ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Off the ice, David Hrenak's face seems to be chiseled into a smile. Like anyone, he has to have a bad day on occasion, but those who see him daily never to see him without a smile.
When he's playing hockey — while still happy — his emotions typically stay inside his goalie facemask. That was not the case when St. Cloud State beat Northeastern on Oct. 26 at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
As the horn sounded at the end of the game, Hrenak thrusted both arms forward as he skated to celebrate with his teammates. It was the fourth game of the season. So what was with the unusual outburst for the 21-year-old junior from Slovakia?
"For our team, it was really important to get a win as soon as possible especially with our young team," Hrenak said of the 2-1 win over 11th-ranked Northeastern. "I was very happy to finally get that win. That's why I was excited.
"It felt a little special," said Hrenak, whose team had 10 underclassmen play in the game. "You wait for the season for a long time, then you have two games, a bye week ... it just felt like we had been waiting for a long time."
The 16th-ranked Huskies (1-1-2) will try to pick up their first win on a Friday this season when they play Princeton in the first game of a nonconference series at 7:37 p.m. at the Brooks Center. The teams play the second game at 6:07 p.m. Saturday and this will be the first series of the season for the Tigers.
Mental coach work
Hrenak, who led NCAA Division I in win percentage (.800, 23-5-2), will be looking to continue his strong start to this season in the series. He has played all four games and has a 2.41 goals-against average and a .920 save percentage. It's early, but his save percentage is 14 points better than the .906 he recorded last season.
He said that his good start actually began with work he did back home over the summer.
"The biggest thing that I really wanted to work on this summer was battling for every puck," said Hrenak, a fifth-round (144th overall) draft pick of the Los Angeles Kings in 2018. "That's what I needed to get better at to take more practices as (I would take) games. Don't let any puck go into the net, even in practices.
"It was more mental work than technical. I also worked with my mental coach (Lukas Piperek) in the summer and that helped a lot, for sure."
Hrenak has worked with Piperek in previous offseasons, but unlike those seasons, he has continued to work with him during this season. The two would meet in person during the summer, but have been speaking regularly via Skype since Hrenak returned to St. Cloud.
"Last season, I was worrying too much about what other people think — my coach, L.A. scouts — and maybe I was worrying too much about stats," he said. "We talk about how to be more prepared, how to be more focused on the games. What might happen to some guys is that they might be good in practice and then they get to games and might be a totally different player.
"You try to focus on the things you can affect, which are under your control. So far, it feels much better. I'm not worrying about some of the things I did last year. I'm trying to take a practice like it's a game."
His last point is something that has caught the attention of Huskies head coach Brett Larson.
"His compete level in practice has improved and he's battling to save every puck and I think that's translating for him into the game," Larson said. "I just don't want where we have a game very often where that first shot we have on (our) goal is a breakaway at the 9-minute mark.
"But to me, that tells me that he's on," Larson said, referring to Hrenak's first save against Northeastern on Saturday. "A lot of times, goalies have a hard time when they're not seeing a lot of action. Mentally, I think David is more focused and his compete level been higher in practice."
That new-found focus, in addition to his 6-foot-2 frame and mobility, are what make Hrenak a goalie with so much potential.
"Athleticism is kind of my strength," said Hrenak, who is 38-13-6 with a 2.17 goals-against average, .913 save percentage and seven shutouts in 60 career college games. "When I get square on a puck and they make a pass, it feels like I still have a pretty good chance to get over there and make a save."
Larson said an example of that was a play like that in the series against Northeastern.
"When he's on, he makes big saves look easy — they're not sprawling big saves," he said of Hrenak. "There was a play (Saturday) in the second period where there was a breakdown and (Northeastern) made a faceoff dot-to-dot laterally and it was a quick play and a quick shot and he literally got his stomach on the shot.
"His anticipation and his movement are really good when he's on."
> Freshman goalie Jaxon Castor returned to practice this week. Castor suffered a lower body injury in the exhibition game against Alberta on Oct. 6.
> Larson continues to experiment with the offensive lines, trying to find some consistency from a group other than senior wings Jack and Nick Poehling with junior center Kevin Fitzgerald, the one line that has been a constant. But Larson is also trying to find the right combination of players on the top two power-play units and said that there are few locks for that special teams unit. St. Cloud State, which was seventh in the nation (24 percent) on the power play last season, is 1-for-11 (9.1 percent) with the man advantage this season.
> Fans may want to arrive a bit early for this weekend's games because there may be increased traffic because of high school football playoff games being played at Husky Stadium and St. Cloud State wrestling will be competing in Halenbeck Hall at the same time. Hockey fans can still park in K-Lot (the lots just south of the rink). Wrestling fans are being asked to park in the lots just west of Halenbeck Hall (M Lot and R Lot) and prep football fans will park in N Lot (large lot north of the footbridge across University Drive).