PITTSBURGH – In a year that has been about the next man up and showing resiliency for St. Cloud State, the battle-tested Huskies will now play for a national championship on Saturday night.
Nolan Walker’s redirect of Seamus Donohue’s shot with 53.2 seconds remaining in regulation broke a 4-4 tie, giving St. Cloud State a 5-4 victory to over Minnesota State in Thursday’s first semifinal.
They will face the winner of Thursday’s second semifinal between Minnesota Duluth and Massachusetts.
The Walker goal capped a wild third period and a crazy, back-and-forth hockey game.
The play developed as Kyler Kupka fished a loose puck from the left corner and fed it back along the boards to Donohoe. The senior defenseman fired a shot about 12 inches off the ice and Walker’s perfect hand-eye coordination produced the redirect over the glove of Minnesota State netminder Dryden McKay (17 saves).
The goal completed a third-period comeback for the Huskies, which have now trailed at some point in all three NCAA tournament games, rallying for victory.
The two teams entered the third deadlocked at 3 before Dallas Gerads started a two-on-one from the neutral zone for Minnesota State. Working a perfect give-and-go with Walker Duehr, Gerads stuffed the shot past David Hrenak (25 saves) at 4:18 of the third.
The 4-3 lead for Minnesota State was the first time the Huskies trailed in the game.
“With this team we’ve been able to bounce back all season long,” said freshman Joe Molenaar. “I think as the team we were set on sticking to our game and the best outcome would be the outcome.”
“That’s what’s special about this team,” said Walker. “Whenever we get down in a game, we never give up and we find a way to win.”
Though the Mavericks are known for their stifling defense and strong goaltender, St. Cloud State didn’t quit and with 9:46 remaining found the equalizer.
Will Hammer redirected a shot by Spencer Meier that bounced off McKay’s pad right to Molenaar, who potted and easy tap-in goal, this first of his collegiate career.
Molenaar was in the lineup on the fourth line wing after Kupka moved to the top line to replace Easton Brodzinski who broke his femur in the Albany Regional final. Both Kupka scored and added an assist while Molenaar scored one of the biggest goals of his hockey career.
“Kupka held his own on that line,” said St. Cloud coach Brett Larson. “He was able to play his game. He didn’t try to change his game and that’s what we asked out of him. And Molenaar went into a huge game after not playing for a while.”
Special teams have played a major role in the game. Both teams were perfect on the power play, St. Cloud scoring once and Minnesota State capitalizing on both of their man advantages.
Huskies captain Spencer Meier opened the scoring on the power play, pinching in from the point to be in perfect position to bury the rebound of Zack Okabe’s shot at 3:18 for the 1-0 lead.
Though it took Minnesota State until the 9:21 mark to get its first shot, when the Mavericks got a chance on the power play, they too capitalized.
Nathan Smith picked up a loose puck after the St. Cloud defense blocked a shot. Smith fired the puck through traffic blocker side on Hrenak to tie the game at 1 at 16:09.
The game wasn’t tied for long as Kupka provided the answer off the ensuing faceoff being in position for an easy tap-in when Walker feathered a nifty pass after freezing goaltender McKay. The goal came just 10 seconds after Minnesota State had drawn even on the power play.
Early in the second, the Huskies opened a two-goal lead taking advantage of a bad turnover by the Mavericks. Skating from his zone, Julian Napravnik made a blind, behind-the-back pass that went right to the stick of St. Cloud State’s Will Hammer, who promptly fired it high over the blocker of McKay.
Minnesota State, though, fought back.
At 12:07, Walker Duehr scored his 10th of the season burying the rebound of Dallas Gerads shot on an odd-man rush. Then, after a St. Cloud State penalty 45 seconds later, Smith scored his second of the game on the man advantage, cutting in from the half boards and firing a shot under the crossbar.
That set the stage for a wild third period and the dramatic finish that accompanied.
The loss is a difficult end to the season for both the Mavericks and their goaltender, McKay. The junior was the only Hobey Baker finalist to reach the Frozen Four after a season where he posted 10 shutouts.
Thursday was the first time this season McKay allowed five goals in a game and the first time since December 28, 2019, when he allowed five goals to, who else, but St. Cloud State, a 7-2 loss on that night.
Whether McKay returns for his senior year is unclear, but seven players in the lineup on Thursday were seniors who may or may not return next season for a fifth year. Coach Mike Hastings said seeing that senior class hurt after the game was difficult.
“It’s hard. There’s a group of upperclassmen in there, seniors, who have paved the way to get our program to where we are today,” said Hastings. “I want that group to be proud. Wounds heal, but they do take time. I’m just proud of what that group has done for our program, this team and our community.”
For St. Cloud, they will get the program’s first chance to play for a national title on Saturday. After last season, a year where the Huskies were below .500 but hoping for a postseason turnaround when the season was canceled due to COVID. That makes this win a little sweeter.
“Last year didn’t end, we never finished it. Who knows where we could’ve ended up,” Larson said. “We have a great group of guys I thought pushed this program to be better through a year where we lost 16 guys. Our senior group last year was a huge character group who didn’t get the chance to finish it.
“I think what they did was help build the foundation for this group. And this group is better off for that.”