Hi, My Name Is ... Mike Lee
Players can go any number of ways after taking part in a major international event. Some guys get a boost from the incredible experience, while others are emotionally drained and take weeks to return to previous form. University of Wisconsin men's hockey coach Mike Eaves -- who led Team USA to World Juniors gold in 2004 -- had three players and a coach in this year's World Junior tournament. He said he was noticing signs of continued fatigue from the event two weeks later.
It makes sense, as the Americans beat host Canada in overtime to win the gold medal. The tournament was long, intense, and very emotional for everyone involved with USA Hockey.
For St. Cloud (Minn.) State goalie Mike Lee (NHL rights: Phoenix), the experience of the World Juniors has been a boost to an already-strong freshman season. Lee has taken off since returning from Saskatchewan.
Before leaving, Lee had been getting the bulk of the work in goal for the Huskies. He has now settled into a rotation with SCSU junior Dan Dunn (Washington). The rotation has worked. SCSU is 10-1-1 since Christmas break, and only in the Jan. 2-3 series with Brown did either goalie start both games on the weekend (Dunn played as Lee was at the World Juniors).
Since Lee got back to the team, each goalie has made five starts. Lee is 4-1, and his save percentage is an amazing .934 (141 saves on 151 shots). He shut out Alaska-Anchorage 6-0 Saturday with a 33-save effort.
The run has boosted his save percentage to .923 for the season.
It's hard to evaluate goalies based on their performance pre-college, but Lee had certainly established himself as a premier prospect. He had an incredible career at tiny Roseau (Minn.) High School, helping that program to back-to-back appearances in the Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament.
From there, he moved on to the United States Hockey League, and put up solid numbers for the Fargo (N.D.) Force, playing for then-head coach Dean Blais. Given the relationship the two had in Fargo, it should be no surprise that Lee flourished in the World Juniors -- playing for Blais -- and has taken off ever since.
Given the talent and depth this St. Cloud State team possesses, Lee could be the most important player on the ice moving forward. It's a program that is 0-8 all-time in the NCAA Tournament, a statistic that might be meaningless if it didn't get brought up every time the Huskies made the tournament. It eats away at their passionate and loyal fan base, and it's hard to imagine the players don't know about it and feel some pressure to end it, even if they aren't at all responsible for it.
This year's SCSU team might be their deepest in years, and they enter the stretch run of the regular season in first place in the crowded Western Collegiate Hockey Association.
Lee's NHL future doesn't ride on the next month of hockey. Instead, he has already set himself up as a solid pro prospect, and this is all about adding to his profile before the inevitable opportunity at the next level arises.
Other Players to Watch
In one weekend against struggling Notre Dame, Western Michigan doubled their Central Collegiate Hockey Association win total from two to four. The Broncos swept the Irish, winning by scores of 7-2 and 4-1. The 11 goals for WMU came on just 43 shots on goal. Bronco senior goalie Riley Gill (undrafted) started both games, making 25 saves on 27 shots on Friday before stopping 54 of 55 Saturday. Gill has a .926 save percentage and a 2.68 goals against, more than respectable numbers despite WMU's 8-15-5 overall record.
In Boston on Monday, the Beanpot wrapped up with Boston College beating rival Boston University 4-3 for the title. Goals by Cam Atkinson (Columbus) and Carl Sneep (Pittsburgh) helped BC to a 4-1 lead before BU tried to rally. Northeastern beat Harvard 4-1 for third place.
Surprising Maine thrust itself into the Hockey East title race with a home sweep of first-place New Hampshire. The Black Bears won 3-2 Friday and 6-3 Saturday, rallying in both games after trailing 2-0. Gustav Nyquist (Detroit) assisted on two goals in each game, while Robby Dee (Edmonton) scored Friday's game-winner early in the third period.
Top-ranked Miami (Ohio) swept Lake Superior State (Mich.) at home. Friday's 2-0 win was keyed by goalie Cody Reichard (undrafted), who made 33 saves for the shutout. The RedHawks played with very heavy hearts Saturday, as they learned after Friday's win that student manager Brendan Burke -- son of Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke -- was killed in a car accident in Indiana. Head coach Enrico Blasi had learned of the tragedy during the game, but waited until it was over to inform his players. An inspired Miami team blew away LSSU 10-4 in that game. Blasi said his team planned to be in Massachusetts Tuesday for Burke's funeral.