Following two consecutive seasons in which it only managed to to win 31.5 percent of its total games, the St. Olaf men’s hockey team headed into the 2016-17 season with several new faces and much to prove. After serving as head coach for 19 seasons, leading the Oles to nine MIAC playoff appearances and a trip to the NCAA tournament in 2006, Sean Goldsworthy was dismissed during the offseason and replaced by Mike Eaves, most widely known for his 14 years of Division I coaching experience with the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
Furthermore, only eight of the team’s 40 roster spots were occupied by seniors this year, making St. Olaf a very young team prone to change under Eaves’ new philosophical approach. It seemed like the Oles were making serious strides to right the ship back to a winning record and, with some luck, a return to the MIAC playoffs.
A 0-4-0 start to the season quickly dashed that optimism as St. Olaf seemed in danger of falling apart in its first year of new leadership, on pace for its worst record since 1997. However, during the past two weeks the team has regrouped and found some chemistry, only dropping one contest since Nov. 19 thanks to a resurgent offense and vastly more impenetrable defense. The Oles’ recent success culminated in a shocking 2-1 upset victory over sixth-ranked Augsburg, handing the Auggies their first and only loss so far this season while earning Eaves his first conference win as St. Olaf’s head coach.
The Oles opened the two-game series at home on Friday, Dec. 2, and immediately found themselves in a 2-0 hole following two quick goals by Augsburg’s Will Peterson at 3:28 into regulation and Corbin Chapman at 13:20. However, St. Olaf remained a tough opponent to put down, as Will Dittrich ’20 netted a goal 40 seconds later to cut the lead in half right as the Auggies were starting to pull away. The score remained gridlocked at 2-1 through the second period, but eventually the Auggies struck again, 18 seconds into the third with a goal by Nate Flynn. The Oles kept their wits about them and once again pulled within one goal of Augsburg for the second time on a power play goal by Tuukka Totra ’20. Sadly, their offense couldn’t manufacture a tying goal before the clock hit zero – in a last act of desperation, St. Olaf emptied its goal during the final minute in order to push for a tie, but once Augsburg’s Drew Anderson stole the puck he easily netted the game’s final, clinching goal. Despite a tough fight, St. Olaf’s push for an upset came up just short.
The next day told a different story, proving how tenacious this Ole squad can be. This time around, playing Augsburg at its home arena in Minneapolis, St. Olaf gained the early momentum when Jonas Fredericksson ’17 struck quickly at 8:43 in the first period, giving the Oles their first lead of the series and tremendous confidence against a capable opponent. Augsburg came back just over seven minutes later when Lukas Gillett tied the contest. However, 55 seconds into the second period Totra added to his phenomenal weekend by issuing his second goal in as many days, assisted by Drew Otto ’18 and Steven Sherman ’17, the latter of whom is now third in the MIAC with 10 assists for the season. The rest of the contest, nearly two periods of play, remained scoreless thanks to an exceptional outing from goalie Jude Hull ’18, who saved 31 of Augsburg’s 32 total shots on goal. Hull’s strong performance raised his save percentage to .924, boosting him to the top five among all conference goalies. The strong team effort displayed by the Oles resulted in a 2-1 victory, their biggest upset in recent memory.
St. Olaf’s victory indicates that Eaves’ coaching approach is rapidly making a positive impact on the Oles’ overall performance. Their quality of play has spiked during the last two weeks, and their record is gradually starting to show evidence of it. Since Nov. 19, St. Olaf has allowed more than three goals in a single game only once, against Augsburg last Friday. Prior to then, it had surrendered four or more goals in every contest except one. Different players are stepping up during critical moments, such as Totra against Augsburg or Otto with a two-goal performance against Lawrence last weekend, indicating a focus on teamwork that minimizes selfishness and maximizes efficiency. The overall state of the Oles’ game is much crisper than it has been in a very long time. Their 3-8-1 record can be attributed to a sluggish start, but if this recent surge is indicative of what the Oles are capable of under Eaves’ guidance, then it’s time to start getting excited about the future of the St. Olaf men’s hockey program.