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Pick a week, any week, and this weekend’s UMD at St. Cloud State NCHC hockey series would be the biggest story of the season.
Except this week.
This is state hockey tournament week at Xcel Center in Saint Paul, and the excitement and spectacle of the tournament takes precedent over even the colleges and pros. But that in no way diminishes what should be a sensational season at the Herb Brooks Hockey Center on the St. Cloud campus. In my opinion, published at various times this season, I’ve suggested that St. Cloud State and UMD are the best two teams in college hockey. It has come down to the regular season final series, and St. Cloud State has clinched the NCHC title, and is ranked No. 1 in the country. UMD is second in the NCHC and ranks No. 3 in the country.
Consider that the Bulldogs have had a great year as they attempt to defend their NCAA championship, having lost only 7 games in league play. But St. Cloud State, in the first year of former UMD assistant Brett Larson’s tenure, has lost only twice all season. That is incomprehensible, based on the strength and depth of the NCHC.
“It’s been kinda crazy,” said Larson, as he prepared his Huskies for a strong finish. “We’ve gotten a couple breaks along the way.”
Larson, a star at Denfeld and then UMD, has made most of those breaks. Before everyone agrees that Larson inherited a strong team when Bob Motzko switched allegiances and went to Minnesota, we need to look at Larson’s determination. When he first assisted at UMD, he helped recruit and coach the Bulldogs to their first NCAA championship, in 2011. Then he left to coach and manage a USHL team, just to add head coaching to his resume. When Steve Rohlik, who had assisted at UMD with Larson, got the head coaching job at Ohio State, he lured Larson to join him as associate head coach. While there, Larson helped recruit the players who have led the Buckeyes to become the only valid NCAA threat in the Big Ten.
Larson came home to again assist UMD, and, sure enough, he helped recruit the guys who are at UMD right now, and he helped the fine touch of lScott Sandelin win the school’s second NCAA title last year. Now Larson is head coach at St. Cloud. The Huskies played at UMD in January, right after the holiday break. UMD won the first game 3-1, and afterward, Larson was almost talking through clenched teeth afterward. Trying to loosen him up a little, said that if the Huskies were going to split the series at AMSOIL, better to win the second game because the bus-ride home would be a lot more fun. He laughed, and he did loosen up.
The Huskies did win the second game, 4-2, and I’m sure it was a happy bus-ride home. Then I read over the statistics and realized that it was January 11, in the middle of the season, and that loss to UMD was St. Cloud’s first of the season. No wonder he was perturbed! Brett hadn’t become a “good loser” because he simply hadn’t allowed the Huskies to lose.
Things haven’t changed much. last weekend, playing at Western Michigan, which was desperate to improve its stature for home ice in the NCHC, led 4-2 in the third period, but St. Cloud State’s Easton Brodzinski scored on the next shift, and with 2:52 remaining, Robby Jackson scored to tie it 4-4. And with 15 seconds left, Patrick Newell and Jackson got loose on a 2-on-1, and Jackson’s goal won it 5-4.
“That’s what I mean,” said Larson. “Twice we scored on the next shift when Western got ahead by two, and with 15 seconds left, the puck slipped out and our best two players wound up with a 2-on-1.” Amazing. And the next night the Huskies hammered Western 8-2 for a sweep, and they lead UMD by 13 points with a 17-2-3 record, going into Friday’s match while the Bulldogs are 14-7-1,. four points ahead of Denver as then strive to hold second place.
UMD swept Miami last weekend, winning the first game 4-2 with star sophomore defenseman Scott Perunovich out with a back strain. Without his ignition for the offense, the Bulldogs got it from freshman Noah Cates, who broke a tight, scoreless game with his seventh and eighth goals in the second period. After Phil Knies redirected Jonathan Gruden’s pass in a minute later, the teams went into the third period 2-1. Peter Krieger opened the period with a neat pass off the rush to Noah Cates, who made a late return across the goal-mouth for Krieger to make it 3-1. Ryan Siurioky again cut the gap to one with a deflection goal on a power play, but Matt Anderson countered at 8:04, letting the puck slide ahead to freshman Cole Koepke, who scored to clinch the 4-2 final.
The rematch was a strange one. Perunovich was back, and flying, but it was his partner, Nick Wolff, who set the early tempo, converting feeds off left-corner draws for a goal from the left point at 1:03, and another one 23 seconds later for a 2-0 lead. Wolff returned to his rugged style three minutes later, getting a boarding penalty right after Riley Tufte was called for interference, and on the two-man power play, Miami got goals from Josh Melnyk and Jonathan Gruden less than a minute apart to tie it 2-2.Tufte ragained the lead at 3-2 with a high-speed deflection of Dylan Samberg’s shot, making it 3-2 UMD and we weren’t even halfway through the first period!
Hutton scored during a Peruniovich penalty for the third power-play goal against the UMD penalty-killers who came in leading the country with over 90 percent saves, and the wild game resumed in the second period, when Samberg scored for UMD, but Gordie Green tied it 4-all for Miami, and Carter Johnson put the RedHawks ahead 5-4 at 7:39. UMD captain Parker Mackay came up with the equalizer on a Perunovich feed at 19:40, and nobody left AMSOIL Arena with the third period coming up. The fourth line was on at 6:43, when Billy Exell jammed the puck across the goal-mouth, left to right. Kobe Roth blocked it, and had to go down to reach back and knock the pick in.
The game tightened up in the rest of that third period, with UMD limiting Miami to two shots and hanging on for a 6-5 victory with a 39-19 edge in shots.
Everybody knows coaches hate such wide-open games, but Mackay, who celebrated senior day with his parents introduced on the ice before the game, put it in perspective. “Yeah, it was a little loose, but it also was kinda fun, for our last home game,: Mackay said.
UMD Women face Gophers
The UMD women tried it both ways last weekend, and found they both worked, for a sweep of their WCHA ploayoff series against Bemidji State. The Bulldogs jumped ahead 2-0 on first-period goals by Naomie Rogge and Anneke Linser on Friday, and held a 3-1 lead when freshman Gabbie Hughes offset a second-period goal by Emily Bergland. Bemidji’s Mak Langei closed the final margin to 3-2 with a goal with 0.4 second left — officially, at 19:59.
The next night, the Bulldogs tried it the other way — giving the Beavers a 2-0 lead in the first period, but Ryleigh Houston got one back late in the first, and Anna Klein tied it 2-2 in the second. Hughes, who leads the Bulldogs in goals in a remarkable freshman season, scored with a diving and sliding shot from the right side at 11:20 of the third period, and Linser converted a slick 2-on-1 pass across the slot from Hughes to make it 4-2. Bemidji State coach Jim Scanlon pulled goalie Laurie Bench with over 5 minutes left, and Haley Mack scored from the left circle with 5:05 remaining, but goalie Maddie Rooney held the 4-3 lead to subdue the Beavers.
As a reward, UMD gets to advance to the Frozen Faceoff at Ridder Arena to take on No. 1 ranked Minnesota Saturday at 2 p.m. in the WCHA semifinals, with Wisconsin facing Ohio State in the second semi. The winners play at 2 p.m. Sunday, with the winner getting an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament. Of course, Minnesota and Wisconsin are assured of slots because of their high ranking, while the Bulldogs need to win the tournament to have a chance to get in. That probably will mean beating Minnesota in the semifinals and Wisconsin in the finals. Some reward!