Northern Michigan looked like a team desperate to keep its season alive.
Minnesota State looked like a team playing a postseason game on its home ice, with a berth in the national tournament already secured.
The scoreboard showed the same thing.
Northern Michigan scored 76 seconds into the game, then again 24 seconds into the second period. The Wildcats tacked on three more in the second, chasing Hobey Baker top-10 finalist Dryden McKay to the bench halfway through the game en route to a 5-1 victory in a WCHA semifinal game at Mayo Clinic Health System Event Center in Mankato on Friday.
“You saw it out of Northern Michigan tonight, their buy-in to block shots, to defend, to get into the hard areas,” Minnesota State senior captain Riese Zmolek said. “We have to get back to doing that. When you do those hard things, no one likes to play against you. Northern did a good job with those little things that make a big difference in a game.”
The sixth-seeded Wildcats (11-16-1) broke open a close game in the second period, just as they did a week ago in a win-or-go-home rubber match in a first-round series at third-seeded Bowling Green. Northern Michigan scored four unanswered goals against the Falcons en route to a 5-1 win in Game 3 of that series.
Friday, they scored four unanswered goals en route to knocking the top-seeded Mavericks out of the WCHA playoffs on their home ice. Freshman goalie Rico DiMatteo — who joined the Wildcats out of junior hockey in January after playing the first half of this season for Lone Star of the North American Hockey League — has been the backbone of the Wildcats in the second half of the season.
Against MSU, he stopped 28 of 29 shots, including 12 in the third period as MSU tried to mount some kind of comeback. DiMatteo’s only blemish was a power-play goal scored by Reggie Lutz 2:49 into the third period.
“Going into the weekend we knew we had a tall task ahead of us,” Northern Michigan coach Grant Potulny said, “playing one of the best teams in the country — if not the best — in their home building, we knew we had to play a flawless game.
“From the beginning of the game right through the end, we had discipline in our structure and individually — staying out of the penalty box — and our goaltending was outstanding. Rico did a really good job of making some timely saves.”
Alex Frye started the Wildcats’ second-period barrage just 26 seconds in, when he batted home a rebound for a 2-0 lead. The back-breaker came at the 8:56 mark when Joseph Nardi’s shot from the high slot hit McKay in the shoulder and fluttered in. AJ Vanderbeck scored 2:09 later to make it 4-0 and send McKay to the bench, just the second time this season the WCHA Player of the Year has been pulled from a game.
Ghantous’ second goal of the game, at 12:57 of the third, made it 5-0 Wildcats.
Northern Michigan is now one win away from earning an automatic bid to the NCAA tournament. The Wildcats will face either Bemidji State or Lake Superior State at 7:07 p.m. Saturday in the WCHA championship game. It’s a long ways away from where Northern Michigan was a month into the season, when an injury-riddled lineup had been on an eight-game losing streak and had scored just seven goals in that span.
“The coaches did a great job of preparing us for Mankato,” said Ghantous, a 5-9, 170-pound sophomore who played junior hockey for the powerhouse Penticton Vees in the British Columbia Hockey League. “We knew it’d be a tough test, but one thing we’ve talked about is it doesn’t really matter what happened at the beginning of the year. We’re in the postseason and we deserve to be in this position.
“We’re playing with confidence and have the recipe for success.”
MSU senior Reggie Lutz snapped the Wildcats’ shutout bid with a power-play goal 2:49 into the third. The No. 3-ranked Mavericks (20-4-1) controlled play for most of the final 20 minutes, but it was of little significance by that point. MSU will now await their destination in the NCAA tournament. The tournament selection show is set for 6 p.m. Sunday on ESPNU.
“For us, you spend the entire year chasing the opportunity to be able to host in a final four situation if you can get through the first round of the conference playoffs,” Hastings said. “I don’t know if it’s a sense of accomplishment, or a satisfaction, but you have other teams that are playing for their seasons.
“I’ll put it as simply as I can, Northern was just hungrier tonight. They came out and took advantage of an opportunity. They got one past us and kept coming. We didn’t handle the punch in the nose very well.”
NORTHERN MICHIGAN 5, MINNESOTA STATE 0
Northern Michigan 1-4-0—5
Minnesota State 0-0-0—0
First period — 1. NMU, Andre Ghantous 8 (Joseph Nardi 20) 1:16. Second period — 2. NMU, Alex Frye 5 (Ben Newhouse 5, Brandon Schultz 6) :24. 3. NMU, Nardi 12 (Hank Sorensen 3) 8:56. 4. NMU, AJ Vanderbeck 13 (Frye 5, Schultz 7) 11:05. 5. NMU, Ghantous 9 (Nardi 21, Vanderbeck 12) 12:57 (pp). Third period — 6. MSU, Reggie Lutz 10 (Brendan Furry 6, Dallas Gerads 7) 2:49 (pp).
Shots on goal — NMU 8-10-2—20; MSU 6-10-13—29. Goalies — NMU, Rico DiMatteo (W, 7-5-1; 28 saves-29 shots); MSU, Dryden McKay (31:05; L, 19-3-0; 10 saves-14 shots); Ryan Edquist (28:55; 5 saves-6 shots). Power-play opportunities — NMU 1-for-2; MSU 1-for-2. Penalties — NMU, 2-4 minutes; MSU 2-4 minutes.
3 Stars of the Game — 1. Rico DiMatteo, goalie, NMU (28 saves); 2. Andre Ghantous, forward, NMU (2 goals); 3. Alex Frye, forward, NMU (1 goal, 1 assist).