PITTSBURGH – All season long, and unlike previous appearances in the NCAA tournament, the St. Cloud State Huskies keep pushing back.
After the Minnesota State Mavericks rallied for a third-period lead, SCSU had another answer and after scoring in the final minute to win their Frozen Four semifinal matchup 5-4 on Thursday night at PPG Paints Arena, the Huskies have advanced to their first national championship game in school history.
St. Cloud State, which had previously advanced to the Frozen Four in 2013 in Pittsburgh, lost 4-1 to Quinnipiac back then and had only advanced to two regional championships since then prior to this year. But after knocking out Boston University and Boston College in the Albany Regional – and losing Easton Brodzinski to injury in the process – this Huskies program, which only had five wins in the NCAA tournament at the Division I level all-time prior to this season, has already advanced further than any other team in school history, and they have their grit, determination, and their desire to go out and win for their fallen teammate in their favor.
“Fortunately we were opportunistic tonight,” Huskies head coach Brett Larson said. “When we got a chance we were able to bury it.”
Minnesota State, fresh off their first two NCAA tournament wins in school history and coming in with plenty of momentum on their own, didn’t appear ready for what St. Cloud State threw at them to open the game, taking an early penalty which eventually led to a power-play goal by Spencer Meier as he roofed a rebound.
“Not a great start,” Mavericks head coach Mike Hastings said. “They scored a power-play goal early. But I didn’t think we went away.”
The Mavericks started playing more aggressively over the last ten minutes of the period, generating quality scoring chances and keeping Huskies goaltender David Hrenak busy. After Seamus Donohue was caught holding near the SCSU net, Nathan Smith recorded the first Frozen Four goal in Mavericks history to tie the game.
St. Cloud responded just ten seconds later to snatch the lead back after Mankato appeared to be two steps slow following the faceoff after their goal. Nolan Walker found Kyler Kupka wide open on the backdoor and he deposited it into an open net to make it 2-1.
The Huskies built on their lead early in the second as Julian Napravnik committed a defensive zone turnover with Will Hammer picking it up and scoring from the left circle.
Then the Mavericks went to work. Needing a jump start badly, a Dallas Gerads shot left a giant rebound in front for Walker Duehr, who wasted no time putting it away to cut the SCSU lead in half. Smith scored from the slot for his second power-play goal a little over two minutes later, tying the game in stunning fashion. Mankato outshot St. Cloud 15-7 in the middle period and very easily could have taken the lead had the Huskies defensively not prevented second-chance scoring opportunities.
“We were playing hard, had good space, getting our bumps and stuff like that. We just had some momentum,” Smith said.
Mankato finally took their first lead early in the third as a beautiful centering feed by Duehr was knocked in past Hrenak. Momentum at this point was completely on the side of the Mavericks.
The Huskies weren’t done yet, though. Larson got his group together after the fourth Mankato goal and made sure they knew they could respond.
“We just talked about continuing to believe in what we had built,” Larson said. “It’s been a consistent message for a while now. And I think the guys believe in it and they stuck with it.”
With under just ten minutes to go, Joe Molenaar picked a perfect time to score the first goal of his collegiate career as he knocked in a sitting puck in the crease. He was inserted into the fourth line as Larson adjusted his lines following the loss of Brodzinski.
“I was excited to be in the lineup, give it a chance,” Molenaar said. “To get that goal tonight, it feels great.”
Then in stunning fashion, as SCSU was setting up offensively in the final minutes, Donohue let a shot go from the left point, and Walker was in perfect position in the slot to redirect it up high over Hobey Baker finalist Dryden McKay’s shoulder.
“I kind of found that soft spot up top, on the high tracks, as we call it,” Walker said. “And Seamus, he made a great shot on my stick. I was lucky enough that it went in.”
Hrenak finished with 25 saves for the Huskies, and McKay made 17 for the Mavericks.
The Huskies await the Minnesota Duluth / UMass winner in Saturday night’s national championship. UMD advancing would guarantee the National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) a fifth straight champion.
Meanwhile, the once-proud WCHA could be disbanded soon, but the Mavericks gave them one last chance at a national title with the school’s first-ever Frozen Four berth. Hastings couldn’t be prouder of his team writing history despite falling short of a title.
“I don’t think I can give them enough credit for what they’ve done for our program. And we’re going to remember it. And we’re going to learn from this experience and hopefully it will prepare us better for the next opportunity that we have,” he said.
SCSU power-play goal at 3:18: Spencer Meier (4). Assisted by Zach Okabe (16) and Kevin Fitzgerald (9).
MSU power-play goal at 16:09: Nathan Smith (8). Assisted by Akito Hirose (13) and Julian Napravnik (17).
SCSU goal at 16:19: Kyler Kupka (3). Assisted by Nolan Walker (13) and Sam Hentges (10).
SCSU goal at 2:40: Will Hammer (2:40). Unassisted.
MSU goal at 12:07: Walker Duehr (10). Assisted by Dallas Gerads (10) and Andy Carroll (6).
MSU goal at 14:24: Smith (9). Assisted by Sam Morton (4) and Hirose (14).
MSU goal at 4:18: Gerads (9). Assisted by Duehr (7).
SCSU goal at 10:14: Joe Molenaar (1). Assisted by Hammer (6) and Meier (11).
SCSU goal at 19:06: Walker (10). Assisted by Seamus Donohue (9) and Kupka (5).
Power plays: SCSU 1-1, MSU 2-2.
Shots on goal: SCSU 22, MSU 29.