On Saturday night, in a joyous locker room, St. Cloud State head coach Bob Motzko put a question to his team, fresh off a 3-2 victory over Miami to complete their first weekend sweep of the season.
"Is this the sign of a good weekend? Or--we're 3-1 in 2015--is this a sign that we're going to start to march forward in the second half?"
Motzko admitted he didn't know the answer to that question himself, but the wins felt good. "We're going to go with it right now. Get on the road and see if we can keep this thing going."
The Huskies now sit with an overall record of 9-10-1--technically not even eligible for the NCAA tournament with a losing record--heading into a very important road series next weekend at Denver.. But thanks to a very difficult schedule, they are still in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA tournament. They currently sit 21st in the Pairwise Rankings.
"Our team needed this," said Motzko of the sweep over Miami. "Every team can say there are some games you should have won, you could have won, but there were really some games in the first half that we were in position to have more success and we weren't able to close it, and we started to lose some confidence."
It's true that every team can point to a few particular games and how they would have impacted their season, but it seems especially true in St. Cloud State's case. Hang on for a tie in overtime against Minnesota at Mariucci Arena early in the season? The Huskies would be in 17th in the Pairwise, just outside of the tournament bubble. Hold onto a late-third period lead at home against Minnesota Duluth rather than giving up a tying goal and losing in overtime? They would be 16th in the Pairwise. Win a Friday night game in Omaha where the Huskies out-shot UNO 49-23 and dominated the game? The Huskies would be just inside the tournament bubble at 15th right now.
The statistics say the Huskies are right about where they should be. A team that has given up four more goals than they've scored like the Huskies have should be about a game below .500, though they're out-shooting opponents by 3.40 shots per game. Neither their offense nor their defense is elite. Both are ranked 35th in the nation.
There are two big issues that have been holding St. Cloud State back so far. The first is inconsistency in goal from sophomore starting goalie Charlie Lindgren. Lindgren has more or less played well for the Huskies, but his overall save percentage of .911 only ranks 46th in the nation among qualifying goalies. He hasn't had a lot of help though to cover over some of his rough patches. Lindgren has given up three goals in seven different starts this year, and has a record of 1-6-0 in those games. Three goals per game isn't a great mark, but it's an awful lot to expect a goalie to hold a team, especially of the quality St. Cloud State has been playing every weekend, to two or fewer goals every night.
Which leads into the second issue St. Cloud State has had which is putting the puck in the net. They've scored 50 goals in 20 games this season, which isn't very good, but what stands out even more is how lopsided their scoring numbers are. Junior forward Jonny Brodzinski has scored 12 goals, or 24% of the Huskies total offense. For comparison, the leading goal scorer on the top offenses in the country account for 16%, 15%, 21%, and 10% of his team's total offense respectively. Add in the eight assists Brodzinski has on the season and 40% of the team's offense is coming from Brodzinski.
The Husky offense is averaging a decent amount of shots on goal per game--30.90, 25th in the country, but what has held them back is a dreadfully low shooting percentage. The Huskies are currently scoring on 8.1% of their shots on goal, which ranks 39th in the country. But again, Brodzinski makes some truly awful numbers look merely bad. Take out Brodzinski's 12% shooting percentage, and the team shooting percentage drops to 7.1%.
Shooting percentages in college hockey tend to be a bit more tied to talent level than the NHL level, where talent level is roughly equal across the board. But it's hard to believe St. Cloud State is that bad offensively. They may be a team that is line to have their luck turn a bit in the second half of the season.
The biggest key for the offense will be finding a line to create offense besides one anchored by Brodzinski. In that sense, redshirt junior forward David Morley may be one of the most important players for the Huskies in the second half. Morley is a small center/wing whose career at St. Cloud State has really been slowed down by injuries. Morley has 5-6-11 in 19 games for the Huskies, and there's no doubt that SCSU is a much better team when he is providing offense. The Huskies are 7-2-0 in the nine games in which he's scored a point, and 2-8-1 in the 11 games he has not.
He's been a key catalyst in St. Cloud State's resurgence so far this year too. He scored a goal in the Friday win over Quinnipiac to help ignite the team's offense. He was held scoreless the following night in a loss to the Bobcats. Last weekend, he scored two goals in the Friday win, and added a beautiful primary assist in Saturday's win. In all, he has five points in his last five games, and if he continues scoring at close to that rate, the Huskies may have a more successful second half of the season offensively.
The Huskies may have turned the corner. They may just be a .500 team that had a lucky weekend at home. Next weekend in a tough road environment against a team in a similar position may go a long ways in providing that answer.