COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Cheers roared out of the St. Cloud State locker room following its series-clinching 3-1 victory over favored Colorado College on Sunday night.
And the heavy steel door was closed.
The Huskies advanced to their first WCHA Final Five since 2002, knocking off the fifth-seeded Tigers and setting themselves up for a Thursday matchup against Minnesota-Duluth.
“Our WCHA Final Five is one of the best college tournaments in the country,” said St. Cloud head coach Bob Motzko. “For the kids to experience it and for the fans and the administration to get back is huge.”
“It’s been tough the last couple of years when we haven’t even been able to win a playoff game,” said Huskies junior Nate Raduns. “To come out here and beat these guys and make it to the Final Five was amazing.”
One of the most important victories in recent St. Cloud State history began in a tentative fashion, with both teams showing signs of playing in the third game of a grueling series. Colorado College generated a couple of quality chances late in the opening 20 minutes. Jimmy Kilpatrick got the best look at the St. Cloud net 15 minutes into the frame, but had his shot from the slot redirect off a defender’s stick and just wide of an open side.
The Huskies grabbed a 1-0 lead midway through the game thanks to a quick faceoff win by Konrad Reeder. The St. Cloud assistant captain drew the puck back cleanly to Aaron Brocklehurst at the blue line, where the defenseman let fly a hard wrist shot. The puck bounded off of Dan Kronick’s body and eluded Colorado College goaltender Matt Zaba, zipping underneath his blocker and into the twine to give the visitors a one-goal edge.
Zaba kept his team within a goal with less than a minute remaining in the middle frame thanks to a pair of spectacular saves. The junior netminder charged above the crease to cut down the angle on a Raduns one-timer from the high slot, then got enough of Matt Hartman’s rebound effort to escort the rubber just wide of the far post.
Zaba finished the series a hard-luck loser, allowing only seven goals on 90 shots.
“There are no words to describe how amazing he played,” said CC’s Brett Sterling. “He was the man this series. We did not win the games for him, and I feel bad for him.”
The Tigers took advantage of a loss of composure by Raduns at the end of the second period, however. The junior’s unsportsmanlike-conduct penalty for hitting Colorado College defenseman Brian Salcido after the horn gave the home team a two-man advantage on a fresh sheet to start the third, and CC didn’t disappoint. Chad Rau snapped a pass across the goalmouth to Brett Sterling, who buried the chance into an open side, knotting the score at 1-1.
“If you give CC a five-on-three chance, there’s a good chance they’re going to score,” said Raduns. “Sitting on the bench after they got that goal, it was resting on my shoulders. I was really determined when I got out of that box to do something about it.”
Raduns did something about it six minutes later, scoring his first goal since Feb. 18 — the eventual game-winning tally. Rushing up the left-wing boards, he sped past a defender and cut towards the Tigers net on a bad angle. Raduns fired a shot low on Zaba, collected the lenient rebound and chipped the puck over the goaltender’s right shoulder. The SCSU goat-turned-hero began his celebration well before the goal judge or the stunned crowd could react.
“In very recent history we have taken some penalties that have knocked us out of games,” said Motzko. “No one felt worse than [Nate], so for him to score was huge for him. I know it was.”
The Huskies added an insurance goal with five minutes remaining to solidify their victory. As the late trailer on an SCSU rush up ice, Matt Stephenson sent a long wrist shot just inside the right post to send his team on to St. Paul and force CC into a waiting game for a potential spot in the NCAA tournament.
“When we can get to that third goal we play better,” said Motzko. “That was an exhausting series, and to take that two-goal lead was huge.”
The game took an ugly turn with two and a half minutes remaining in the contest when Marty Sertich checked Stephenson head-first into the boards, drawing a delayed call from referee Todd Anderson.
Anderson did not make the call initially, but then issued a five-minute major and game misconduct to last year’s Hobey Baker winner. The call drew the ire of Colorado College head coach Scott Owens and marked an unsatisfying end to an unsatisfying series for the Tigers.
“It’s frustrating when you lose,” said Sertich. “We were at home and we felt good about our chances. We just didn’t execute enough and didn’t compete at times, and you can’t do that in the playoffs.”
Asked if there were any positives that could be drawn from the weekend, a distraught Sertich had little to say.
“I can’t think of any right now. If we get in, maybe the rest will help us. But the St. Paul Final Five is one of the most fun times of the year … and we won’t be there.”