faragher made a ton of starts he might not have been expecting to make when the season started, and he performed quite well (.915 save percentage, 2.77 GAA).

Junior Ben Hanowski and senior Jared Festler have come into their own this season, playing well in the absence of senior captain Drew LeBlanc. The Hermantown native broke his leg in November and hasn't played since. He had two goals and 12 points in ten games before the injury, and there is talk that he might apply for a medical redshirt that would allow him to play next season. LeBlanc had at least one professional offer last spring/summer, and did attend the Chicago Blackhawks prospect development camp in July, but it's not known how much interest he'd draw as a college free agent if he came out this year. LeBlanc and fellow injured senior Jordy Christian will be honored Saturday night as part of St. Cloud State's Senior Night ceremony.

Hanowski leads the Huskies with 37 points and 18 goals. Festler has 14 goals, and fellow senior Travis Novak has ten. There are some young guys to keep an eye on, like freshman defenseman Andrew Prochno, who has 25 points. Sophomore forward Nic Dowd has 11 goals and is learning to use his size.

This is no slouch of a team, and like I said, SCSU is playing for a home ice opportunity this weekend. If the Huskies can get four points, they can get home ice if Colorado College and Michigan Tech split, and Nebraska Omaha falters.

For UMD, the chance to win the MacNaughton Cup is not great here. UMD trails Minnesota by two points, and the Gophers are at home for Wisconsin. UMD needs to out-point Minnesota by two to share the Cup, and by at least three to win it outright.

Odds aren't high, but they exist, and the opportunity exists here for UMD to end a long streak, keep its current five-game unbeaten run going, and get more momentum heading into the WCHA playoffs next weekend at home.

This team has been good at seizing opportunities the last couple seasons, so we'll see if they're again up to the task.

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