DENVER — The one thing the St. Cloud State Huskies didn’t want to see this weekend was the MacNaughton Cup, and thanks to their 4-2 win over Denver Saturday night at Magness Arena, the trophy given to the WCHA regular season champion will remain hidden for one more weekend.
The Huskies used three third-period goals to rally from a 2-1 deficit after the second to hand the Pioneers only their sixth loss of the year. More importantly to St. Cloud, it stayed alive for the first league championship in school history.
“In between the second and third period we talked about how we didn’t want to see them carry that trophy around tonight,” said Jake Moreland, who started his first game in goal for St. Cloud in twelve games. “That was motivation for us.”
The Pioneers still control their destiny and can win the title outright with a sweep next weekend at North Dakota, but any slip by Denver could put St. Cloud in a position to at least tie them. The Huskies close with a home-and-home series with Minnesota.
But forget about that, let’s get to the game.
St. Cloud jumped ahead in the first on a power-play goal off the stick of Mike Doyle near the end of the period. The play started when Mark Hartigan picked up the puck in the neutral zone, skated in to the Denver end and created a two-on-one, he moved to his left and slid a pass to Doyle who buried it over Berkhoel’s glove.
Denver retaliated in the second with a pair of goals. The first came while the teams were skating 4-on-4. Conner James skated down a free puck in the circle and beat Moreland clean with a wrist shot at the 9:33 point of the period. Then, with just under two minutes left in the period, Kevin Doell found Aaron MacKenzie alone in the slot. MacKenzie roofed Doell’s feed over Moreland’s glove to give Denver a 2-1 lead heading into third.
“We knew we couldn’t get swept this weekend,” said Hartigan, who would score the eventual game winner and assist on two other goals. “We needed to come out in that third period and establish ourselves.”
Which they did early. After Max Bull was sent to the box at 3:44 for roughing, his teammate, Greg Keith, met him there at 4:46 to give the Huskies a two-man advantage that they immediately capitalized on.
Hartigan worked the point and Ryan Malone camped himself just to the left of Pioneer goaltender Adam Berkhoel. The two played catch for about 10 seconds before Malone finally turned and one-timed home a shot that squeezed through Berkhoel’s legs.
Then, at the 8:17 mark, Hartigan tipped a soft shot from defensemen Ryan LaMere through Berkhoel’s five-hole to give the Huskies the lead again at 3-2. Jon Cullen iced the win after intercepting a Ryan Caldwell clearing attempt in the final minute and sending it into an open net.
The Pioneers had an excellent chance to tie it after Jeff Finger went off for unsportsmanlike conduct to give Denver a six on four advantage in the final minute and a half, but they weren’t able to take advantage before Cullen’s empty netter.
“The last couple minutes were pretty crazy,” said Moreland. “I was just watching the clock tick down and hoping we would get out of here.”
The comeback was the first against the Pioneers all season long. Entering the night, they were 27-0 after having the lead in a game.
“[Nate] DiCasmirro pointed that out to me when the put it up on the board in the third,” said Hartigan. “But you know what he said, ‘Nobody’s perfect.’”
St. Cloud outshot Denver 40-27 for the game and 15-7 in that decisive third period, a stat head coach Craig Dahl said exemplified how his guys played.
“We dominated the game in the first and the second period,” said Dahl. “I said to the guys there was no way we weren’t going to do it in the third.”
The Huskies now must gear up for a series with Minnesota, a weekend that is always emotional around Central Minnesota. If they want to win that MacNaughton cup they know they are going to need some help from North Dakota, but they said they plan not to concentrate on that.
“It creeps into your mind every one and awhile, but if we start worrying about what North Dakota is going to do we’ll forget about ourselves and we can’t do that,” said Hartigan. “We need to worry about Minnesota, and if we can get a sweep and North Dakota steels one, perfect, but if not, we’ll just move on to our next goal.”
Which will probably mean another match up with Denver, and to all those that attended this weekend’s match up of the nations top-two teams, that might be all right.