MINNEAPOLIS -- When the engine runs on rhythmic resolve, aha moments and turning points become unnecessary. So St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko can’t pinpoint when this Huskies train began rolling at its current clip. Only how.
This is “a team that doesn’t get rattled,” Motzko said.
An early-season sweep by NCAA top overall seed Quinnipiac didn’t phase the 2016 NCHC Frozen Faceoff champions. Neither did a pair of startling home defeats against in-state nemesis Minnesota Duluth a few short weeks ago. And when the Bulldogs gained an early lead in Saturday night’s conference championship game at Target Center, the same sense of calm, almost surgical execution that’s characterized St. Cloud State’s season barely ebbed.
“We can’t let nerves get to us,” rookie left winger Mikey Eyssimont, the Frozen Faceoff MVP, said.
They didn’t. And they haven’t. Which is why captain Ethan Prow accepted the Frozen Faceoff championship trophy from commissioner Josh Fenton and stood at the center of a heartfelt but subdued on-ice celebration following a gritty 3-1 win. The second-ranked Huskies (31-8-1) earned the NCAA Tournament West Regional's No. 1 seed and face Ferris State this Saturday in St. Paul -- just 76 miles down Interstate 94 from the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
They got there on talent, leadership and experience. But hemming it all together is a collective steadfastness that permeates the Huskies' dressing room.
“We’re trying to be guarded right now with emotion,” Motzko said. “We talked about it yesterday: We just won the first round of the playoffs. We’ve got another round to go.”
In besting Denver on Friday and Minnesota Duluth a day later, the Huskies tied a school record for victories and claimed its first conference tournament title since 2001. They avenged a loss to Miami in last year’s Frozen Faceoff title game and back-to-back home losses to the Bulldogs Feb. 26 and 27.
“We didn’t make a big deal out of (the sweep) at all,” Motzko said after Friday’s 4-2 semifinal triumph against Denver. “The best thing we did was just parked it. Why late in the year should we make a big deal out of an off weekend? We trust our guys. We love our hockey team. We just moved forward and turned the page. I think that’s the best thing that we did.”
The 11th-year bench boss points to his team’s road record as credence to the club’s stoicism. After falling twice to No. 1-ranked Quinnipiac in an October series that saw a short-handed Huskies bunch skate three freshman defensemen, St. Cloud State lost just once away from the Brooks Center the rest of the season.
NCHC Goaltender of the Year Charlie Lindgren credits the Huskies’ seven seniors, a group that includes conference Player of the Year Prow, high-scoring forward Joey Benik and tough-as-nails Kalle Kossila. They were freshmen in 2013 when SCSU made its only Frozen Four trip. Benik, Kossila, David Morley and Jimmy Murray all have more than 100 career points; Prow has 98.
“It comes from the locker room and the senior class,” said Lindgren, a junior. “They’re so experienced. They’ve won a lot of hockey games here, so it comes from them.”
Yet it was a 19-year-old freshman from Littleton, Colo. who hoisted St. Cloud State on his shoulders and carried it into the station.
Eyssimont scored three goals on the weekend, two of them game-winners, the last a blind backhand rebound off the end boards with an opponent’s stick in his gut. This for a youngster who scored just once before Christmas.
A trip back to the Denver area for Christmas break helped Eyssimont refocus, he said.
“I think I just went back home … and saw, ‘OK, everything is where I left it. I’m not missing out on anything,’” Eyssimont, wearing a newly minted 2016 NCHC champions flatbill, said Saturday. “I came back and knew I was happy to be in St. Cloud and was just ready for a good second half to this season whether I put up points or not.”
He came into Saturday with 29.
“He never got frustrated,” Motzko said. “He didn’t lose any confidence.”
Even with the loss, No. 14 Minnesota Duluth (18-15-5) earned an NCAA bid by virtue of Michigan’s Big Ten victory over against Minnesota. The Huskies and Bulldogs join North Dakota and Denver, which skated to a tie in Saturday’s third-place game, in a tourney field that was officially announced Sunday.
Since the NCHC’s inaugural season in 2013-14, at least three league teams have earned NCAA berths every year. Last year’s six participants tied an NCAA record.
That group included St. Cloud State, which stands poised for a deeper run in its fourth straight try at college hockey’s spring formal. Top Ferris State, and either Denver or Boston University will await the Huskies in the quarterfinal round.
Motzko has been able to recruit long-haul players. The current roster includes only three NHL draft picks. But will-power supercedes star power for this particular group.
It’s best embodied by Kossila, the Huskies’ No. 1 center from Finland who warred through multiple undisclosed injuries and surgeries last season, Motzko said, and came back this year to lead the NCHC in overall scoring.
“It just shows how badly we missed him last year,” Motzko said, pausing to control his emotions. “To watch him struggle, and what it does to you, your psyche …
“He had to gut it through. … He stayed with us, and you’re seeing the results.”