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Brett Larson has been trying all week, he says, to convince his top-ranked St. Cloud State Huskies that this weekend’s enormous NCHC hockey series against UMD at AMSOIL Arena is “not about me.”
Good luck with that, Brett.
Larson, of course, is the former Denfeld star who played defense for UMD before he went into coaching, and he was a prominent assistant to Scott Sandelin when the Bulldogs won their first-ever NCAA championship in 2011. He then went off to coach in the USHL to acquire some head-coaching experience, and joined another former UMD assistant, Steve Rohlik, to help coach Ohio State before deciding to return home and get the chance to join Sandelin’s staff once again, just in time to help them win their second NCAA title last spring.
When Bob Motzko led St. Cloud State to the NCHC season championship but then chose to leave and replace Don Lucia at Minnesota, Larson was picked to become the new Huskies coach.
Coming out of the midwinter break, Larson has directed St. Cloud State to a 14-2-2 record, including a 6-0-2 NCHC record with an extra point for a shootout victory, and those 21 points give the Huskies a solid hold on first place in the highly competitive league.
Their chore this weekend is to play the defending NCAA champion Bulldogs in a pair of 7 p.m. games that should fill AMSOIL to the rafters. Naturally, the Huskies players are all aware of how important Larson was to UMD’s success, and it keeps coming up in conversation.
“I keep telling the players, ‘It’s not about me; it’s about winning a really big series, and the first game back in league play after the break,” said Larson. “It’s crazy, isn’t it? Last year we [UMD] lost a few big games, maybe a few in a row, but then you win three or four 1-goal games and you’re right back in it.”
UMD is 4-3-1, the same record as Western Michigan, the team that beat UMD and gained an extra shootout point against the Bulldogs to take second place with 14 points. UMD has 13 to stand third, with Denver and Miami of Ohio both one point back, tied for fourth in the tight race. While St. Cloud State is ranked No. 1, Denver has climbed to No. 3, UMD is holding No. 5, and Miami No. 20 in this week’s ratings.
UMD contributed three players - defensemen Dylan Samberg and Mikey Anderson and forward Noah Cates - to the U.S. Junior team, which was beaten by Finland for the gold medal at the World Junior tournament in Vancouver. St. Cloud State had one, but it was Ryan Poehling, the third brother from the Eden Prairie family to play at St. Cloud State. Poehling was named MVP of the tournament.
“He’s had a good first half,” said Larson. “We’re a team that rolls four lines as much as we can, but having someone like Ryan helps a lot. His twin older brothers were warriors, real competitive players, and Ryan is too, but he’s also very skilled.”
Larson will focus his Thursday night practice and Friday morning skate on making sure his Huskies are acclimated for moving from the larger Olympic-size ice sheet (200 by 100) at St. Cloud to the 200 by 85 NHL-size rink at AMSOIL. “There’s so much less room it affects your special teams, and the tighter space means more congestion.”
Larson and his wife, Kelly, and their two kids, son Lane, 9, and daughter Calla, 5, have blended in well to their new home in Sartell, just north of St. Cloud. “Lane is on the Sartell Squirt team, and Calla is interested in gymnastics,” their dad said. The whole family, presumably, will enjoy the weekend coming home.
Larson said he hopes his players are mentally ready for this weekend. “My best friend growing up was in sports, too, and there was nobody I’d rather beat than him,” Larson said. “And he felt the same way about me.
“I want my players to know, I’m really excited about this series because it’s a really big rivalry. But it’s not about me. I hope that both teams play well, and we can let the games take care of themselves.”
Prep Puck Teams Heat Up Competition
Last March at Xcel Energy Center in Saint Paul, the two best teams in the state met for the Class AA state championship - Duluth East against Minnetonka. When it was over, Minnetonka prevailed 5-2.
Last Saturday, it was more than just a rematch because Minnetonka is ranked No. 1 and East is among the top half-dozen as well, and some people say they again are the two best teams in the state. When they met at Essentia Health-Heritage Center, Minnetonka skated off with a duplicate 5-2 victory.
Some things never change.
“That was no 5-2 game,” said Minnetonka coach Sean Goldsworthy. “They really gave us a good game.”
Great politically correct comment, Sean. East coach Mike Randolph was more succinct.
“They’re the best team in the state, by far,” said Randolph, who reached his hand up high over his head. “They’re up here, and the rest of us are somewhere down here,” he added, dropping his hand to about waist height.
A.J. Kittelson scored on a rebound from the left side at 4:33 of the first period and Teddy Lagerback made it 2-0 at 11:10. East came back for a goal by Jonathan Jones, who got open at the right edge to redirect Carson Cochran’s shot that he placed purposely wide right for Jones.
But in the second period, Mason Hendrickson scored with another rebound, and Kittelson added another on a slick 2-on-1, and defenseman Josh Luedtke made it 5-1 before the second period ended. Ricky Lyle countered with a goal for East in the third period.
The Hounds had whipped Stillwater 5-1 on Friday, but the goals were tougher to come by against the Skippers, who remained undefeated at 14-0-1.
East came off that game and had a narrow escape Monday at Essentia-Heritage, when Denfeld’s much-improved Hunters battled the Greyhounds all the way before Jones scored late in the sudden-death overtime to lift East to a 2-1 victory - hard work, considering East outshot the Hunters 59-16.
Denfeld comes off the nail-biter against East to take on Hermantown Thursday at 5:15 at Essentia-Heritage, then has a week off before Cloquet-Esko-Carlton comes to Heritage to face the Hunters.
Hermantown, after facing Denfeld Thursday, comes back to take on Minnetonka at 3:15 p.m. Saturday. The stream of top-shelf high school games continues throughout the area, as powerful Andover comes back to Duluth to take on Marshall at 3 p.m. Saturday at Mars-Lakeview Arena.