On Saturday night, I survived the Kafkaesque security procedures of the Verizon Wireless Center in Mankato to watch Minnesota State take on St. Cloud State as each team opened up their season. St. Cloud State came away with a 4-0 victory thanks to an impressive defensive effort.
Better late than never, here are a few of my thoughts on the game...
-I don’t have the exact possession numbers, but it felt like Minnesota State had the edge in terms of possession and time spent in the offensive zone all game, even discounting the fact that Minnesota State racked up over a quarter of their shots on goal in the final eight minutes where score effects started to come into play.
The difference in the game was the play of St. Cloud State goalie Jeff Smith and the defense in front of him. It was a night-and-day difference from last season, when the Huskies opened up the year in Mankato by giving up 10 goals and getting swept in two games against the Mavericks.
St. Cloud State’s defense was solid all night, holding Minnesota State mostly to shots from the perimeter, and Smith looked sharp and confident stopping everything and not allowing any second opportunities. He made a couple great reaction saves in scramble situations as well that really changed the course of the game.
If Smith is that sharp all year, the Huskies will be an extremely difficult team to beat most nights.
-The Huskies weren’t as impressive offensively. Four goals looks decent, but the third came on a break after a desperation pinch by Minnesota State late in the game, and the fourth was an empty-netter. But it’s worth factoring in that Mikey Eyssimont, who should be one of the main drivers of offense, was out of the line-up and the Huskies only had one power play in the game. It’s worth watching, but not something I’d be concerned about at this point.
-The good news for the Mavericks is that they should be fine in the long run. The fact that they largely outskated what I think is one of the top five teams in the country bodes well for them this season. The bad news is that it is already getting late early for them in terms of national aspirations. The WCHA has gone 3-7-2 in inter-conference games during the opening two weeks of the season for a .333 winning percentage. While winning one out of three is better than last year’s disastrous one out of four percentage, it’s probably not enough for the conference to get more than just their autobid to the NCAA tournament. It’s only two weeks, but with the WCHA scheduling so many intra-conference non-conference games this year, those 12 out-of-conference games represent about 20% of all the WCHA’s OOC games this year.
So losing on Saturday cost Minnesota State one of their best chances to pick up a quality win against a likely NCAA tournament team, and puts more importance on getting at least one win next weekend when they travel to Boston University. As good as the Mavericks might be, there are going to be nights like Saturday where the puck just doesn’t go in the net, and it looks like those losses are going to be really damaging again this year. Non-conference wins would give some insurance against that.
-Goaltending was the biggest question mark for Minnesota State heading into the season, and despite the loss, Jason Pawloski looked like he’ll take the reins as starting goalie for the Mavericks this year. There’s no fault in the first goal, an absolute rocket one-timer by Jimmy Schuldt that picked the top corner. The second goal was maybe saveable, but certainly not soft. And the third goal was a well-executed two-on-one by the Huskies that came shortly after he made a save he probably shouldn’t have on a nice backdoor pass. Otherwise, he looked fairly confident in net. Goaltending wasn’t the issue for Minnesota State on Saturday night.
-It was a big night for watching potential NHL free agents, with a lot of NHL scouts in the crowd. Daniel Brickley, arguably the top available free agent, looked the part. His ability with the puck is exceptional for his size. Minnesota State only got one opportunity on the power play, but he’s going to pick up a lot of points this year with his ability to get off a quick shot with heavy pace from the blue line this year.
But nobody had a better night than St. Cloud State captain Jimmy Schuldt. After a breakout freshman season, Schuldt was good, but not great as a sophomore. The first 60 minutes of his junior season were superb though. His goal was a ridiculous. He took a pass that wasn’t exactly perfect, and still found a way to get off a blistering one-timer that beat the goalie cleanly to the upper corner of the net. That’s a weapon I’m not sure anyone else in college hockey has. But beyond that, he was rock solid defensively all night. He finished a +4, which itself isn’t necessarily evidence of a good night, but in this case, it was a just reward.
There were some teams watching the NCAA debut of last year’s USHL defenseman of the year Connor Mackey as well. Overall, it was an up-and-down first night as he adjusts to what he can get away with at the college level. There were certainly flashes of potential though. Freshman defenseman Jack McNeely was probably Minnesota State’s second-best defenseman on the night.
-Shane Frederick of the Mankato Free Press mentioned this in his post-game wrap, but I’ll echo that it was a strong game for Minnesota State sophomore Charlie Gerard, who led all skaters with eight shots on goal. There’s no question that Gerard has always been one of the fastest skaters in the league, but there was a noticeable difference on Saturday night in terms of how he used that speed compared to last season. He was much effective at generating speed behind the puck and anticipating the play. He’s probably not a top line scorer, but has the potential to emerge into a secondary scoring threat and a real weapon for MSU.
-The security process getting into the arena in Mankato was absurd. It involved full airport-stlye put-everything-in-the-plastic-bin and everyone getting a full head-to-toe scan from a metal detecting wand. It was a solid 20-minute wait for me, longer for some.
Many accounted for the extra security and showed up well in advance of the game, but with an event scheduled downtown to celebrate the start of the hockey season, it was an extremely late-arriving crowd as people waited to get through security. The building was maybe two-thirds full for the entire first period, and full by the second period.
If they really think the Verizon Wireless Center is the one college hockey arena that requires that level of security and inspection, I can’t imagine the price difference for a walk-through metal detector like major arenas have outweighs the money lost by people who aren’t coming back after that debacle.