PITTSBURGH — Nolan Walker’s redirection of Seamus Donohue’s shot with 53.2 seconds remaining in regulation broke a tie, giving St. Cloud State a 5-4 victory to over Minnesota State to send the Huskies to the national title game for the first time in program history.
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, who have trailed at some point in all three NCAA tournament games, rallying for victory.
The two teams entered the third deadlocked at 3-3 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 its first of the game.
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 Joe 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 and Molenaar scored goals on Thursday.
Special teams 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 its man advantages.
Minnesota State was whistled for the game’s first penalty, a hooking call to Brendan Furry at 2:12. And St. Cloud State took advantage.
Meier, the team’s captain, pinched in from the point and was 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. Kupka had 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, Duehr scored his 10th of the season buried the rebound of 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.
The loss was a difficult end to the season for both the Mavericks and their goaltender, McKay. The junior was the only Hobey Baker Award finalist to reach the Frozen Four after a season where he posted 10 shutouts.
Thursday was the first time all season McKay allowed five goals in a game and the first time since Dec. 28, 2019, when he allowed five goals to, who else, but St. Cloud State, a 7-2 loss on that night.