ST. CLOUD, Minn. — If there’s such a thing as a moral victory in college hockey, Sacred Heart sophomore goaltender Jason Smith chalked one up in a 3-1 nonconference loss to St. Cloud State Saturday night at the National Hockey Center.
Friday night Smith was peppered with nine goals from a SCSU season-high 49 shots in a 9-1 loss. This time Smith earned the first star of the game by stopping 31 of the 33 shots he saw, many from point-blank range.
“The 9-1 score was an opportunity to see how he’d respond and I think he responded well,” said SHU head coach Shaun Hannah. “He’s got a good work ethic and he’s a competitor.”
“(Friday night’s loss) was a tough one to take but we knew we had to bounce back and respond and I think everyone in the locker room was ready to do that,” said Smith, who is a New Jersey Devils draftee, making him the only Pioneer with NHL draft status. “We came out there and we weren’t the same team as we were (Friday).”
SCSU senior co-captain Dave Iannazzo and junior winger Joe Jensen scored goals for the Huskies before SHU senior Barclay Folk tapped home a rebound 4:50 into the third period to give the Pioneers and the entire Atlantic Hockey Association hopes of breaking an 18-0-2 losing skid to WCHA teams. However, Husky forward Grant Clafton dashed the Pioneers’ hopes with 20 seconds left with an empty-net goal to seal the victory.
A night after scoring five times in a nine-minute span of the first period, the Huskies settled for one first-period goal. Iannazzo took a pass from Clafton at mid-ice and went coast-to-coast to the right circle, where he went far-side on Smith at the 5:55 mark.
After that, a combination of an effective penalty kill, missed opportunities and Smith saves helped the Pioneers kill off back-to-back Husky power plays that lasted over six minutes due to Pioneer defenseman Bernie Chmiel’s five-minute checking from behind penalty.
Smith barely got his right leg out to stifle a play where Billy Hengen set up Jensen on a 2-on-1 across the crease, to keep the one-goal deficit stable throughout a first period where SHU was outshot 12-2.
SCSU freshman forward Matt Francis, the only Husky forward without a goal after 27 games, had one of his best opportunities yet in the second period on a 2-on-1, but Jensen’s pass sailed behind him. However, there must not have been any hard feelings because Francis unselfishly set up Jensen moments later with a pretty drop pass in the slot for Jensen’s third goal in two games and his eighth of the year.
Smith made sure once again that it was the only Husky goal of the period. SCSU senior Peter Szabo, who was a healthy scratch Friday, tried to make a last-second move far-side from the right of the slot, but was stopped by Smith’s right leg.
After Smith shut down another quality scoring opportunity by Iannazzo from the slot in the third period, Husky defenseman Aaron Brocklehurst’s shot from the left circle went through the outside of the net near the left post, went in momentarily, and popped right out in the opposite direction, leaving Husky fans screaming.
The momentum swung the other way as Smith finally received some help from SHU’s stagnant offense. Husky goaltender Tim Boron made a rolling leg save on Pioneer freshman winger Nick Kary’s shot, but Folk was there to crash the net, and cut the deficit to 2-1 with 15 minutes left in the game.
The Pioneers then gave the Huskies some heart murmurs with a stand in the Husky zone late in the third. Boron needed to make a big save on a shot from the Pioneers’ leading goal-scorer Pierre-Luc O’ Brien from close range, before Clafton found a wide open net after Smith was pulled.
Clafton’s initial shot from just inside the red line clanged off the left post, but he tracked it down and polished off his own rebound to let some air back into the Huskies’ lungs.
“I thought it was a classic though, after the struggles we had scoring, we had an open net and what do we do — hit the pipe,” said SCSU head coach Craig Dahl with a laugh. “Luckily he chased down the rebound and put it in.”
The Huskies, who were 1-9-1 and had scored more than two goals only twice in their last 11 games before this weekend’s homestand, didn’t take Friday’s nine-goal performance for granted.
“I thought (the Pioneers) came out a lot harder and were a lot better of a team tonight,” said Clafton. “I think its human nature after you win 9-1 to lose your state of mind but (Dahl) did a good job of getting us focused to come back tonight. Nobody thought this was going to be a pushover for us; if anything you’re always thinking that you don’t want to let them back in it.”
Saturday’s victory capped off the Huskies’ first series sweep since Nov. 12-13 against Michigan Tech, which failed in a bid to drop the Huskies to last place in the WCHA standings after a 4-2 loss to Colorado College Friday.
“It felt good to get out there to give the salute to the fans,” said SCSU freshman defender Matt Stephenson, who finished with two assists. “We’re pretty happy with what we did this weekend. We got the ball rolling in the right direction because it’s been tough the last few series, so this is our starting point to our new season.”
The Huskies’ new season won’t be an easy one. Of their remaining 10 games, they will play six against nationally-ranked teams, and six on the road.