Terry Skrypek’s 40th season as a head hockey coach has been, ahem, interesting.
Things went smoother in his 17 seasons at Hill-Murray High and his first 22 years at St. Thomas. With 16 new players this winter, the Tommie men’s hockey coach has had to call on every ounce of patience, strategy and motivation.
Skrypek graduated his top three defensemen, and then settled on an inexperienced senior as goaltender. The UST offense has been up and down, too.
After a 4-1-2 start to the season, the Toms won just one of their next 10 games (1-7-2) leaving them with a 5-8-4 record with six games to play. St. Thomas hockey was on the brink of missing the MIAC playoffs for the first time ever and taking its first losing season since 1982.
Unlike ex-Tampa Bay Bucs coach John McKay, Skrypek stayed upbeat. ( When asked about his 1976 team’s execution, McKay’s famous response was: “I’m in favor of it.”)
Don’t look now, but Skry’s guys might get the last laugh. The Tommies are finding their game and are poised to make a postseason run.
Last weekend's 7-5, 4-1 sweep of third-place Bethel let the Tommies:
--Secure an MIAC playoff berth for the 25th time in the 25-year history of the format -– the longest streak in any sport in conference playoff history;
--Ensure that Skrypek will extend his run of .500 or better hockey finished to all 48 years as a player and coach;
--Clinch the program’s 28th consecutive .500 or better finish;
--Reach five wins in their last six games and let them climb to 11-10-4 on the season;
--Move closer to securing the program’s 28th consecutive top-three MIAC finish. (Only an Augsburg sweep of Bethel this weekend would drop the Toms to fourth place);
--Watch senior captain Alex Arnason, shown at right, win MIAC Player of the Week honors (four goals, one assist, both game-winning goals);
--Reverse a strange trend of Friday-Saturday results. Before last Saturday, in games since mid-February 2009, the Tommies were 10-3-1 on Fridays... but only 1-10-3 on Saturdays.
Last Friday night on home ice, it looked bleak for St. Thomas when Bethel scored four goals in a row to take a 4-1 lead.
The Toms still trailed 5-3 after two periods before they erupted to score three unanswered goals in a 13:00 span. Arnason’s short-handed goal put the Toms ahead 6-5. Rob Johnson added an empty-net goal in the final 30 seconds to cap UST’s best comeback in the last few seasons.
“That third period was the best we’ve played all season,” Skrypek said. “We outshot them 19-4 and really played with some extra adrenaline.”
In a season where goals haven’t come easily, Friday’s win featured hat tricks by both Arnason and Johnson, and produced three assists in the third period alone by Parker Burgess.
It also was UST’s third important comeback this season. In November, they trailed Augsburg 3-0 after two periods before scoring three times in the third period to salvage a tie. They recently trailed St. Mary’s on the road by scores of 2-0 and 3-1 before a rally netted a 4-3 victory.
The Toms carried Friday’s wave into Saturday’s road game as they scored two first-period goals en route to a 4-1 victory over Bethel. The Royals scored a power-play goal 51 seconds into period two to pull within 2-1, but UST freshman Travis Baker answered 5:00 later to regain a two-goal lead.
How important are fast starts? The Tommies are 10-4-1 when they score first this season and just 1-6-3 when foes score first.
“We talked after Friday and said, ‘Don’t waste this great comeback win. Let’s come back Saturday and play the same way,’ “ Skrypek said. “We played well, and now we have a chance.”
Senior goalie Joe Schraeder stopped 21 of 22 shots on Saturday. In the team’s recent 5-1 run, Schraeder has an .888 save percentage and a 2.84 GAA.
St. Thomas scored just 22 goals in 12 games in November and December but is averaging four goals a game since then. Arnason has eight goals and eight assists over the last nine games. His short-handed goal Friday was UST’s first of the season, but was his third in the last two seasons.
Johnson, shown at right, has seven goals in the last 10 games. The junior now has 79 points in 79 career games .
“We expected a lot from Alex and Rob and now they’re really coming through,” Skrypek said.
Two players who joined the team in mid-January have also given the Tommie offense a spark -– sophomore Chris Hickey (four goals, two assists/10 games), and senior Steve Murphy (two goals, three assists/ five games) .
“Those guys have helped our depth and give us four solid lines on offense,” Skrypek said.
The Tommies have a bye this weekend as they await their playoff foe. But Skrypek doesn’t want to risk taking a step backward.
“We went easy at Monday’s practice and had some fun but are going back to work today,” Skrypek said. “I don’t want to lose the edge we’ve gained over the last three weekends.”
The Toms lose a tie breaker with the Oles and win tie-breakers with Augsburg and Bethel. If both St. Olaf and Augsburg sweep their games this weekend, UST will drop to the No. 5 seed and play an away 4 vs. 5 playoff game on Feb. 26. If the Auggies and Oles both take one tie or loss, the Toms will be the third seed and have a March 27 semifinal playoff game on the road, most likely at Hamline. If the Augs sweep and the Oles get three or less points, the Toms will host the 4/5-seed game on Feb. 26.
Gustavus is looking to become the sixth different program in the last six years to win the MIAC men’s hockey championship. The Gusties have a one-point lead on Hamline and can lock up the title next weekend with a sweep of ninth-place St. Mary’s.
St. Thomas can take heart in this stat: Seven of the last 10 MIAC champions were unable to win the conference playoff title.
“Everyone is 0-0 when the playoffs start,” Skrypek said. “We can do some damage.”