Wild draft pick Hentges helps SCSU by getting to tough areas

Freshman from New Brighton, Minn., has 5 goals and 8 points in top-ranked Huskies last 9 games, including game-winning goals in 2 of last 3 games.
St. Cloud State's Sam Hentges (19) scores the game-winning goal through a pile with 1:11 left against Minnesota Duluth on March 9, 2019, at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn. Hentges, a Minnesota Wild draft pick, has 10 goals, 10 assists and is a plus-16 in 34 games for the Huskies this season. Courtesy of St. Cloud State University
St. Cloud State's Sam Hentges (19) scores the game-winning goal through a pile with 1:11 left against Minnesota Duluth on March 9, 2019, at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud, Minn. Hentges, a Minnesota Wild draft pick, has 10 goals, 10 assists and is a plus-16 in 34 games for the Huskies this season. Courtesy of St. Cloud State University

ST. CLOUD, Minn. -- As the St. Cloud State men's hockey team will be preparing for the NCAA Division I tournament, Huskies head coach Brett Larson already knows a photo that will be a centerpiece as part of his motivational message to his team.

"There's a picture of Sam (Hentges) laying on his belly with four UMD guys basically on top of him," Larson said of Hentges' game-winning goal on March 9 against Minnesota Duluth. "That's kind of our theme: Nothing comes easy, especially goal scoring in the playoffs."

Hentges went to the front of the net, redirected a pass on net and then knocked in the rebound as he was getting knocked to the ice by the Bulldogs' Riley Tufte, a 6-foot-6 forward.

The NCHC playoffs continue for the top-ranked Huskies (29-4-2) in this weekend's NCHC Frozen Faceoff at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, Minn. St. Cloud State plays No. 23 Colorado College (17-18-4) at 4:08 p.m. Friday in the semifinals. The winner of that game will play for the championship at 7:38 p.m. Saturday. The loser of that game will play for third place at 3:38 p.m. Saturday.

Heating up

Hentges, who is listed at 6-foot and 180 pounds, has gotten positive attention from Larson for his willingness to play in tough areas on the ice down the stretch. Hentges has game-winning goals for St. Cloud State in two of the last three games and has five goals and eight points for the Huskies in their last nine games.

"The kids that are successful are the ones that learn from the ups and downs over the year and are playing their best hockey at the end. That's how it looks to me right now with Sam," Larson said. "He's playing his best hockey of the year at the most important time.

"He attacks open areas in the offensive zone. He doesn't stand on the perimeter. If he senses space in the middle, he takes it there and that's what the best players in the world do. They're not afraid to take the puck to that space and those tough areas. You don't score if you don't go there and he's got a real knack for attacking the danger areas in the offensive zone."

Hentges got off to a hot start this season with four goals and six points in St. Cloud State's first five games, then had one goal and one assist in his next 11 games. So there have been peaks and valleys, but Hentges has been pleasantly surprised by his first season in college hockey.

"It's been a great learning experience," said Hentges, who also has played center this season. "It's all about winning in the end, helping the team win and that doesn't (necessarily) mean getting goals and assists. If you aren't (getting points), you've got to make smart plays and be responsible.

"It's been so much fun. All the older boys, seniors especially, have treated me so well. They've made the transition so easy, so I just want to say, 'Thank you' to them. It's been way above any of my dreams playing Division I hockey. I cam in barely knowing anyone and now I'll talk to them all the rest of my life. We'll be brothers always."

A couple of other factors have come into play for his recent hot streak.

In the last four games, Hentges has been playing right wing on a line with sophomore center Kevin Fitzgerald and sophomore left wing Easton Brodzinski. That line has six goals and six assists in those four games.

Hentges also said he is feeling the strongest that he has all season. Last season in the United States Hockey League, he suffered an injury in January that required offseason shoulder surgery to repair.

He was selected in the seventh round of the NHL Draft by the Minnesota Wild, despite playing in 23 games last season. Hentges was not able to work out much until July and was not cleared for contact until August.

"I finally feel like my old self again," said Hentges, who turns 20 in July. "It was a long eight months (off). I can tell I was rusty, 2-3 months into the season. I'm starting to get it back."

1st time at the X

Hentges verbally committed to the Huskies in October 2017 after graduating from Totino-Grace High School. His senior year, he had 32 goals and 53 points in 25 games for the Eagles.

He grew up in New Brighton, Minn., and his dad, Mark, was his coach in youth hockey at the beginning of his career.

"He was really hard on me, but that's OK because he was preparing me for hockey when I was older," Sam said. "He told me that if you take a day off, you know there's another guy working hard to take your place."

Mark knows something about the ups and downs of college hockey. He was cut from the University of St. Thomas hockey team his first year of college, but made the team the next year and was a two-time All-American his last two seasons.

His senior season at St. Thomas, Mark was one of 10 finalists for the first Hobey Baker Award in 1981, an honor that was won by the University of Minnesota's Neal Broten.

After playing a few seasons for the Montreal Canadiens' American Hockey League team in Nova Scotia, Mark retired from hockey and helped reinforce his son's love of the game.

"We had a good group of parents and every night after practice, we would shovel the rink at Hansen Park, have hot chocolate and the kids would skate until the lights went off," Mark said. "They got a lot of ice time."

Sam played hockey on the same team with his older sister, Maddie, until pee-wees. Maddie ended up playing soccer, hockey and lacrosse for Irondale High School and is a lacrosse player at Concordia-St. Paul.

"Sam has twin sisters and they're 18 months older," said Mark, whose other daughter is Molly. "Having sisters with him playing hockey, made it an event for him to go to the rink. It was a big social thing. He kind of latched onto it from the beginning."

This weekend, Hentges is looking forward to a new social thing: playing in the Frozen Faceoff for the first time in the Wild's home arena.

"We never made it to state when I was in high school, so this will be my first time playing there," he said. "I'm really excited because all the boys say how cool of a tournament it is.

"Coach (Larson) said don't listen and worry about the media because it's pretty bad down there and focus on hockey because that's what we're there to do."