Mark Hartigan had the puck on his stick, the goal in his sights and nothing to stop him.
And the shot went wide.
Nothing could better sum up the St. Cloud State Huskies’ finish this season than one breakaway in the game that sent them packing for the summer.
In the game and the season, they had the chances to get right back into the thick of things, but it just didn’t happen. Hartigan’s breakaway would have tied St. Cloud State’s NCAA first-round game against Michigan in the third period, just as a timely goal in any number of places down the stretch would have set the Huskies’ season straight.
No red lights; just red eyes. It left them scratching their heads, wondering where exactly things turned sour on them.
“You could arguably say that in March, we just weren’t the same team,” Huskies coach Craig Dahl said. “It’s puzzling to all of us.”
The thing that was most puzzling was the sudden dropoff in goal production. This is a team that, despite a fallout in scoring, can still call itself third in the nation in scoring offense. This is a team that was averaging more than five goals a game, tops in the nation, in early January.
Yet this is a team that could manage just four goals in its last three games — all losses. That’s why the end came so suddenly for the Huskies: an unexpected collapse from a strong offense.
“The interesting thing is, we did the same types of practices this year as we did last year when we were going so good,” Dahl said, calling on last year’s WCHA playoff title run as evidence.
“We did the same things. I don’t know why … they don’t know why. For whatever reason, that plus our goaltenders were only about 88 percent [save percentage] that last month … all those things conspire to go against you.”
The Huskies (29-11-2) were one win away from a second straight 30-win season. That they combined for 60 wins in the last two seasons is a testament to a strong program.
But the endings of those two seasons have been tough ways to enter the offseason. Michigan has knocked them out two years in a row, making them 0-4 all-time in the Division I NCAA tournament.
“When you look at the whole — 29-11-2 and the third year in a row in the NCAAs — it’s certainly good,” Dahl said. “The disappointing part was the lack of scoring at the end of the year. It had been so good all year long.”
Hartigan, the WCHA player of the year and St. Cloud State’s first finalist for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, is one of four players who won’t be back next season. He’s a junior, but he’s expected to sign a pro contract soon.
He scored 75 points this season, but none in the Huskies’ three-game, season-ending skid.
“He’s such a great guy and he just felt terrible,” Dahl said. “He felt like he had let the team down by not getting a point in the last three games. I really felt for him because he’s such a good kid and he really wanted to do well. … Sometimes you hit a scoring slump at the wrong time of the year.”
The Huskies will turn to a talented and decorated sophomore class to help fill the void. Three of the six players on the WCHA’s all-rookie team were from St. Cloud: forwards Mike Doyle and Peter Szabo and defenseman Matt Gens.
That gives the Huskies hope for a return to the NCAA tournament next season, but it’s no consolation right now for a team whose goals were dashed by a dearth of goals.