The St. Cloud State women’s hockey team is off to one of the best starts in program history. Under new coach Brian Idalski, the Huskies have started the season 11-8, their best start in 15 years. The team entered the national rankings at #14 this week – just the seventh time in program history they’ve been ranked and the first time since January 2009.

They close out the first half of the season with a home and home series against #6 Minnesota Friday and Saturday.

The last time these two teams met, a month ago in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame Museum Women’s Face-off Classic in Andover, St. Cloud got their first win over the Gophers in more than 12 years. Minnesota had been on a 61-game unbeaten streak against SCSU and were 101-3-3 all-time against the Huskies.

It was a 4-1 complete win that we may look back at in the future as the signal of tide change for St. Cloud, who seem to be flourishing under Idalski. They are currently fourth in the WCHA, though Minnesota Duluth is just two points back with two games in hand.

A few weeks ago, this series wouldn’t have been one many people would have paid attention to. Instead, it’s become a must-watch set of games to see how Minnesota adjusts and if St. Cloud State can repeat their incredible 200-foot performance.

There are a number of reasons SCSU is off to such a good start, but it helps that the team is getting career performances out of players and putting together big games while dealing with injuries.

In last weekend’s series sweep over St. Thomas, senior forward Klára Hymlárová scored her first career hat-trick while skating in a defensive pairing throughout the game to help cover for a short roster. Hymlárová has scored more goals in the first half (12) than she had in her career total prior to this season (11). She’s tied for 10th in the country in goals scored and second in the country with five power play goals.

Sanni Ahola was named the program’s first-ever WCHA Goaltender of the Month in November after leading the league in wins. She finished November with a 1.80 goals against average and had 91 saves on 98 shots faced for a .929 sv%.

Fifth year senior Jenniina Nylund missed part of last season as she played with Finland in the Olympics, where she became the first active Husky women’s hockey player to win an Olympic medal when she won bronze. Add that to the shortened Covid season and she was raring to get back on the ice for a regular schedule. She has also already surpassed her career high in goals (11) and points (24) and tied her career high in assists (13). She’s tied for 20th in the country in total points.

The turnaround cannot be entirely assigned to Idalski. The players on the roster this season were brought in by previous coaches. But what he brings is the experience of having brought a team that had not been competitive against the top teams in the WCHA to a much higher level.

While he comes off as stern, backup goalie Jojo Chobak told the Rink Live that she thinks Idalski is actually a “big softie.” He is demanding in that he expects a high level of commitment and preparation from his players. But Idalski is also incredibly clear in those expectations and what he believes the players and team will gain from them.

According to a video about Idalski on the team’s webpage, when he interviewed for this job, he spoke about the number of games the team played in that were close, but that they fell short on in the end. The implication is that the team did not need a massive overhaul, but a fine tuning. Coming in at the beginning of the school year, he did not get a chance to influence offseason training, but he was able to instill a higher standard. The dividends have already begun to pay off.

“We want to show people that we’re a top five team — and we know it. We need everyone else to believe it, so we’re going to keep putting in the work in,” said senior Taylor Lind after the win over Minnesota

Former St. Cloud State athletic director and current commissioner of the men’s hockey conference NCHC Heather Weems specifically noted upon Idalski’s hiring that the program needed a consistent player development and recruiting strategy and that’s why he was chosen.

It can’t help but be noted that the three standout players highlighted are all international students – Nyland and Ahola from Finland and Hymlárová from Czechia. At North Dakota, Idalski was one of the first coaches to use aggressive overseas recruiting as a way to compete with programs like Minnesota, Wisconsin and UMD. That strategy is pretty commonplace at this point and Idalski said he was in touch with the Huskies’ previous coach, Steve MacDonald, when MacDonald held the position to help advise him on bringing in international players.

The current St. Cloud roster has five players from non-North American nations and Idalski plans to build on that to help make this program a force in the WCHA.

For women on the team competing for a fifth year, Idalski is the third head coach in their career as a Husky. But senior defender McKenna Wesloh, who played under yet another coach before transferring to St. Cloud, said in the video she’s excited about what Idalski can bring to St. Cloud State.

“We’ve struggled the last few years. All of us, we want more. We strive to be better, she said.

“He’s really going to push us to do that.”

 

 

 



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