ST. PAUL, Minn. — Bob Motzko has been direct with two facts about his St. Cloud State team this season: Goaltender Bobby Goepfert has been carrying the Huskies, and they’re a group in search of three goals each night.
Each figures prominently into why the Huskies’ season is alive for at least two more days.
Goepfert, named the WCHA’s first-team goaltender earlier in the day, made a few more believers with a 36-save performance Thursday, allowing three first-period Huskies goals to spark a 5-1 victory over Minnesota-Duluth in the WCHA Final Five.
The Bulldogs outshot the Huskies 37-26, including 15-3 in the second period, but St. Cloud State got three-point nights from each member of its top line — Billy Hengen (two goals), Andrew Gordon (one goal) and Joe Jensen (three assists) — in sending UMD out of the playoffs in front of an announced 16,312 at the Xcel Energy Center.
“We needed our top line to score, they got (three) goals,” Huskies coach Bob Motzko said. “We needed our power play to score and our power play got back on track. Our power play has really been leaking oil. Bobby is what you saw tonight. He’s a great goaltender. He’s a fierce competitor.”
Goepfert was at his best in the second period, when he turned away six UMD shots from the area right in front of the net while the Bulldogs were searching for a potential game-changing goal that would have cut St. Cloud State’s lead to 3-2. That gave the Huskies, who likely need to win the playoff title to get a spot in the NCAA tournament, a semifinal matchup against top-seeded Minnesota Friday night.
“After the first period we had them against the wall a bit and they started coming back, so I figured the second period was going to be big,” Goepfert said. “They were going to shoot from everywhere and crash the net. I just had to really focus in the intermission and I knew what to expect.”
The Huskies (21-15-4) had reached the critical three-goal level only twice in their last 10 games before Thursday, so it was an early boost to have a 3-0 lead after just 12:55 against the Bulldogs (11-25-4). It may have been even bigger considering the Huskies didn’t have the kind of energy they wanted and still jumped out to a big lead.
Hengen started it after 44 seconds, wristing home a loose puck after a faceoff on the left side of the zone. Nate Dey made it 2-0 on the Huskies’ next shot on goal — their third of the game — after beating UMD defenseman Jason Garrison on a rush up the left wing.
Brock Hooton got the Huskies to the coveted three-goal mark later in the first period on a power play, but Jensen made the play by spotting a gap in the defense and threading a cross-ice pass.
The Huskies are 17-1-1 when scoring three or more goals this season, and the early success was a tremendous lift for a team that could be excused for being fatigued.
“We had one key tonight, and it was get off to a quick start,” Motzko said.
Both teams were playing their fourth game in seven days after winning a WCHA first-round playoff series in three games on the road last weekend. Both also had travel delays returning from Colorado on Monday, making the week even shorter.
“They had so much more energy than we did in the first,” Motzko said. “We got a couple of goals but we still didn’t have the energy. We found it in the third period.”
Tim Stapleton scored a first-period goal for the Bulldogs, who had won only one game in 2006 before knocking off Denver in three games in the first round.
After that goal cut the Huskies’ lead to 3-1, the Bulldogs pressured the St. Cloud State end in the second period and ran out to a large advantage in shots on goal — 22-7 midway through the period and 26-9 after 40 minutes.
“We had chances,” Stapleton said. “At one point, I looked up at the scoreboard and shots were like 24-8 or something and I just couldn’t believe we were down 3-1. Goepfert was a huge difference in the game.”
Nate Ziegelmann, the Bulldogs goaltender who went from third-stringer to starter to UMD savior in the course of a few weeks down the stretch, recovered after allowing the three first-period goals, but Goepfert’s efforts at the other end made that a moot point.
“We just had some mistakes and they capitalized and that’s why they won,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “We had opportunities and either didn’t capitalize or Mr. Goepfert was there.”
Gordon put the Huskies in total control for the rest of the game with his team-high 19th goal of the season just 48 seconds into the third period. Hengen added an empty-net goal with 2:26 remaining.