MINNEAPOLIS — On March 17, Minnesota and St. Cloud State played one of the most memorable games in WCHA Final Five history, a track meet that SCSU won in overtime, overcoming a late Minnesota rally to advance to the tournament title game.
Fifteen goals were scored that evening, and if Friday’s game at Mariucci Arena was any indication, a pattern could be emerging. The Gophers and Huskies put up another slugfest, this one a 5-5 draw as a crowd of 10,288 saw St. Cloud rally from three separate two-goal deficits before earning the tie on junior defenseman Matt Stephenson’s first goal of the season.
In the aftermath, both head coaches were surprised, and neither particularly pleased.
“I thought after what we’d done last week, we were a pretty good defensive team,” lamented SCSU coach Bob Motzko, whose Huskies had limited North Dakota to five goals in a two-game weekend series in Grand Forks.
“Right from the first shift, I thought we fought [the puck],” said Minnesota bench boss Don Lucia, adding “I didn’t think it was a very good game. I thought it was sloppy.”
With second-ranked Minnesota (8-1-1, 4-0-1 WCHA) leading 5-3 midway through the third period, No. 16 St. Cloud (2-3-2, 2-3-2 WCHA) took advantage of a pair of Gopher penalties to tie the game.
The first was a hold by Minnesota captain Mike Vannelli, and two seconds after the expiration of the penalty, Ryan Lasch brought SCSU within a goal, banking a pinpoint shot off the left post to narrow the lead to 5-4 at 11:28.
Gopher freshman Mike Carman then went off for interference, and again the Huskies capitalized. Stephenson collected a puck in the high slot and fired it past Minnesota goaltender Kellen Briggs to tie the game at 5 with less than four minutes to play in regulation.
“I don’t know if we were desperate because we were down, or if we just started to play better,” said Motzko of the Huskies’ comeback.
“Even when we were ahead in the third period, I was waiting for it to happen,” said Lucia. “We weren’t real good mentally.”
Stephenson’s goal sent the contest to overtime, where the best chance came off the stick of Gopher freshman Kyle Okposo, whose 10-foot stab was denied by sprawling SCSU netminder Bobby Goepfert.
Neither goaltender was particularly sharp, though each had his moments. Goepfert made 28 saves to Briggs’ 26 as each finished well below the .900 mark in save percentage on the night.
“It was one of those games where if somebody had played well, they’d have won by a couple,” said Lucia. “So maybe the tie was deserved.”
Early on, St. Cloud took the initial lead, then watched Minnesota tally three goals before the first period ended.
Skating four-on-four just over a minute in, SCSU’s Andrew Gordon found Grant Clafton unmarked at the edge of the crease on the back door, and Clafton’s easy tap-in was his first goal of the season.
Nearly nine minutes elapsed before Minnesota put a shot on net, but the Gophers’ first goal was in the offing. On the power play, Ryan Stoa’s sixth goal of the season came off the rebound of Alex Goligoski’s shot, knotting the score at 1.
At 15:02, Minnesota took the lead on a bit of a soft goal. Defenseman Erik Johnson’s pass from the point was received by Ben Gordon, whose shot trickled through Goepfert’s legs for his fifth tally of the year.
In the final minute of the period, Gopher rookie Jay Barriball continued his productive ways with his seventh goal. Operating behind the SCSU net, Gordon fed a pass to Barriball, who followed his own rebound by slipping the puck just inside the post to make it 3-1.
The Huskies, though, had no intention of going away. Early in the second period, an interference call against Goligoski put SCSU on its third power play, and Justin Fletcher drew the Huskies within one with a slapshot that eluded Briggs at 5:00 to make it 3-2.
However, Minnesota got that goal back on another rebound. Johnson’s shot from the right side caromed off Goepfert, and Okposo fired home the loose puck at 7:49 for his team-leading ninth goal of the season.
“We made one mistake in the second period, when we turned over the puck and didn’t get to Kyle coming down the slot,” said Motzko.
But on another SCSU power play, an SCSU three-on-one culminated in Nate Dey’s feed to Austrian rookie Andreas Nodl. Nodl’s one-timer beat Briggs high and inside the right post to narrow the Gopher edge to 4-3.
Less than a minute into the third period, a loose puck in the neutral zone turned into another three-on-one for the Huskies, but Lasch missed the net on a point-blank shot. That left the Gophers clinging to their one-goal lead, which again became two when Blake Wheeler took a return pass from Gordon and potted his sixth goal of the season at 5:00.
Wheeler’s goal was Minnesota’s last, setting up the St. Cloud rally.
“It was kind of a comedy of errors tonight,” said Lucia. “We’ve just got to eat, get some sleep and come back tomorrow.”
Minnesota and St. Cloud State finish the home-and-home series Saturday night at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.