Defending their title

Just six months ago, the Minot State University men’s club hockey team dove headfirst into the American Collegiate Hockey League spotlight.

The Beavers defeated Lindenwood University (Mo.) 9-5 in the ACHA Division I championship game to hoist the first Murdoch Cup in the program’s 17-year history.

Fast forward to September and the Beavers are preparing for the pressure that comes with defending a national championship, along with the trials of a roster filled with new talent. MSU graduated five seniors and seven others from last season’s title team are not on this year’s roster. Replacing those holes are 10 freshmen and two Williston State College transfers.

“We’ll rely on the older guys,” MSU coach Wade Regier said, “especially early on because we’re going to be trial by fire with these young guys. There’s a lot of talent there. We’re just trying to bridge the gap. If we get into adverse positions, our veterans will step up.”

Regier begins his fourth year behind the MSU bench this season. The 2012-13 ACHA Coach of the Year is 85-12-6 with the Beavers.

If history is any indication, repeating won’t be an easy task for MSU. There have been 10 different national champions in the last 11 seasons. Only Lindenwood in 2008-09 and 09-10 has won back-to-back titles since the 2002-03 season. The last three national champions have been first-time winners.

The Beavers begin their title defense at 8 p.m. Friday at Briercrest College (Sask.). MSU knows there’s a target on its back and opponents will be at their best.

“I think that’s a good thing,” junior forward Michael Jordan said. “We have to bring our best every night so that’s going to challenge us every single game. We’re not the underdogs anymore. Teams are going to be coming to Minot thinking they’re playing against one of the top teams in the country so we’re going to have to bring our best or we’re not going to win those games.”

Junior defenseman Brad Olynyk said the team hasn’t lost its edge despite winning the title last year.

“There’s no complacency at all,” Olynyk said. “Everyone in here, it makes them that much hungrier to get that second one. You enjoy the last one for a month of two during the summer, but then when the time comes you’re back here with all the guys back out on the ice. The hunger’s right back and even more so because you know what it’s like and you want that feeling again.”

The Beavers have plenty of depth with five lines of forwards, four sets of defensemen and three goalies on the 26-man roster. Olynyk captains a defensive unit with six returners. Behind him is senior goaltender and reigning ACHA Player of the Year Wyatt Waselenchuk.

“We were by far the best defensive team in the country last year and our back end anchors it,” Regier said. “It’s going to be tough to score against us. We have the best goaltender in the country playing for us. That’s definitely going to be our strength.”

The Beavers allowed 1.74 goals per game last season. Regier said Waselenchuk and junior goaltender Riley Hengen will split time in net like they did last season. Waselenchuk recorded a 1.94 goals against average and a 0.93 save percentage in 22 games played. Hengen appeared in 13 games and had a 1.52 goals against average and a 0.94 save percentage. Freshman Will McLean will be the third-string goaltender.

MSU expects depth in the offensive zone as well. Jordan (23 goals, 26 assists) and Logan Herauf (23 g, 26 a) led the Beavers in scoring, but six of the next seven leading scorers are not with the team this year.

“Last year we had five or six guys that did most of the scoring,” Jordan said. “This year we’ll have a better top nine that can put the puck in the net where other teams can’t just key on one or two lines, they have to worry about everybody. If we can keep coming in waves, it should really help.”

The Beavers averaged 5.26 goals per game last year. MSU had 21 goal scorers and 11 players tallied more than 20 points.

The season hasn’t started, but the Beavers have already begun setting program records. MSU has a record 18 games at Maysa Arena, highlighted by a weekend series with Lindenwood on Oct. 18 and 19. Other notable home games feature contests against Central Oklahoma, Ohio, Oakland (Mich.) and Arizona. The Beavers were 12-0 at Maysa Arena last year.

“It is exciting because we have a huge following,” Regier said. “It finally gives them a chance to come to the rink and see some quality games against top teams. It’s good to play in front of our home crowd, which is where we’re dominant.”

Said Olynyk: “We have the best fans in the league hands down. We had some of the best crowds and it’s unreal to play in front of this hometown. That’s motivating for sure. We want to go out and put a great performance out. If that building’s rocking, it’s nothing but a positive for us.”

MSU’s home opener is Sept. 20 against Briercrest.

Mike Kraft covers high school athletics, the Minot Minotauros and the Minot State University men’s club hockey team. Follow him on Twitter @MKraft23_MDN.