St. Cloud State came into their weekend playoff series against Western Michigan as the NCHC's top scoring offense and averaging 7.75 goals per game in four regular season meetings against Western Michigan. On Saturday night, they didn't necessarily show their offensive dominance in volume of goals, but showed their explosiveness with three goals in 1:48 of play in the second period for a 4-2 victory to complete a two-game sweep of the Broncos and earn a spot in next week's NCHC Frozen Faceoff.
The Huskies dominated the first period, swarming around the Western Michigan goal and generating numerous quality opportunities, but Western Michigan netminder Lukas Hafner was sensational and kept the Huskies at bay. Hafner's best save of the first period came on a wide open point-blank opportunity for St. Cloud State's Blake Winiecki that was stopped by Hafner. Western Michigan picked up the rebound and transitioned down the ice, capping off the play with a pretty 3-on-2 goal to take a 1-0 lead into the locker room at the first intermission.
But Western Michigan's lead felt tenuous, and at 10:23 of the second period, Robby Jackson finally broke through against Hafner with a rebound goal to put the Huskies on the board. Twenty-two seconds later, Jimmy Schuldt put the Huskies ahead when his wrist shot from the point deflected off a Western Michigan defender for a goal. David Morley capped the rally at 12:11 of the period when a Jimmy Murray rebound kicked out to him at the left circle and he put it back for the goal.
Western Michigan fought hard in the third period, but an extra-attacker goal with only 9.2 seconds left in regulation was all they could muster. Patrick Russell scored a last second empty net goal to cap off the win for the Huskies.
The loss ended Western Michigan's season. St. Cloud State, meanwhile, advances to next weekend's NCHC Frozen Faceoff, where they will either play Denver or Minnesota Duluth in a semifinal game. Even with a loss next weekend, the Huskies are guaranteed an at-large bid in the NCAA Tournament, and are currently in position for a #1 seed in whichever regional they are placed.
Notes and Thoughts:
-Credit Western Michigan for fighting hard this weekend, but St. Cloud State is a very good hockey team, and they really dominated long stretches of this game. The Huskies cycle the puck so well, and their speed and ability to pass the puck around the zone is just a poor match-up for a big, physical Western Michigan team.
Even when Western Michigan was clinging to their 1-0 lead up to the midway point of the game, it felt like a matter of time until the the whole thing fell apart and St. Cloud State was able to break through. That finally came on a gritty goal by Robby Jackson and the Huskies used that momentum to score the game's deciding goals.
-Lukas Hafner was tremendous tonight. This could have very easily been another eight-goal performance from the St. Cloud State offense but Hafner made huge save after huge save to at least give his team a chance.
-Big Mike McKee was whistled for two bad, unnecessary penalties in the first period, but made up for it by drawing one late in the second period. The Broncos had three man advantages once they went behind 3-1, and were unable to capitalize on any of them, which made their comeback bid even tougher.
-Overall, it ends as an unremarkable, and disappointing season for Western Michigan. The good news is some of the top offensive threats this year were young guys that will be back. Molino, Conrad, and Tiffels were consistently the most dangerous forwards all night. They'll bring in a strong crop of freshmen next year too.
-St. Cloud State moves on in the tournament. Next weekend doesn't mean a whole lot. The Huskies are almost definitely a one seed somewhere in the NCAA Tournament. Conventional wisdom is that whichever team between North Dakota and St. Cloud State is higher gets the Minneapolis regional while the other gets Cincinnati. Maybe not a huge difference, but recent history has shown there is a *huge* advantage for a one seed to play in their home state compared to having to fly somewhere.
11:31 Colt Conrad from Griffen Molino and Kyle Novak 1-0 Western Michigan
After Lukas Hafner made a terrific point-blank save on one end of the ice, the Broncos transitioned back up the ice and executed a perfect 3-on-2 rush that ended with Conrad getting the goal.
10:23 Robby Jackson from Jacob Benson and Ethan Prow 1-1 tie
Jackson was tied up by a defender in front of the net after a rebound came loose on a Benson shot, but Jackson fought through the check and was able to get just enough of the puck to flip it over the glove of Hafner for the goal.
10:45 Jimmy Schludt unassisted 2-1 St. Cloud State
St. Cloud State forced a turnover on the forecheck with a nice hit along the left half wall. The loose puck came out to Schuldt at the top of the point. He took a wrist shot that may have been deflected by a Western Michigan shot blocker and beat Hafner.
12:11 David Morley from Jimmy Murray and Joey Benik 3-1 St. Cloud State
The Huskies took two shots on Hafner that were both stopped, but after Murray's second shot, the rebound kicked out to the left side of the crease, where Morley picked up the puck and deposited it in for the goal.
19:50 Chris Dienes from Griffen Molino and Nolan LaPorte (short-handed, extra attacker) 3-2 St. Cloud State
Molino made a nice pass from the right face off dot across the ice to Dienes who snuck in from the left point. Dienes hit the wide open net with a quick shot.
19:58 Patrick Russell from Will Borgen and Kalle Kossila (empty net) 4-2 St. Cloud State
Off the ensuing face-off, Borgen moved the puck up to Russell, who took a shot on the empty net from the Western Michigan blue line to seal the game.