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St. Cloud State, Minnesota State Amped for Matchup

Huskies, Mavericks lock horns in unprecedented limelight

by Tyler Buckentine / Special to Wild.com

On the surface to the distant observer, this might have the look of an ordinary matchup between two WCHA teams hoping to leverage themselves back to the middle of the league standings.

But include media coverage unprecedented to the women's hockey programs at St. Cloud State and Minnesota State-Mankato, and this weekend's series at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud takes on a greater meaning.

Saturday's game will be televised live on FOX Sports North Plus at 3 p.m., joining FSN's day-long coverage of Hockey Day Minnesota 2017 -- a celebration of hockey in Minnesota at all levels. FOX Sports North also will broadcast Game 1 of the series at 3 p.m. Friday.

"It was perfect timing," said St. Cloud State coach Eric Rud, whose team has six scheduled games to be broadcast on FOX Sports North this season. "There happened to be two Minnesota teams playing on (Saturday), and I know they've been trying to get women's college hockey involved in Hockey Day in the past but for whatever reason, it hadn't worked out."

For women's hockey regulars, Saturday's game should feel more like a groundbreaking event, since it will be the first women's college game included in the Hockey Day lineup.  

The mystique of Hockey Day Minnesota seems to have a greater impact on the public with each winter, and that's no different to Savannah Quandt, a senior alternate captain at Minnesota State who's playing collegiately in her hometown. Saturday, she'll live Hockey Day on the ice instead of through the TV.

"We're going to be part of it and I think that's awesome," Quandt said. "It's a great opportunity to show the girls in Minnesota what you can do and where you can go."

Lauren Hespenheide is a senior captain and one of five Minnesotans on the St. Cloud State roster (Minnesota State has 15) who also isn't new to the concept of Hockey Day.

"I've grown up knowing it's a celebration," said Hespenheide, who enters the weekend with three goals and five assists. "Finally getting to be part of (Hockey Day) is really exciting and getting women's hockey on TV is a huge thing. 

"You can't beat Minnesota hockey, and it's been fun being able to grow up with it."

The Huskies (6-16-2, 4-13-1 WCHA) will look to get their offense back on track following three straight games without a goal after scoring seven against No. 7 Colgate on Jan. 6. Colgate blanked the Huskies the next day, followed by a pair of shutout losses at the hands of top-ranked Wisconsin.

Julia Tylke is St. Cloud State's offensive spark, leading the team in goals (9) and assists (8) and Janine Alder has been consistent in net with a .925 save percentage and a 2.50 goals against average.

"We want to get back to what allowed to have success against Colgate," Rud said. "We weren't the only ones to get shutout by Wisconsin this season, so we're not going to dwell on that."

The Mavericks (6-17-2, 3-14-1) are also in the midst of a three-game skid after a 5-3 loss to No. 2 Minnesota and a sweep at home to North Dakota. It won't get any easier for Minnesota State, which heads to Madison to play the No. 1 Badgers next week before returning to the Verizon Wireless Center to host the University of Minnesota the first weekend of February.

Emily Antony and Lindsey Coleman each have five goals and seven assists to lead the Mavericks.

"We have struggled to score goals, so we'll work at that, but we can't do it at the expense of trying to play good defense," Mavericks coach John Harrington said. "We need to play disciplined and from good defense, we'll generate some offense."

Harrington, a Virginia, Minn. native and gold medalist for the United States in the 1980 Winter Olympics, spent three seasons in the early 1990s on the St. Cloud State men's bench as an assistant before he held the head coaching job at Division III St. John's for 15 years. The Johnnies also played home games at the Brooks Center.

"The players are excited for the opportunity to show themselves to a wider audience than we'd normally see at home or on the road in the WCHA," Harrington said.

While Minnesota State and St. Cloud State are still working toward achieving status as respected WCHA programs, Bemidji State found its way to the top half of the standings in 2015-16 when it finished third.

The most successful regular season program history (17 league wins) earned the Beavers home-ice advantage, but they were swept in the first round of the WCHA Playoffs by Minnesota-Duluth.

This season has been a struggle for Bemidji State as it jockeys for playoff positioning in the bottom half of the standings with MSU, SCSU and Ohio State. Unless one of those teams makes a strong second-half push, the top four of the eight-team league appears close to solidified.

Minnesota (40 points) and Minnesota-Duluth (39) are neck-and-neck for the second spot behind first-place Wisconsin, which has 47 points heading into the weekend. North Dakota holds the last spot for home-ice advantage with 33 points.

"Those teams have a solid foundation of great players" Quandt said. "They keep bringing in great players year after year and that's something that we strive for."

The Gophers, Bulldogs and Badgers have not only been fierce perennial competitors for the WCHA crown, but also national powerhouses and in the conversation for the NCAA title every year.

And though it may come after they've graduated, Hespenheide hopes to see their schools reach a similar level of success.

"For us at schools like St. Cloud and Mankato, we need to get girls to want to come here," Hespenheide said. "Since I was a freshman, we had to change the attitude of the program. The culture we have as a team has improved a lot in the last three years."

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