For the fourth straight time, St. Cloud’s season extended into the first round of the NCAA tournament. For the fourth consecutive season, that’s where it ended.
Yet the Huskies’ mood after their 5-2 loss to New Hampshire on Friday night was one of pride that they had made the field that many years in succession — something only Maine and Michigan have also been able to do — rather than disappointment that they were headed back to Minnesota after another one-and-done.
“I thought this was our best game [of the four NCAA tournament games], as far as how we played for 60 minutes,” said Husky senior Ryan Malone. “The last two years, we played Michigan, and I think we were a little in awe.
“This time, we just went out and played hard … I know I don’t have anything left in my tank right now.”
That type of effort has come to be expected of St. Cloud’s six-member senior class, which accounted for 134 points this season, the team’s three leading scorers (Joe Motzko, Jon Cullen, and Ryan Malone), its top-scoring defenseman (Derek Eastman) and winningest goaltender (Jake Moreland).
“There aren’t very many seniors — and I don’t care what the sport — who can say they went to the NCAAs four years in a row,” said Husky coach Craig Dahl. “They’ve been a very fun, dedicated group to coach.
“There was a lot of intensity in our team tonight — no ‘give-up’ at all,” he continued. “I was very pleased with the effort. I told our assistants during the second intermission, ‘Hey, the mood on the bench is good. If we can pop one early, we’ll have a chance.’ They were dogged. They were out there trying to get something done.”
But in the end, the UNH power play (3-for-9 in the game) and Hockey East Co-Player of the Year Mike Ayers (35 saves) were enough to deny the Huskies’ celebrated senior class the opportunity to win the program’s first NCAA tournament game.
“I really wanted to come back this year and win one with these guys, because I’ve been playing with guys like [Motzko] and [Eastman] since Omaha [in the USHL].” said Malone, who finished his career with 56 goals, eighth most in school history. “But we came in and played well.
“It won’t be the same at the next level, with married guys and everything else you have. People always say that college is the best four years, and I’ve had a lot of fun with these guys.”
And Dahl, for his part, will certainly miss them.
“That’s one of my favorite things about being a college coach,” he said. “People might want to judge you on wins and losses, but I like being able to watch these kids develop. I’m a real believer in educational athletics.
“You look at Joey Motzko, and from the moment he stepped on campus he had his motor wound up tight and never stopped going, and he’s been rewarded for that. He’s really blossomed. And Jon Cullen … He weighs 165 pounds, and I think he gets more out of his body than anyone else I know. He’s been the perfect captain for us the past two years.
“I told these guys that I’m going to expect to hear from them next fall and winter to see how they’re doing … and to see if they have any advice for me.”
The story behind St. Cloud’s early exit was special teams. In a game between the Huskies, a bubble team that barely made the tournament, and the No. 1 seed Wildcats, St. Cloud proved itself the equal of UNH when the teams skated 5-on-5. Where the Huskies ran into trouble is when they tried to beat the Wildcats with one man in the box.
Giving one of the best power-play units in the country nine chances came back to haunt St. Cloud.
“If you look at the scoresheet, you can tell the difference in the game was special teams,” Dahl said. “We gave up nine power plays, they score on three of them — that’s the ballgame.”
The power play was especially important down the stretch, as the Huskies tried to get back into the game. Down 3-1 early in the second, St. Cloud pulled within one when Jeff Finger found space to Ayers’ right side and the puck found the back of the net.
But UNH’s power play widened the gap less than five minutes later. With St. Cloud’s Joe Jensen in the box for hooking, the UNH power play set up in the Huskies’ zone. Nathan Martz found linemate Steve Saviano at the left faceoff circle, and Saviano centered a pass to winger Sean Collins. Collins one-timed the pass, blasting it over St. Cloud goaltender Jake Moreland’s right shoulder, and moving the margin to 4-2 for UNH.
The next UNH power-play goal came in the third, and it fell into a category that senior winger Matt Hendricks described as “stupid penalties.”
With Hendricks off for boarding at 10:21 of the third, UNH’s power play was called into action again. Senior Colin Hemingway found Justin Aikins near the right point. His shot on net was deflected in front by Preston Callander, and the score was 5-2.
The Wildcats’ first power play was likewise the result of a bad penalty, with St. Cloud’s Mike Doyle in the bin for elbowing. That resulted in UNH’s second goal of the game, off the stick of Hemingway, and gave the Wildcats the lead going into the first intermission.
Perhaps the most telling comment came from Malone.
“Nine power plays — geez,” he said. “The way they move the puck around, they’re bound to score a couple of ’em.”
“Every time we made a mistake on the penalty kill, it went in the net,” Dahl said. “They were able to capitalize.”