FARGO – It’s pretty safe to say American International College was going to remember their first-ever NCAA Tournament appearance no matter what happened.
AIC can now say they’re unbeaten all-time in college hockey’s biggest event. At least for now.
The Yellow Jackets disrupted the offensive flow of top overall seed St. Cloud State all night long, and they survived a late flurry to stun the Huskies 2-1 on Friday night in the second West Regional semifinal.
“Excited for our group. We had a script this game had to go a certain way. Sometimes that’s a tough pill to swallow,” AIC head coach Eric Lang said. “Extremely delighted for these guys right here that I get to spend another day with them.”
Zackarias Skog stopped 33 out of 34 SCSU shots, including 28 over the final two periods. AIC is within one win of an improbable Frozen Four berth after pulling off what may be the biggest upset all-time in college hockey history. Was there any doubt about how this would go down in the mind of Lang?
“Honestly, no,” he said. “We’re not here to win one hockey game; we’re trying to get out of this bracket here and that’s our mindset.”
As for St. Cloud State, it’s an all-too-familiar feeling. They won 30 games in the regular season, won their second consecutive NCHC regular-season championship and played very well in the conference tournament. Yet another season ends far too soon for this talented team after they went through the same thing as the top-seeded team last year in a 4-1 loss to Air Force.
“Congrats to AIC. They played a heck of a game tonight, and they did a great job,” SCSU head coach Brett Larson said after the game. “It’s honestly one of the best groups I’ve ever been around. I feel for them. They certainly left it all out there at the end.”
As has been the case in recent NCAA Tournament appearances, SCSU looked out of sorts coming out of the gates. AIC made them pay as Joel Kocur banked one in off goaltender David Hrenak from the left side of the net, giving the Yellow Jackets a quick lead.
“That was a big first goal,” Kocur said of his fortunate bounce. “I think we stressed having a good start. I wasn’t sure it was in off the start, but I was super excited.”
The Huskies pushed more offensively as the period went on, but AIC nearly doubled their lead in the final seconds as a shot from the point went in just after the horn sounded.
AIC withstood another push from SCSU to open the second, and they increased their lead to two goals after a Brennan Kapcheck shot from the right circle trickled through Hrenak’s five-hole after winning a faceoff.
“I came down the wall on the right side; got a drop pass from Blake [Christensen],” Kapcheck said. “I pulled it in quick, snapped it and it went off the goalie and went in.”
It took a funky bounce for the Huskies to finally get on the board. On their fourth power play of the night, Easton Brodzinski was credited for a goal after his shot deflected off a Yellow Jackets player and in with 10:33 left.
SCSU pulled Hrenak with under two minutes left, and as they made their final desperate push, the puck seemed to go everywhere but inside the net – on top of it, in the netting behind the zone, off the pipe, you name it. As the final seconds came off the clock, the celebration began for the Yellow Jackets.
American International College will tangle with the Denver Pioneers on Saturday night in the West Regional final as they look to continue the dream season and advance to the Frozen Four.
As for St. Cloud State, they’re left wondering what could have been as nine seniors graduate and other players such as forward Ryan Poehling could be on their way out too. Despite the season ending in heartbreak, Larson wouldn’t trade away his first season in charge at SCSU for anything.
“Number one, I told the guys I love them,” he said. “They worked so hard all year.”
AIC goal at 6:01: Joel Kocur (11). Assisted by Kyle Stephan (16).
AIC goal at 7:32: Brennan Kapcheck (5). Assisted by Blake Christensen (31) and Tobias Fladeby (8).
SCSU power-play goal at 9:27: Easton Brodzinski (16). Assisted by Blake Lizotte (28) and Jimmy Schuldt (25).
Power plays: AIC 0-2, SCSU 1-4.
Shots on goal: AIC 13, SCSU 34.