After mixed results at holiday tournaments the previous two weeks, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State are getting their young stars back from the World Junior Championship this week for a critical NCHC series in Duluth to start the second half of conference play.
Junior forward Ryan Poehling has returned to the top-ranked Huskies while the fifth-ranked Bulldogs get sophomore defensemen Mikey Anderson and Dylan Samberg and freshman forward Noah Cates back in the lineup for the 7:07 p.m. games Friday and Saturday at Amsoil Arena.
In addition to topping the national polls, the Huskies (who went 1-1 last weekend at the Three Rivers Classic in Pittsburgh) lead the NCHC after eight conference games. They are seven points up on second-place Western Michigan and eight ahead of third-place UMD (which went 1-1 two weeks ago at the Desert Hockey Classic in Glendale, Ariz.).
Poehling, Anderson, Samberg and Cates, as well as UMD coach Scott Sandelin, spent the previous three weeks in the Vancouver area with the U.S. Junior National Team, which won silver for its fourth consecutive medal at the World Juniors.
A break would have been nice, but as Samberg pointed out, they're all hockey players, so why not spend the holidays playing the game they love.
"We love playing hockey and it's fun to be playing for your country," said Samberg, a Hermantown native. "It's a long tournament, it's a lot of games, but it was a fun experience, something you cherish forever. It was good to keep your conditioning up, especially coming back here now. It will be good for the second half."
Poehling was named most valuable player of the World Juniors after leading Team USA in scoring with five goals and three assists. The 2017 first-round draft pick of the Montreal Canadiens has three goals and 14 assists in 16 games with the Huskies, including two goals and nine assists in eight NCHC games.
"He was a big, big player for us. I know he is for St. Cloud, too," said Sandelin, who was an assistant coach for Team USA. "They'll be happy to get him back as well. I really enjoyed being around him and really enjoyed watching him play and have the tournament that he did."
Anderson, who captained Team USA, was named one of the Team USA's top three players along with Poehling. He led all American defensemen in scoring at the World Juniors with two goals and three assists. He has three goals and four assists in 16 games with UMD.
Samberg, who has two goals and two assists in 15 games at UMD, had a pair of assists in British Columbia. Cates, with four goals and three assists in 16 games with the Bulldogs, totaled one goal and two assists for Team USA.
All of Cates' points came in the final three games. He was named the U.S. player of the game when he scored in the 3-1 quarterfinal win over the Czech Republic. His two assists came in the third period of the gold-medal game, when the U.S. scored twice in the third period to tie Finland before falling 3-2.
Cates said he returns to the Bulldogs this week as confident as ever.
"Playing at that speed, playing with great players, I just feel like I'm at that level now and I can compete at that level," Cates said. "When I do, I can be a really good player at the international level and now at the college level."
The U.S. junior team played seven games in 11 days in Victoria and Vancouver, in addition to a pair of pre-tournament games before Christmas in Kamloops and Langley. That kind of schedule can take its toll physically and mentally, Huskies first-year head coach Brett Larson said.
Larson gave Poehling time off this week from practice, as did Sandelin with Cates, Samberg and Mikey Anderson. But it doesn't stop there. Both coaches will look for other opportunities to give those players breaks physically and mentally over the next few months.
Larson, the former UMD assistant coach and player out of Duluth Denfeld, said he learned a lot from Sandelin last year about how to manage players when they come back from the World Juniors. The Bulldogs had five players at last year's tournament in Buffalo, N.Y., in Samberg, Mikey and Joey Anderson, Riley Tufte and Scott Perunovich.
"Scott did a really good job of that last year with our guys in Duluth and the nice thing is having that experience going through it before," Larson said. "I'll probably just do the same thing with Ryan - try and gauge his energy level and make sure to get him the proper rest when needed to recover from that tourney."
Mikey Anderson, who went through this all a year ago, said recovering from the World Juniors is all about being smart. Stay hydrated, put the right things in your body and play smart, he said.
"Don't come back and try and be a superhero," he said. "Do whatever you were doing before you left and pick up where the boys left off."
NO. 1 ST. CLOUD STATE (14-2-2) AT NO. 5 UMD (11-5-2)
What: NCHC series
When: 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday
Where: Amsoil Arena
Radio: KDAL-AM 610/KDAL-FM 103.9
Internet: nchc.tv (video)