by Bruce Strand, Sports editor
Hockey has always generated a passionate following at St. Cloud State, and especially this year when the Huskies earned their first-ever WCHA championship, in the final year the conference will exist.
One of the prime reasons for Huskies success is Nick Jensen, junior defenseman from Rogers who’s also a draftee of the Detroit Red Wings.
Jensen, 22, was named WCHA Defenseman of the Year last week, in a vote of the 12 head coaches. Jensen said he was “surprised and excited” by the honor, adding, “But you can never be satisfied. It’s just a milestone and you have more goals to accomplish.”
After tying the Gophers for first place in the regular season the Huskies swept Alaska-Anchorage last weekend in the first round of WCHA playoffs, and are top-seeded in the WCHA Final Five starting Thursday at the Xcel Center.
The Huskies will face the Minnesota State vs. Wisconsin winner 2 p.m. Friday, while the No. 2 Gophers face Wisconson or Colorado College at 7 p.m. Finals are Saturday, 2 p.m. (all on Fox Sports North.)
The coaches also selected Huskies senior Drew LeBlanc from Hermantown as WCHA Player of the year.
“I think it’s great for Drew LeBlanc and Nick Jensen and it’s well-deserved and I think it’s right on,” said Huskies coach Bob Motzko in a report on the SCSU web site. “From the start of the year to the end, they have been outstanding. Two of the biggest reason why we’re sitting in the place we are.”
In WCHA games, Jensen had four goals and 19 assists, with a plus-15 rating. His 23 points were second among defenders and his 19 goals ranked first.
On the defensive end, he consistently faced the top lines, blocked 27 shots and helped the Huskies limit league foes to 2.36 goals per game.
Overall, Jensen ranks eighth nationally among Division I defensemen with 29 points and second with 25 assists. He is plus-21 and has 39 blocks.
The 6-foot-1, 183-pound defender made All-WCHA first team this year and second team last year. He has started 115 straight games with 15 career goals and 69 assists.
His most recent goal came in the 4-2 win over Wisconsin that clinched at least a share of first place. The Huskies lost the finale to the Badgers 3-2 while the Gophers beat Bemidji and pulled into a final tie for first with 37 points each.
During the Alaska-Anchorage series, the Huskies skated unto the ice with the Cup for their fans. “We are the first St. Cloud team to get the McNaughton Cup so that meant a lot,” said Jensen.
The Huskies split with the Gophers on Feb. 8-9 in St. Cloud, losing the Friday game 4-2 before 5,648 fans, then winning the Saturday game 4-3 before 6,140 fans,. The Gophers were ranked No. 1 at the time and have recently regained the No. 1 rank while the Huskies finished the regular season No. 7.
“That’s a big game, obviously,” said Jensen. “But we have to keep it consistent with every game we play, because they all count as much.”
The WCHA is breaking up this year, largely because the Big Ten Network, a major funding source, needs the Gophers in a newly-created Big Ten for hockey. The Huskies will move to a new conference that will include North Dakota and Colorado College.
Whether Jensen will still be there for his senior year, or with the Red Wings, remains to be seen. The NHL team made him a first-round draft pick when he was 18.
“We’ve got a playoff game Friday. That’s all we are thinking about,” said Jensen.
Detroit’s scouting report on Jensen, shown on the web site redwings.com, states:
“Tremendous skating is the foundation of his game, with high top speed and great agility … Likes to jump into the play … Can lead the rush by carrying the puck or making a good first pass to a forward … Plenty of untapped offensive potential with his foot-speed … Willing to battle physically and likes to throw open-ice hits, although he is hardly a bruiser … Doesn’t get into much trouble when he takes offensive risks because he has the wheels to get back defensively.”
The report concludes that Jensen has improved markedly since being drafted and “has all the tools to emerge as a top prospect — a potential No. 4 puck-moving blueliner — and could be poised for a breakthrough in 2012-13.”
Jensen was an all-conference player for Rogers in grades 9-10-11. He spent the next two years in Green Bay, playing in the USHL, before St. Cloud.
Asked about his progress at SCSU, he said: “Definitely my biggest improvement is defensive zone coverage. You have to know where to be at the right time and which guy to cover and when to get your stick up or use the body.”
All of which the Red Wings monitor carefully.
“Absolutely, they keep in touch with you. There’s been multiple scouts here. Their player development guy, Jerry Fischer, a former player, I’ve seen him here four or five times a year.”
A finance major, Jensen is a Dean’s List student and two-time All-WCHA Academic Team selection.