ST. CLOUD, Minn. — Jake Fleming had a premonition about Friday night, and midway through overtime, he found out just what it was.
The fourth-line, self-proclaimed grinder said he had a good feeling heading into Friday night’s series opener with St. Cloud State, and after a little over 62 minutes of hockey, that feeling was somewhere on the bottom of a pile behind the St. Cloud goal.
Seconds earlier, the senior winger scored the game-winner in overtime, beating Tim Boron with a second-chance shot and lifting top-ranked Minnesota to a 2-1 win in a wildly entertaining game before a standing room-only crowd of 6,685 inside the National Hockey Center.
In doing so, Fleming and the Gophers survived their first trip to St. Cloud in 21 months, and coupled with Wisconsin’s loss in Mankato, put themselves in a position at least to tie for first place in the WCHA with a win Saturday, when the series shifts to Minneapolis, where the Gophers haven’t lost in almost a year.
“I had a feeling it was going to be one of those nights where nothing was going in,” said Fleming. “I knew we just had to keep grinding it away and we’d eventually get one to go. Fortunately it was me.”
It almost didn’t happen. Fleming took a pass from Nate Hagemo at the St. Cloud blue line and skated in towards the net. His initial shot went off the skate of Justin Fletcher, but the puck came right back to him and he slid it in past Boron, who bit on the first shot.
“I’d like to think the first one would have gone in,” said Fleming. “But I got lucky and it came right back to me.”
“You’ve got to feel good for a guy like Jake,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia. “He does all the dirty work for us, like killing penalties and so forth, so for him to get rewarded like that makes you feel good as a coach.”
He had to feel good that Fleming had that much room to shoot. The first two-and-a-half periods didn’t generate much open ice, but as both teams got more desperate for the win, the game opened up.
Gino Guyer took advantage of what little open ice there was late in the first to put the Gophers up 1-0. Tyler Hirsch held the puck in at the blue line and feathered a pass to Judd Stevens, who hit Guyer in the slot. Guyer put a move on Boron, then tucked a backhand just inside the right post.
Danny Irmen found some more room late, but couldn’t get a shot off on a breakaway just as time expired. Casey Borer took a penalty on the play, but the Gophers failed to take advantage early in the second.
Instead it was Huskies who used the penalty to build momentum. After being thoroughly outplayed in the first, St. Cloud killed off Borer’s penalty and then got back in the game.
Matt Hartman tied it 5:07 into the second. Jerrid Reinholz had the puck in the corner, but Hartman picked his pocket, made his way into the slot and roofed a shot over Kellen Briggs’ glove.
The goal settled down the Huskies, and energized the capacity crowd that had been kept silent for most of the first 25 minutes. Both teams had chances to break the game open, but the goaltending on both ends kept the score tied at 1.
Boron made a big save on Stevens from point-blank range early in the third period. On the other end, Briggs stoned Dave Iannazzo after a pretty feed from Matt Gens.
Gens took a penalty with 42 seconds to play in regulation, and the Gophers nearly ended it a couple of times. Tyler Hirsch hit the netting on the outside of the net, then the puck came out to Andy Sertich, who fanned on a shot that would have been ticketed for an open net.
The power play carried over into the extra session, but again, the Gophers’ best chances missed the net. After it expired, the Huskies came down on a 2-on-1 rush, but Andrew Gordon lost the puck. The play moved the other way, and Fleming ended it, sending the Huskies and the fans home with an empty feeling.
“To be so close just sucks,” said Boron, whose 32-save performance was lost under the pile behind him after Fleming scored. “If you can’t get up for these games you shouldn’t be playing hockey.”
“It was a classic hockey game,” said St. Cloud State head coach Craig Dahl. “I told my guys, ‘That’s a team that just flattened Michigan and Michigan State and they are supposed to be two of the better teams in college hockey,’ so they have nothing to hang their heads about. I was very, very proud of their effort.”
Now, he’ll have to get them back up for a game that could be vital for the Huskies at this juncture of the season. The loss was already their seventh in WCHA play, and if they want to contend for home ice for the first round of the playoffs, wins are what they need.
“We’ll be ready for tomorrow,” said Boron. “After this, how can’t we?”
The 10,000-plus expected inside Mariucci Arena Saturday would probably agree.