ST. CLOUD, Minn. — For the first time this season because of the coronavirus pandemic, the St. Cloud State men's hockey team played the same opponent for two straight days.
After not liking his team's play at even strength and calling how they played "soft" in an overtime loss on Saturday, Huskies fans may have anticipated that coach Brett Larson would make a few changes on Sunday. He did.
St. Cloud State had two wings switch lines, had wing Joe Molenaar in the lineup and wing Chase Brand sit out and David Hrenak played on back-to-back nights for the first time this season. The moves clearly made a difference.
The sixth-ranked Huskies scored two even-strength goals, got three goals from one of the new lines and Hrenak stopped 27 of 28 shots in a 3-1 win over fourth-ranked Minnesota Duluth at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
"Our compete level and we were able to win a few more puck battles and stick battles," Larson said of what improved in his team's play. "We did a better job of being on our toes and winning some races. They really outplayed us 5-on-5 (Saturday) night and we were really disappointed with that."
With the win, the Huskies (7-4) moved into first place in the NCHC standings with 22 points, two ahead of North Dakota (7-2-1) and UMD (6-3-2).
2 Finns and an Okabe
The line that had nearly all of the production for the Huskies in the win had Jami Krannila at center with Veeti Miettinen on left wing and Zach Okabe on right wing. Krannila and Miettinen, the two Finnish players on the roster, have played every game this season on the same line.
Okabe, a sophomore from Okotoks, Alberta, had played every every game this season on a line with wing Kevin Fitzgerald and center Sam Hentges. Senior wing Easton Brodzinski moved from the line with the Finns to the line with Hentges and Fitzgerald.
The Miettinen-Krannila-Okabe line combined for three goals and five assists in the win, including two even-strength goals.
"We just hadn't been getting a ton of 5-on-5 scoring lately," said Larson, whose team had three total even-strength goals in its previous three games. "We were playing well, but we wanted to shake things up just a little bit try to increase that (scoring)."
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Krannila and Okabe, who are both sophomores, spent the majority of last season on a line together.
"I know how he plays because we played every single game together last year," said Krannila, who led SCSU's freshmen in scoring last season with 14 points. "I kind of knew what kind of guy I'm getting there.
"The way (Okabe) worked the corners was unbelievable. He was winning in the corners, which helps a lot, and he has a good shot."
Okabe had assists on both of Miettinen's goals. Miettinen, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick, continued his goal scoring streak. He has at least one goal in five straight games and had three goals and two assists in the series against the Bulldogs.
His first goal, he picked up a loose puck at center ice, skated back inside St. Cloud State's defensive zone, burst up the middle and scored on a shot that hit the crossbar and went in, 55 seconds into the second period to give the Huskies a 1-0 lead.
"We had a line change and the Duluth guys were so tired that I carried the puck in there and I had a lot of room," Miettinen said. "I just decided to shoot and went bar-down. Couldn't be better."
With the game tied 1-1 in the third period, the Huskies had a 4-on-3 rush that Krannila finished off for his third goal of the season at 14:38 for a 2-1 lead.
"I think we started driving the net more, especially on attacks that we come from our zone (on)," Krannila said of his team in the third period. "We had a middle guy driving (to the net) and that's how I got my goal. I just went back door, drove the 'D' down and Veeti made a great play and I got to put it in the empty net.
"We were working their 'D' down low all night and they took some penalties, even at the end of the game."
Clinging to that 2-1 lead, with 2:36 left, UMD defenseman Matt Anderson was called for holding. On a 3-on-1 rush, Krannila was skating up the right side, turned and left it for Miettinen, who ripped in a shot from about the hash mark with 1:07 left for a 3-1 lead.
"He's got a pretty complete game for a skill player," Larson said of Miettinen, who moved into the team lead in points with 13, after not having a point in his first two games. "He's really intelligent, makes the right play under pressure.
"To be honest, we're just getting to know him," Larson said of Miettinen, who took part in his first team practice on Nov. 11. "With the visa issues, he got here pretty late and he's been trying to catch up on school. But he's a great kid and I know he's loving it here and, for us, he can change a game and he did tonight."
Hrenak has strong start
An area that has had some question marks in the early going has been in goal. The Huskies have started all three of their goalies. Sophomores Joey Lamoreaux and Jaxon Castor have both played in two games after playing in a combined seven games last season.
Hrenak, a Los Angeles Kings draft pick and senior from Považská Bystrica, Slovakia, started his 96th career college game on Sunday. After stopping 27 of 31 shots in the overtime loss on Saturday, Hrenak said he found out he was starting on Sunday morning.
"I would say (Saturday) was my average game and it's not under my control what the coach's decision is going to be," Hrenak said. "I had to make sure I would be ready no matter what decision was going to be.
"I would say it was better (Sunday). Hopefully, I just need to be consistent."
Larson said that he decided to start Hrenak on Sunday for a specific reason.
"I wanted to give him the opportunity to build off (Saturday) night," Larson said. "I thought he played good (Saturday) night, but I didn't think he played great.
"I thought he did build off (Saturday) night. I thought he was better (Sunday) night. He had some huge saves for us and gave us an opportunity to win."
During a typical season, teams typically play back-to-back games within a 23- or 24-hour stretch. The teams played at 6 p.m. on Saturday and then at 4 p.m. Sunday. While that could bother the regimen of some players, Hrenak said he enjoyed the change.
"I probably liked it better," Hrenak said. "I don't like waiting all day for a game. I liked getting up and going to the rink, going back to take a nap then there's the game. I probably liked it even better."
He also said that the team played better in front of him on Sunday, which helped his performance.
"I think our guys did a much better job (defensively)," he said. "I saw the puck much better and there was not a lot of rebounds. I think it starts with defense and it was better than (Saturday)."
Take this for a small sample size, but in Hrenak's last three starts, he has a .935 save percentage and 1.99 goals-against average.
The Huskies and Bulldogs are scheduled to play a two-game series next weekend in Duluth. The games are scheduled for 7:30 p.m. Friday (CBS Sports Network) and 6 p.m. Saturday at Amsoil Arena.
HIGHLIGHTS: Miettinen has a hand in all 3 @SCSUHUSKIES_MH goals as Huskies strike twice in final six minutes to top @UMDMensHockey #NCHCHockey | #unleashSCSU | #BulldogCountry pic.twitter.com/SpjAWCPfFO— The NCHC (@TheNCHC) January 4, 2021