MINNEAPOLIS — Jon Cullen has come full circle.
The prep standout was not a prize recruit — in fact, no one offered him a scholarship out of high school — but after a stint in juniors, Cullen found his way onto Craig Dahl’s St. Cloud team.
Friday night at Mariucci Arena, the sophomore center repaid Dahl’s confidence, scoring a natural hat trick in six minutes to help propel No. 5 St. Cloud to a convincing 6-1 victory over fourth-ranked Minnesota.
“What a great night for him,” said Dahl. “He’s been excellent for us all year long, and it couldn’t happen to a nicer guy … He’s really come into his own this year.”
“They [the Gophers] made a couple of mistakes at key times,” said Cullen. “I did the easy part.”
A candid Dylan Mills agreed. “We just made some really stupid mistakes,” said the senior defenseman. “A lot of it was backchecking — there were some pretty awful backchecks out there tonight.”
Also keying the victory was netminder Scott Meyer, who battled his way to 37 saves on the evening, including several during a Gopher five-on-three when the outcome was still in doubt.
By virtue of the win, the Huskies thrust themselves squarely into the mix for a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament. With the WCHA’s runner-up a strong contender for the second Eastern bye, St. Cloud is tied with Minnesota for second place in the league standings; the national implications were clear to both coaches.
“This weekend is important, but it’s not our total focus,” said Dahl. “Our focus is getting to the NCAAs in decent shape … It is important for the Pairwise [Ranking].”
The loss also denied the Gophers a chance at sharing the MacNaughton Cup with North Dakota, but that was never the focus, according to head coach Don Lucia.
“They know what’s at stake,” said Lucia. “We’re playing for the NCAA tournament, and this weekend was important for us to win the season series [with St. Cloud].”
Despite what seemed to be plenty of open ice, scoring chances were few in the opening minutes. That ended suddenly with a stunning series of Gopher miscues, each of which St. Cloud converted to claim a 3-1 lead after one period.
At 12:50, Cullen got his first goal off a clearing try by Ben Tharp. Tharp’s pass banged off Cullen’s stick to Ryan Malone, who drew Minnesota goalie Adam Hauser to one side before feeding it back to Cullen for the easy putaway.
Thirty-two seconds later, Cullen snuck behind the Gopher defense for another tally. Keith Anderson, on the right side, drew the defense his way and then whipped a diagonal pass that Cullen redirected just inside the far post.
Chris Purslow appeared to make it 3-0 moments later with a slapper from the left side, but the shot hit both posts before caroming out.
Instead, Minnesota showed some resilience with a shorthanded goal to narrow the lead to one. Freshman Jon Waibel poked the puck free, allowing Jordan Leopold a one-on-one with Meyer. The junior defenseman added to his national-best scoring totals, beating Meyer five-hole for his 12th goal and 42nd point of the year.
Cullen, though, struck again at 17:33 when Mills’ no-look clearing attempt went awry. With the puck along the far boards in the Gopher zone, Mills whipped it behind his body right to Anderson, who promptly centered a pass for Cullen, all alone on a line change. Cullen’s point-blank wrister under Hauser, his 14th goal of the year, completed the natural.
After two unsuccessful Gopher power plays early in the second, the next few minutes resembled a demolition derby more than a hockey game — especially once SCSU’s Duvie Westcott clipped Hauser and Gopher captain Erik Westrum flattened Westcott after the whistle in retaliation. Minnesota, in particular, had trouble just passing and skating, as the Gophers suddenly looked disoriented on the ice.
However, with less than two minutes left in the period Minnesota got its chance, as the Huskies took simultaneous penalties to give the Gophers two full minutes of five-on-three. With momentum, and maybe the game, on the line, Meyer came up big with key stops, and the St. Cloud penalty kill held the nation’s number-one power play off the scoreboard once more.
“That was the turning point in the game, I thought,” said Cullen. “The best penalty killer out there was Scotty [Meyer].”
“When you’re down 3-1 and you supposedly have the top power play in the nation, and you don’t score on a five-on-three, that’s pretty bad,” said Mills.
SCSU then put the game out of reach by scoring three more goals on three consecutive shots, each on an odd-man rush, in a two-minute span early in the third.
Purslow finished a three-on-one with a high wrister off a Joe Motzko pass to make it 4-1, and 26 seconds later Nate DiCasmirro outran a sliding Matt DeMarchi, centering Tyler Arnason for his 23rd goal of the season to bring the score to 5-1.
The Huskies finished the assault on the power play, with Cullen picking up his fourth point and Motzko his second by assisting Ryan Malone’s low hummer of a shot. That chased Hauser, who allowed six goals on 19 St. Cloud shots, in favor of Pete Samargia, who stopped three shots the rest of the way.
St. Cloud (26-8-1, 19-8-0 WCHA) would finish second in the WCHA with a win in the rematch, at the National Hockey Center Saturday night. Likewise, Minnesota (25-9-2, 18-7-2 WCHA) can claim the runner-up spot with a win or tie.
“We were playing for second place tonight, and now we’re playing for second place tomorrow,” said Lucia.