MINNEAPOLIS — For a moment Saturday, St. Cloud State had a chance to get back in its playoff series with Minnesota. Then the Gophers’ Troy Riddle slammed the door on the Huskies’ season.
With Minnesota up just 3-2 after giving up a shorthanded goal early in the third period, Riddle scored his second goal of the game on the same power play, then — after a Grant Potulny man-advantage tally — completed a hat trick to turn the game into a rout.
From there, Minnesota coasted home for a 7-3 win and a series sweep. The Gophers (24-13-3) won four straight games against the Huskies (18-16-4), two to finish the regular season and two in the playoffs, to reach the WCHA Final Five for the sixth consecutive season after a 2-7-1 start to the year.
“They’ve got a lot of good, skilled players, and obviously they were asleep for half the season,” said SCSU coach Craig Dahl. “They woke up at the right time. Good for them.”
“You’ve got to allow a team to grow,” said Minnesota coach Don Lucia of the Gophers’ season. “We’ve won, what, 24 games and we’re fifth in the PairWise, and you get criticized because it’s not enough.”
The Huskies, meanwhile, will almost certainly fail to reach the NCAA tournament after losing seven consecutive games to finish the year.
“I don’t think that’s [an NCAA bid] in the realms of possibility,” said Dahl, whose team squeaked into the tournament last season.
Riddle’s hat trick and nine-point weekend nearly overshadowed another stellar performance from Ryan Potulny, who netted the first two Minnesota goals.
“Riddle stepped in this weekend and played the way we need Troy to play from here on out,” said Lucia.
Much of Potulny’s play was in tandem with Riddle. Time and again, the younger Potulny was Johnny-on-the-spot.
“That’s always been one of my strengths,” he said, “to see the ice, to use my head and be in the right position at the right time.”
Putting in a solid performance was netminder Kellen Briggs with 23 stops, several early in the second period when the game was still on the line.
“Kellen played well,” said Lucia. “He made some big saves.”
Early in the third, with SCSU’s Billy Hengen off and his team down 3-1, Konrad Reeder went in on a partial breakaway. Briggs saved Reeder’s shot, but Matt Hendricks tapped it home at the 24-second mark to narrow the gap.
But Riddle, already with one goal in the game, restored Minnesota’s momentum. On the same power play, Thomas Vanek’s shot hit a St. Cloud skate, handcuffing goaltender Tim Boron. The puck bounced to Riddle on the opposite side, and without a defenseman in sight, he roofed the puck for a 4-2 edge at 1:39.
That opened the floodgates, as the Gophers quickly scored two more goals to turn the contest into a rout. Grant Potulny scored off Barry Tallackson’s rebound on the power play, and Riddle completed the hat trick by firing home Vanek’s no-look pass from below the goal line to make the score 6-2.
“We were doing what we needed to do, and then it was bang, bang, bang,” said Dahl.
The officials were kept busy raising their arms and blowing their whistles as play turned chippy late, but the outcome was no longer in doubt. Afterward, following the Gophers’ traditional stick salute to the crowd for a sweep, the senior class returned to the ice for a second salute.
“It was a nice ending for those guys,” said Lucia. “Those seniors have meant a lot to this program.”
In the early going, St. Cloud State showed high energy. In the opening minutes, both teams threatened, including shots off pipes by both Hendricks and Minnesota’s Peter Kennedy.
Despite two Husky man-advantages, the Gophers controlled play, culminating in a power-play goal at 19:46. From the high slot, Keith Ballard saw Ryan Potulny on his right and the defenseman’s pass was on target, giving Potulny an open net and a goal.
Peter Szabo created the tying goal for St. Cloud at :22 of the second period. Digging the puck out of the left-wing corner, Szabo centered to an unmarked Brock Hooton, whose point-blank wrister nestled just under the crossbar for his sixth goal of the year.
A pass that split the Minnesota defense sent Joe Jensen in on a breakaway, but Briggs got his stick on the puck, then fell on it in the crease to end the play.
Boron returned the favor at the nine-minute mark. Tallackson came out of the corner with the puck and hit Tyler Hirsch driving to the net, but Boron slid to stop Hirsch’s redirection.
Just after a Gopher power play, Ryan Potulny got free on the back door to Boron’s left, scoring easily when Riddle hit him with a pass from the near boards at 12:52 to make it 2-1.
The Gophers added a third goal on the power play, Riddle’s first of the game, at 19:14. Ballard fed Ryan Potulny in front, and Potulny dished the puck off for Riddle, whose second whack at it ended up behind a fallen Boron to make the score 3-1 after two periods.
Then came Minnesota’s succession of goals to earn a visit to St. Paul next weekend — a prospect that might have been in doubt back in the fall.
“It’s such a long year that it’s never that bad, and it’s never that good,” said Lucia.
Minnesota will play its first Final Five game either Thursday or Friday, depending on the results of the remaining WCHA first-round series on Sunday.