Article written by Blake Theisen
Friday did not start out on a high note for the St. Cloud State (SCSU) men’s hockey team as they got set to host the Minnesota Duluth (UMD) Bulldogs in the NCHC Quarterfinals.
First, it was news that starting goaltender David Hrenak would be out for the game with a non-COVID illness. Then, it was their Captain Spencer Meier being dealt the same fate just 30 minutes later. Before they even took the ice, it already felt like they were starting behind the proverbial 8-ball.
The Huskies coaching staff was hoping the missing players would give their guys extra emotional motivation. Spoiler alert: it didn’t. Junior goaltender Jaxon Castor made his 4th start of the year in place of Hrenak. Luke Jaycox, one of the hearts and souls of the team, drew into the lineup for Meier.
Once the puck dropped, the emotional motivation was there, at least for a moment. Eight seconds into the game St. Cloud’s Micah Miller delivered a bone crunching hit on UMD’s Matt Anderson. That spark lasted about five minutes.
The Bulldogs started to make their push. Noah Cates finally broke through Castor with a one-timer from Noah Cates, their captain, with 5:53 to go in the first period.
The Huskies hadn’t played well to that point, but still found themselves very much within striking distance. In the waning moments of the 1st period, Kevin Fitzgerald was able to tie the game at 1-1. Fitzgerald circled behind the net, got tripped by UMD’s Casey Gilling, got back to his feet, and hauled tail to the net to corral a pass from Micah Miller and beat Ryan Fanti.
Things were starting to tilt in favor of the Huskies. Having just tied the game, they also drew a power play at the end of the period. Duluth’s Dominic James took his 2nd penalty of the game at the horn and sending the 2nd period looking to take the lead.
Nolan Walker did exactly that for St. Cloud. On the ensuing power play, Walker redirected a Nick Perbix wrist shot to put the Huskies ahead 2-1. For a brief and fleeting moment, the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center was rocking. The Huskies were playing for their goaltender and capitalizing on their chances against Fanti for the 2nd weekend in a row.
Koby Bender turned things back for Duluth and did it in a hurry. Bender took the game over for a 7-minute stretch where Duluth blew the brakes off of St. Cloud. He potted three goals for his first career hat-trick all between 9:09 and 16:44 of the 2nd period.
“I thought UMD out competed us to get to the middle of the ice,” said SCSU Head Coach Brett Larson. “They got under sticks and under our coverage. We didn’t defend as well as we did [last weekend in Duluth]. I don’t like to use the term ‘gave it to them,’ because they did earn some of them, but a couple of those goals we just gave them. Blatant mistakes on our end.”
Blake Biondi made it a 5-2 Duluth lead with less than 3-minutes to go in the 2nd period after another Husky breakdown defensively. James entered the left wing for Duluth and pulled both Jami Krannila and Ondrej Trejbal to him opening an easy passing lane to Biondi who was all alone in front of Castor.
The Huskies gave up three one-timer goals, a tip-in, and abandoned Biondi in the low slot.
“I thought (Castor) played really well,” Larson said. “This wasn’t on him. He stopped the pucks he should and made some big saves too. I was really disappointed with our guys and how we left him out to dry.”
The Bulldogs outshot the Huskies 38-23 and outplayed them for a majority of the game. St. Cloud surrendered the middle of the ice at will and Duluth had numerous high danger chances.
Brett Larson didn’t feel that the defensive issues were something the Huskies could pin on Meier being out.
“Obviously he was missed. Normally that next man up mentality gets everybody going. You do miss your captain, but now way am I pinning this on just that. It’s a team game and everybody has to step up.”
The Huskies were never able to get to their game the rest of the night. Duluth cruised to a 5-2 victory and hold a 1-0 series lead in the best-of-3 NCHC Quarterfinals. The Bulldogs are looking to become just the 6th team to win an NCHC Quarterfinal matchup on the road. They’ll also need to sweep a team for the first time since November 26th and 27th if they want to head home without a game 3 on Sunday.
“Hopefully the one thing we correct is having some pride,” Larson said when asked about adjustments for Saturday’s game. “Have pride in the jersey and the program. To see another team come in and outcompete us for a good portion of the game, it’s tough to take. As far as X’s and O’s or changing systems, I don’t think that’s what we’re looking at.”