ST. CLOUD, Minn. — So maybe there is a light at the end of the tunnel for St. Cloud State this season.
After taking three of four points from Denver with a back-and-forth 6-4 win Saturday night at the National Hockey Center, the Huskies not only beat a team that was picked by the coaches to win the league and entered the weekend ranked seventh in the nation, but they finally found that consistency that had been missing through the first 14 games of the season.
They got it in goal, where Jason Montgomery picked up his long-awaited first career win, and they got it in effort, putting on a 125-minute show over the weekend that most of the league had been expecting out of the Huskies all season.
They didn’t get the consistency out of the scoresheet, however, where the one constant has been the top line. And that line didn’t disappoint, continuing to be one of the most feared in the country.
Both Ryan Malone and Jon Cullen had hat tricks, Joe Motzko assisted on four of the goals, and the trio combined for a plus-11 rating as St. Cloud State got back to .500 on the season (7-7-2, 5-5-2 WCHA).
“It’s really a satisfying feeling to play like we did last night and then come back and win tonight,” said St. Cloud State head coach Craig Dahl. “I’m very pleased; we gave a very gutsy, gutsy effort.”
There were times when that trend of inconsistency seemed as if it were too overpowering to overcome on this night, but for every question Denver threw at St. Cloud State, the Huskies provided an answer.
Denver’s Aaron MacKenzie scored on the Pioneers’ second shot of the game just 2:24 in, but St. Cloud responded just 51 seconds later with Cullen getting his first of two goals that would elude Adam Berkhoel after hitting a defenseman’s skate.
But, unlike last night when the two teams only managed a pair of goals, the 1-1 deadlock lasted all of 1:38. This time it was J.J. Hartmann’s shot squeezing through Montgomery’s legs. Nevertheless, the Huskies retaliated again, with Malone swiping home a feed from Cullen past an outstretched Berkhoel with 26 seconds to play in the first, sending the teams to the dressing room knotted, 2-2.
“We showed a lot of character coming back the way we did tonight,” said Motzko.
Cullen ricocheted his second centering pass of a Pioneer defender 12:57 into the second to give the Huskies their first lead of the weekend, but that only lasted a little more than four minutes, as Jeff Drummond scored on a Denver power play to tie the game at three.
The Pioneers regained the lead just over three minutes into the third after Gabe Gauthier lifted a puck over Montgomery’s right shoulder. But the Huskies top line wasn’t done yet.
Cullen slammed home a puck in the crease after a blast from Motzko hit Berkhoel in the shoulder and waited to be put away, then Malone took a pass from defensemen Ryan LaMere and skated in alone on the Pioneer goaltender, beating him with a shot over his right leg.
Denver pulled Berkhoel with over a minute to play, but Malone iced it with a shot from the far blue line that found the empty net, producing a few handfuls of hats onto the ice.
“We know each other’s names awfully well by now,” said Motzko. “We just go out there, feed off each other and give each other room to do what we can do and sometimes people just have to grab on and go for a ride.”
The loss, which was Denver’s third in four games, left a bitter sense of frustration deep inside the north end of the building.
“When you’re hot, you’re hot and when you’re not, you’re not and right now we’re not,” said Pioneer head coach George Gwozdecky. “We had chances to score and did a pretty good job of following our game plan, but at the same point in time St. Cloud, their big line did a great job and kept them in the game and won the game for them.”
They will have some time to regroup before hosting the Denver Cup. The Huskies, meanwhile, play Monday in an exhibition game with a team from Italy.
Where maybe this time somebody else not named Malone, Motzko or Cullen can find the back of the net for St. Cloud State.