During his time with the U.S. National Team Development Program, Matt Hellickson was no stranger to games against other countries.
Now he is experiencing international flavor of a different kind as a defenseman on a team that has risen to the top of the United States Hockey League.
The Sioux City Musketeers lead the Western Conference with a 33-10-5-2 record, largely because of contributions from international players — and a big boost from a defenseman who spent the last two seasons playing in the league with Team USA.
The change of pace has led to some “grief, all in light-hearted fun,” from his former teammates with the NTDP. And, his new teammates don’t hesitate to remind him about certain results from some previous international meetings.
“Coming from the program to being on a team with international players, there really was nothing hard to get adjusted to,” said Hellickson, who leads Sioux City defensemen in points and plus-minus. “It’s actually been fun having them on the team.
“You can talk about some of your experiences and different tournaments you played in. Figuring out how many times you’ve played against each other and whatnot has been fun.”
By staying in the USHL for one more year before reporting to Notre Dame, to which he committed as a high school sophomore, Hellickson is now facing a team he went against while with Team USA.
With Hellickson’s help, however, the Musketeers look entirely different than when they were one of his opponents.
Sioux City was last overall in the USHL last year at 20-39-1-0.
Hellickson, from St. Louis Park, Minnesota, leads an all-U.S. defensive unit that has helped the Musketeers allow at least 12 fewer goals than every other team in the league. The 18-year-old — turning 19 on Tuesday — says the defense has gotten a big boost from one of his new international teammates, Latvian goalie Matiss Kivlenieks.
“Coming all the way from Tier III to play in the USHL, he’s just been outstanding,” Hellickson said. “Having a good goaltender is huge.”
Eeli Toivanen from Finland leads the team in scoring. Phillip Knies and Kristian Pospisil from Slovakia and Aepeli Rasanen from Finland rank behind him among the team’s top four scorers.
Hellickson and others have pulled it all together on defense. He has also contributed on the other end of the ice.
After producing just six assists in 55 games in his first two USHL seasons, Hellickson has four goals and 16 assists in 42 games for Sioux City. He also leads the league’s top team in plus-minus at plus-19.
Jacob Wilson, a 20-year-old veteran of 136 USHL games from Ballwin, Missouri, is second to Hellickson at plus-18 and third among the team’s defensemen in points with 19. The Arizona State recruit, who has played all but one of those games with Sioux City, often serves as Hellickson’s defense partner.
“Whenever Jacob Wilson has been healthy, we’ve played together,” Hellickson said. “I love playing with him. We just play really well together.
“We’re really good friends off the ice, too, so that helps. … It’s been really nice to have so much familiarity and chemistry with someone.”
Hellickson and Wilson are not only two of the team’s top three scoring defensemen, they also often lead the team’s penalty killing efforts. Recently, they’ve begun to pick up more power play time.
Carson Vance has provided 20 points. Anea Ferrario matches him at plus-13. Joey Matthews, Brady Ferner, Connor Mayer, Keegan Mantaro and Nikolai Lyssogor have all made contributions to a deep defense.
“We’re not a really big D corps,” Hellickson said. “I think our strengths are that we all move the puck really well. We’re not bruisers. We don’t blow guys up, but we all make good plays.
“We can all skate well, too, which I think is part of our defensive success.”
Story from Red Line Editorial, Inc.
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