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When last weekend’s tense and emotional series was over, and UMD had split with No. 1 ranked St. Cloud State, the teams lined up for the traditional handshake. St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson was last in the Huskies line, and almost every single Bulldog gave Larson a heartfelt hug when they got to him.
It was the proper sign that these two NCHC rivals might be ferocious as they battle for league and national supremacy, but it can still be a friendly rivalry. Every Bulldog who was recruited by Larson when he was an assistant coach at UMD through last season, came to appreciate his honesty and directness, and that appreciation is what they showed in the post-game line.
But the form-chart took some big hits in the process, as both games saw normally sound team defenses falling victim to key big plays that decided both games. UMD probably had no business winning the first game, because the Bulldogs were quite substantially outplayed, but showed championship form by making three huge plays for three goals and a 3-1 victory. On Saturday, the Huskies probably had no expectation that the usually air-tight UMD team defense would be susceptible to follow up its 2-0 lead by yielding a four-goal rally for a 4-2 second game Huskies victory.
The split leaves St. Cloud State in first place, facing another huge series this weekend when Western Michigan visits St. Cloud. The Bulldogs dropped behind Western and Denver and have a fight on their hands at Miami of Ohio this weekend to try to generate a stretch drive.
Larson was visibly upset after the first game, but maybe that’s because he hasn’t learned how to accept losing as head coach yet. The Huskies hadn’t lost a league game, and the way UMD snatched opportunities for goals by sophomore Nick Swaney in the first period, and by freshman Noah Cates and sophomore Justin Richards in the third, which proved decisive.
The goals were the kinds of plays where one team is sure they blew them, and the other is sure they made great plays. Midway through the first period, Huskies defenseman Nick Perbix had the puck, skating behind his net, but Peter Krieger, zooming in hard to forecheck, swung behind the net and virtually in one motion he swiped the puck going right to left, swung out and fed Swaney, who was coming hard down the slot. The pass was perfect, and so was Swaney’s one-timer. The play was in stark contrast to the flow of play, as the Huskies were outshooting the slumbering Bulldogs 8-2 until Swaney’s goal.
The Huskies kept the upper hand, increasing the shot discrepancy to 20-8 by the middle of the second period, and Robby Jackson tied it 1-1, and while it looked like AMSOIL Arena’s rink was tilted downhill, UMD goaltender Hunter Shepard was nothing short of brilliant in stopping 30 of St. Cloud State’s 31 shots. Being outshot 26-10 as the third period started didn’t faze the Bulldogs, however. UMD got a major momentum swing when defenseman Nick Wolff moved up and caught sophomore Huskies center Kevin Fitzgerald with a huge and perfectly legal hit in open ice. Fitzgerald went off and after Saturday’s game he was wearing a sling. “Broke my collarbone,” he said, eliminating the mystery of the official “upper body injury” explanation,
The impact was painful for Fitzgerald and the Huskies, but it also seemed to jolt the Bulldogs awake, and at 9:53, Cates skated in deep and battled Huskies defenseman Jon Lizotte for possession behind the net. Lizotte tried to carry it up ice just to the right of his own net, but Cates jostled the puck free, and it popped into the crease, just as Cates, in very un-freshman-like fashion, stepped in front of Lizotte and whacked it past goalie David Hrenak for a 2-1 UMD lead.
With two minutes remaining, Larson was plotting when to pull Hrenak, but right then, St. Cloud’s Easton Brodzinski tried to zip a pass across the slot from the right boards in the UMD zone. The puck hit Richards right in the shinned and bounced straight out ahead. Richards accelerated hard to beat the surprised defense and had, basically, a 150-foot breakaway. One little deke and he shot past Hrenak with 1:38 left, and despite being outshot 31-18 for the game, UMD won 3-1.
“Good teams find a way to win games like that,” said Larson. “I was happy with the way we played for the most part, but when you get as many opportunities as we had and don’t finish, this is what can happen.”
UMD coach Scott Sandelin said, “We forced three turnovers, and we were outstanding on the forecheck on those plays. But our best player was our goaltender, and it’s a good thing. They didn’t need to pick three stars tonight; Shep was No. 1, 2 and 3.”
Sandelin, just back from the silver medal U.S. Junior assistant coaching task, had the younger Cates brother as one of his players in Vancouver. In his first game back, Sandelin juggled lines, taking freshman Cole Koepke off the most productive line of the first half and putting Riley Tufte in his place, at left wing with Richards and Parker Mackay, and he put Cates at left wing with center Krieger and Swaney on what is generally considered the top line. The goals by Swaney and Cates made the move productive.
In the Saturday rematch, it was Larson doing the juggling, because he lost two centers in Friday’s game. So he put Ryan Poehling, the MVP for Team USA’s junior team, at center with his brothers, twins Jack and Nick Poehling.
Game 2 started out predictably. Sandelin got his message through and the Bulldogs came out flying. Richards and Mackay forechecked the puck free behind the St. Cloud goal, and Mackay snapped a backhand pass out toward the circle, where Tufte’s 6-foot-6 frame was looming, and Tufte quickly put it away at 3:13. At 12:10 of the first, UMND got a power play, and Dylan Samberg shot low and hard from the right circle. Hrenak blocked it, but Richards knocked in the rebound for a 2-0 UMD lead.
The Huskies, however, are No. 1 for good reason. “The thing that impressed me the most was that we didn’t lose our composure when it was 2-0,” said Larson. The poise paid off, and Spencer Meier, a 6-4 freshman defenseman from Sartell, scored his first collegiate goal on a power play at 17:51, and 49 seconds later, a weird misplay gave the Huskies a tie. Wolff freed the puck on his own end boards and chipped a pass ahead to Mackay, and the captain made a surprising but blind pass toward the slot. Huskies defenseman Jimmy Schuldt was right there, and he blasted a 20-foot one-timer past Shepard for the 2-2 deadlock.
At the start of the third period, Brodzinski got the puck and made a dazzling move to get around Wolff in the slot, then beat Shepard with another slick move and put his shot in from the crease for a 3-2 Huskies lead at 3:25.
With time running out in the second period, Perunovich knocked Ryan Poehling down along the side boards, and next thing was that three Poehling brothers were coming after him. Showing absolutely no flair for the dramatic, the officials only penalized Nick Poehling and Perunovich, missing an ESPN Sports Center moment by not sending all three brothers to the penalty box.
Late in the third period, it was UMD’s turn to pull the goalie, but with 1:59 left, Robby Jackson found himself all alone in front with the rebound of a Patrick Newell shot and his goal from the crease clinched the 4-2 victory. UMD had a 32-22 edge in shots, but for the second night in a row, the team getting outshot was the better opportunist.
“We started off the way we had to play,” said Sandelin, “but we weren’t willing to do it for 60 minutes. We played hard in the third period, but not hard enough. That’s not good enough, and it’s not good enough to move up in the standings.”