MINNEAPOLIS — Late in the second period Saturday, with Minnesota leading St. Cloud State and dominating play, it looked like the Gophers would be hoisting the MacNaughton Cup an hour later in front of their home fans.
The Huskies, however, would have none of it, scoring four unanswered goals and holding off a Minnesota six-on-four in the final minute to win 5-3, sweeping the weekend series and keeping SCSU in the race for the regular-season title and the top seed in the WCHA playoffs.
There were heroes aplenty for St. Cloud, including rookie Marty Mjelleli, who scored the momentum-turning goal with less than four minutes to go in the middle period. But the biggest difference-maker was netminder Bobby Goepfert.
“The whole thing fell right into his lap for giving us a chance,” said SCSU head coach Bob Motzko.
Goepfert made 39 saves, many through screens or from point-blank range, as the Gophers outshot the Huskies 42-27.
“That’s what goaltending does this time of year, and [Goepfert] was the difference,” acknowledged Minnesota bench boss Don Lucia.
With the Gophers up 3-1 after Blake Wheeler’s goal, Mjelleli started to unravel Minnesota’s dominance, surprising goaltender Kellen Briggs with a shot from the right circle that got through on the far side to narrow the lead to 3-2 after two periods.
Less than three minutes into the third, SCSU tied it up on a nifty two-man play. Operating below the goal line, Aaron Brocklehurst shoveled a backhanded pass to Gary Houseman, who lifted the puck just under the crossbar.
Nate Raduns completed the comeback by giving the Huskies the lead at the eight-minute mark. Raduns took a pass from Ryan Lasch, cut toward the net from the left side and whipped a low shot past Briggs for his sixth goal of the season and a 4-3 SCSU lead, its first advantage since leading 1-0 midway through the first period.
With five minutes left in regulation, Minnesota had a sterling chance as each member of the first line got a whack at the puck from close range, but Goepfert knocked down each attempt.
Finally, with Briggs off for the sixth skater and a power play on for Minnesota, SCSU kept the puck mostly on the perimeter, Goepfert kept on keeping it out of the net, and Matt Stephenson chipped in an empty-netter to seal the win.
Entering the weekend, Minnesota needed just one point to claim the regular-season title, but St. Cloud had goals of its own.
“Yesterday [a 5-1 Huskies win in St. Cloud], we didn’t want them celebrating on our ice,” said Goepfert. “And today it was, ‘We don’t want to see it at all.’”
After a choppy start, St. Cloud took the lead on Dan Kronick’s 12th goal of the season. On the power play, Stephenson lined up a shot from the right side that Kronick picked out of the air and redirected home at 8:14.
Six minutes later, Minnesota evened the score with a power-play goal of its own. A pass from Ryan Stoa found Evan Kaufmann parked on the back door, and two whacks at the puck were enough to get Kaufmann his seventh goal of the year and the Gophers a 1-1 tie.
For the rest of the frame, Goepfert kept the Gophers from getting more, including a how’d-he-do-that save with one second left, when he took a goal away from Kyle Okposo with his left pad.
Two minutes into the second period, the Mariucci crowd thought the home team had gone ahead on a turnaround shot from Justin Bostrom, but the goal was waved off by referee Derek Shepherd, as Jim O’Brien had bowled over Goepfert.
Minnesota continued to buzz the SCSU net, cashing in with Jay Barriball’s 16th goal. A cross-ice pass from Wheeler found the freshman winger crashing the net on the far side, and Barriball neatly redirected the puck behind Goepfert to make it 2-1 at 4:14.
Wheeler added the third Gopher goal himself, picking a loose puck out of midair in the offensive zone and going in alone. The sophomore stuffed the puck at Goepfert’s feet, and it bounded over the fallen goalie into the net at 11:19. Barriball, who helped free up the puck to start the play, earned the single assist, his 20th of the year.
That was it for Minnesota, though, as the Huskies gained strength en route to the win, starting with Mjelleli’s critical goal.
“I thought we came out and played really well the first two periods,” said Lucia. “Once they got that second goal, it seemed to give them some energy.”
“We had energy left,” agreed Motzko. “We certainly didn’t use much in the first period.”
St. Cloud (20-6-6, 14-6-6 WCHA) is now three points behind Minnesota (25-7-3, 17-6-3 WCHA) in the league standings with two games left for each team. To erase that gap, SCSU needs at least a win and a tie against North Dakota next Friday and Saturday, and must hope that visiting Michigan Tech can thwart Minnesota’s final push for the MacNaughton Cup.
Regardless of those outcomes, though, SCSU has raised its profile even higher as a very successful season nears its conclusion.
“I think we’re a dangerous team,” said Goepfert. “We find ways to win.”