Cyclone Hockey takes on defending national champions

Junior Alex Stephens beats a Cougar to the puck during a game against the Southern Illinois-Edwardsville Cougars on Sep. 19. The Cyclones would go on to win 11-1.

Ben Visser

Cyclone Hockey hasn’t been challenged to this point in the season, out-scoring its opponents 35-4 in the first four games.

That will all change this weekend as the No. 7 Cyclones head south to face the defending national champions, No. 5 Central Oklahoma.

The Bronchos were the No. 1 team in the nation before being swept by then-No. 6 Lindenwood last weekend.

“Right now, [Central Oklahoma] just had a bad weekend,” said Cyclone coach Jason Fairman. “It would have been fun to play the No. 1 team. Obviously you want to knock off the No. 1. They still are the defending national champion.”

The Cyclones played the Bronchos four times last season, going 1-2-1, including a loss in the the quarterfinals of the national tournament. 

“I don’t think about it so much. The players may,” Fairman said. “I think we had a one or two-goal lead, and they got a short-handed goal and that sort of changed momentum. I thought we went toe to toe, and I’m not taking anything away from them, they certainly deserved to win the national championship.

“They went on an 18-game winning streak, I think, at some point during the year. I have a lot of respect for that coach.”

Co-captain Cory Sellers only played against the Bronchos once last season — in the national tournament — but that one game sticks out to him. Sellers said the whole team thought last season was the season to win it all. 

“You are always going to remember it, but it’s also a new year,” Said fellow co-captain Alex Stephens. “We have almost half a new roster, and I know they’ve got some new players too, so it’s a new game.”

The Cyclones have gotten plenty of production so far this season from the new additions. Freshman Tony Uglem is leading the team in scoring so far with five goals, including a couple of two-goal games, and leads a freshman squad that has scored 14 goals as a group. 

“It’s super important for [the freshmen to show up],” said junior defensemen Eero Helanto. “We need every guy on this team, every single guy.”

Helanto is not a big player at 5 feet 6 inches and 165 pounds, but Fairman said he is one of the hardest hitters on the team. That will be important against the Bronchos, a sizable team with hard hitters.

Sellers, who is 6 feet 3 and 215 pounds, is more of the prototypical defenseman and said the game was going to be a “war.”

Stephens echoed Sellers’ thoughts.

“It’s two good hockey teams,” Stephens said. “I’d call it more of a battle than physical. It’s kind of like when you say, ‘going to war out there.’ It’s going to be that kind of a battle. You have to fight for every inch.”

This series won’t be like last weekend’s when Missouri State came to town, and Fairman described the game that featured 44 penalties as an “embarrassment.”

This will be two good teams going head to head and fighting to climb up the rankings.

“They’re not a dirty team by any means,” Sellers said. “They play a pretty fair game. That’s the type of games you want to play in, though.”

In that series with Missiouri State, the Cyclones did suffer one injury. Fairman wouldn’t reveal the player.

“We got a couple guys banged up,” Fairman said. “One was a result of the goon squad that came in here last weekend, which I’m not too happy about — losing one of my top players to that.”

The Cyclones had trouble scoring last year, but they haven’t had any trouble finding the back of the net this season.

Even with their scoring difficulties last year, Helanto thinks the Cyclones were the better in their playoff game with Central Oklahoma — the outcome just didn’t end in their favor.

This year, that could change.

“I think we could have beat them last year, and I think we can do it now too,” Helanto said. “We have a good team this year. I really trust everyone on the team. So I don’t see why not.”

If the Cyclones plan on winning this game, they need to focus on what they’re doing this week and not look ahead to rival No. 2 Ohio. 

Beating the defending national champions will send a message to the rest of the country that the No. 7 Cyclones can beat anyone.

“I think we just need to worry about ourselves,” Sellers said. “If we go in there thinking that it’s the defending national champions, and we sit back [and] watch them play, and let them come to us, they’re going to walk all over us.

“But if we go out there and worry about our game, puck possession and focus on scoring goals and doing what we do best, I think we’ll be alright.”

The Cyclones emphasize puck control. Fairman said the Bronchos are opportunistic, and they could get on a roll if they see one go in the net.

“We’ve been working on our cycle. You get it in and keep it way from them,” Stephens said. “Wear their D-men down and that’s when you get a chance to take it to the net and put it in. If we control the puck, we will do alright.”

As big is this weekend is, it is still early in the season. The Cyclones have plenty of tests ahead of them, including Ohio next weekend.

Winning this weekend would be a step in the right direction toward the ultimate goal of winning the national championship.

“I seriously think we can beat anyone as we are right now,” Stephens said. “I think we have a team that, if we keep our mindset right and keep working hard like we are, I think we can beat anybody.

“The goal is to win the national championship.”