With two weeks left in the NCHC season, the St. Cloud State Huskies will look to knock the University of North Dakota Fighting Hawks from atop the NCHC standings. Doing so will ensure a more premium place in the upcoming NCHC tournament and will surely aid in their efforts to earn yet another NCAA Tournament berth.
To do that, they'll have to sweep the University of Minnesota - Duluth Bulldogs this weekend. It's a critical matchup between in-state and in-conference rivals, and one of the last chances for the Bulldogs to improve their conference standing to .500 on the season.
For their part, the Bulldogs will be hungry heading into St. Cloud tonight. They've struggled to score against St. Cloud this season, and will need key cogs like Austin Farley and Tony Cameranesi to step up in order to down the #2 team in the NCHC. Fortunately, goaltender Kasimir Kaskisuo has emerged once again as a rock-solid player for the Bulldogs, and should help slow the attack of the Huskies.
It's important that Kaskisuo is on his game tonight, because the past few weeks have been a rollercoaster for the Bulldogs, who traded a 3-game losing streak for a 3-game win streak for yet another 3-game losing streak. Even more bizarrely, their last 3 games have been identical 1-2 outcomes. Kaskisuo has played well, and sports a consistent .918 save % on the season.
Most nights, that .918 has been enough to limit their opponents to just north of 2 goals per game. However, St. Cloud has built its game for much of the season on outshooting opponents. On the season, the Huskies average 3 more shots per game than they allow. Not all that impressive, right? It isn't, until you look at the quality of shots they're taking. The Huskies pepper goalies from a variety of angles and can score in bunches.
That strategy could prove too much for a UMD team looking to bolster its defense late in the season. The Huskies play well on the transition, which will be a serious challenge for the Bulldogs' efforts to break out. If they play the game their way, the Huskies could trap the Bulldogs in their defensive zone.
Blueline scorer Ethan Prow could prove to be a gamebreaker for the Huskies, as his work along the top of the zone keeps his team on offense and drives play in a full-zone cycle. It's often difficult to get pucks out past a defender like Prow, and the Bulldogs will have to manage their game well on defense in order to get the chances they'll need to beat Lakeville native Charlie Lindgren in net.
If the Bulldogs are able to pull off the upset this weekend, it will be built on the backs of their defense and players like Carson Soucy, who may have to pull out all the stops to slow the complete game the Huskies play on a nightly basis.
With that in mind, it's not out of the realm of possibility for the Huskies to drop a pair this weekend. They're sitting high on their goaltending, and I'm curious to see how soft Lindgren's .929 SV% actually is. If the Bulldogs can identify enough holes and expose the cracks in the Huskies' admittedly-strong game, we could see some very interesting hockey this weekend with huge implications on the shape of the NCAA and NCHC tournaments.