The Polar Bears have no time to dwell on their 13-3 opening night loss to UC Berkeley Sept. 23. After just a few days to work out the kinks, SRJC is headed to the State of Hockey in a make or break road trip.
SRJC plays four teams in four days in its first-ever trip to Minnesota Sept. 28-Oct. 1. The team is scheduled to face the University of St. Thomas (9/28), Minnesota State University, Mankato (9/29), the University of Minnesota (9/30) and St. Cloud State University (10/1).
All four teams are American Collegiate Hockey Association Division II clubs from universities that host Division I NCAA hockey teams. These schools are also members of the Western Collegiate Club Hockey Association (WCCHA), a subdivision of the ACHA that is similar to the Polar Bears’ own Pacific Collegiate Hockey Association.
The trip kicks off Thursday against the University of St. Thomas, who finished 9-16-1 in the 2016-17 season. With a 25-man roster, UST has a much deeper bench than SRJC. But St. Thomas is without last year’s lead scorer Jack Graveline (9 goals, 9 assists), whereas SRJC’s lead scorer David Lundgren (12 goals, 26 assists) is expected to play first line center. St. Thomas still, however, has a strong offensive core with veteran forward Tyler Hayes, Connor Greenwood and goal leader Jack Sterne. One advantage St. Thomas definitely has is its eight-man blue line— a defensive roster twice that of the Polar Bears. Both team’s goaltenders put up decent save percentages, though St. Thomas’ Brendan Corbin and Jack Hardwick each had better goals against averages— averages in the 3.00’s as opposed to SRJC’s 7.00’s.
Possibly the toughest game of the series comes Friday, Sept. 29, against Minnesota State University, Mankato. With an 18-4-1 overall record last season, Mankato toppled the University of Minnesota to be crowned WCCHA champions. Mankato’s current roster features leading scorers Tyler Lawry and Jack Dierck, along with WCCHA top defensemen Dylan Bouten and All-Star Tristan Gust. Minnesota State University, Mankato is the only team out of the four currently ranked within the ACHA, ending the year as No. 12 in the Central Region.
The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers host the Polar Bears the next day. The Gophers posted an 8-8 conference record and 11-10-1 overall. UM plays better at home, going 9-3 at Mariucci Arena as opposed to on the road (2-7-1). While its offensive numbers are pretty similar, the biggest advantage UM has is WCCHA 2nd Team All-Conference and All-Star goaltender, Clayton Knutsen.
SRJC wraps up the Minnesota series against the St. Cloud State University Huskies Sunday, Oct. 1. The Huskies finished last year with an 13-15 overall record. SRJC has to watch out for lead scorer Jared Christen, who had 26 goals, 14 assists in 27 games. The Polar Bears see another tough goalie in Devin Dell. Despite a 5-5 record, Dell recorded a 3.00 goals against average and a .902 save percentage— he only gave up 30 goals with 245 saves.
This Minnesota series is arguably one of the biggest road trips SRJC has ever scheduled. And that includes big games in the ACHA and PCHA playoffs. Two of the teams are the best in the division, and roster several all-star caliber players. Having only game under their belt— a losing one at that— would worry some. But the Polar Bears have gone through just under six weeks of practice and off-ice conditioning— something they are counting on to make a difference.
“Part of the reason we were excited to schedule these games early in the season is that we knew they [the Minnesota teams] were going to be coming in with a week, two weeks of practice under their belts, whereas we have five and a half weeks together as a group,” said Head Coach Nate Panek. “That by itself will give us a great advantage.”
It is a weird strategy to hope one or more of these teams suffer from first game nerves, but it might be one SRJC can take to the bank. Several of the teams just started practicing this week, some having held tryouts just a few days ago. The Polar Bears’ one-game advantage might not seem like a lot, but having already played an official game gives greater insight to what they’re working with.
SRJC discussed several items in their practice meeting Tuesday, but the overall consensus among coaches was that the team need to improve its physicality. Panek said his players needed to take the physical play to the other teams instead of getting caught back on their heels.
A high-stakes game, like the ones in Minnesota, isn’t the best place to work out the team’s issues, but it’s all the Polar Bears have. Immediately following the trip, SRJC heads into the PCHA season and a heavily scheduled October and November. But the Polar Bears understand that success takes time, and it will happen as long as they band together.
“The biggest thing we are going to pull from this weekend, besides getting to play in some historic barns against some incredible hockey schools, is the fact that our guys get to go out and have a four-day roadie with each other” Panek said. “They get to know each other really well off the ice, instead of just on the ice. They get to have fun and be a part of some amazing hockey games in amazing hockey town.”
While the team will not have its regular away game coverage for the trip, it will try to have updates each day from Minnesota.
The Polar Bears come home for their first PCHA action Oct. 6 against UC Santa Cruz, followed by a 4 p.m. match the next day against Santa Clara University at Snoopy’s Home Ice.