DULUTH, Minn. — The start and finish were what the St. Cloud State men's hockey team was looking for.
The majority of the second period was like finding an overdue credit card bill on your desk while the Huskies were trying to find their set of keys.
"I was happy with our start, I was happy with our finish, but it was that middle portion that we needed to clean up tonight," Larson said.
The beginning and end were good enough to help No. 6/7-ranked SCSU to a 4-3 win over fifth-ranked Minnesota Duluth in an NCHC game at Amsoil Arena. It was the third straight game played between the instate rivals and it was the Bulldogs' first home game since they beat the Huskies in the final regular season game of last season on March 7.
The Huskies scored the first two goals of the game and the last two goals to pad their lead in the conference race. St. Cloud State (8-4-0-1-2-0 NCHC, 8-4-0 overall) has 25 points, five ahead of the Bulldogs (6-4-2-1-0-1, 6-4-2) and North Dakota (7-2-1-2-0-0, 7-2-1).
"It was a huge three points and we have 25 points now in the standings and are in first place," said Huskies junior center Nolan Walker, who had a goal, an assist and was a plus-2. "Any win in this league is great, especially against Duluth, a well-coached team and they play similar to us.
"Last year, we only had 33 points," said Walker, whose team was 10-12-2-1 and finished in fifth place in the NCHC. "We've improved a lot so far this year and we're only just getting started."
2 tip-in goals
Kevin Fitzgerald, a senior wing from Oak Brook, Ill., tipped in a pass from defenseman Luke Jaycox for the game-winning goal at 2:29 of the third period. Fitzgerald was about 25 feet out from the goal line when he redirected the puck past goalie Ryan Fanti.
"It's always an emphasis to get in front of the goaltender when the points get the puck," Fitzgerald said. "We look to screen the goalies and get that tip option up in the slot.
"Our 'D' are so smart We work on that a lot in practice. Great play by Coxy to get his head up there and find me in the slot."
It was not the lone goal that the Huskies scored like that in the game.
Jami Krannila, a sophomore center from Nokia, Finland, tipped in a shot from defenseman Spencer Meier at 5:33 of the first period for a 1-0 lead. The difference in the tip-in goals was Krannila was only a few feet out from the front of the crease when he tipped in his third goal of the season.
"We really worked hard at getting some traffic and getting some deflections," Larson said. "Obviously, that paid off for a couple tonight."
The bad stretch
Chase Brand, a sophomore from Nevis, Minn., scored a goal on a shot off a faceoff win by Walker at 19:12 of the first period to give the Huskies a 2-0 lead.
Typically, goals scored late in periods are momentum lifters for a team.
Instead, the Bulldogs got the first college goals in the careers of Luke Mylymok and Blake Biondi 42 seconds apart. Biondi's goal at 3:23 tied the game at 2-2.
Then Nick Swaney tipped in a goal from close range at 14:35 of the third period to give the Bulldogs a 3-2 lead. It was the fifth goal of the season for Swaney, a senior from Lakeville, Minn., and Minnesota Wild draft pick.
"I think they came out with a big push and got us back on our heels in the second period," Larson said. "We turned a couple pucks over and that gave them extended shifts in our end and we paid for it. There was probably a 15-minute segment of the game where they took it to us and outcompeted and out-executed us.
"Obviously, we got back to playing hard and north and getting to the net again. Micah Miller made a great play just driving the line and getting the puck to the paint and getting bodies there. That third goal was huge for us."
Big night for line
Miller got the puck in the neutral zone off a turnover, turned up ice and raced up the left side. He took a shot from near the hash mark to the right of goalie Ryan Fanti. Then Miller and Walker went to the net and Walker, who is from Anchorage, Alaska, was credited with his second goal of the season with 1:01 left in the second period to tie the game at 3-3.
"Micah made a great play in the neutral zone and we got a good stick on a puck," Walker said. "I was kind of the middle guy (on the rush) and I tried to get to the net as quick as I could. The puck bounced out behind Fanti. I got a stick on it and a foot and there were so many bodies. It was nice to get one in there."
Unlike the Huskies' late goal at the end of the first period, this one, the Huskies got some momentum out of in the next period.
"I think it was a big goal," Walker said. "They had three straight goals and we got some momentum at the end of the second and we finished off kind of a bad period. It wasn't a great second period."
It was a big night for Walker's line, who had Miller and Brand on his wings. They combined for two goals, two assists and were a collective plus-6 in the game.
"I thought that was their best game of the year. I thought they played together, played with energy and they made a huge impact on the game." he said of the line.
"It was kind of a breakout game for us," Walker said. "We had a lot of chances in the (NCHC Pod) bubble. We talked all week about sticking with how we play. Micah's a hard-nosed player and he gets to the net. Chase is very cerebral and can make plays. I think we complement each other. I think tonight we found each other and were getting to the net and putting pressure on their defensemen."
Penalty kill's good again
St. Cloud State was 2-for-2 on the penalty kill against the Bulldogs, who went into the game connecting on 22.7% of their power plays. The Huskies held the Bulldogs to three shots on goal with the man advantage.
The second power play for UMD came when Sam Hentges took an interference penalty with 4:02 left and the Huskies clinging to a one-goal lead.
"Those are the big moments of the game," Larson said. "When you're playing one of the top power-plays in the country and the game is on the line, I was really happy that our penalty kill could get it done.
"I thought we were able to find our game again in the third period. Give our penalty kill a lot of credit. They came through against a really good power play at a critical time."
No. 6/7 SCSU 4, No. 5 UMD 3
First period scoring — 1. SCSU, Jami Krannila 4 (Spencer Meier 3, Veeti Miettinen 7) 5:33; 2. SCSU, Chase Brand 1 (Nolan Walker 6) 19:12. Penalties — UMD, Matt Cairns (cross-checking) 13:21.
Second period scoring — 3. UMD, Luke Mylymok 1 (Louie Roehl 2) 2:41; 4. UMD, Blake Biondi 1 (unassisted) 3:23; 5. UMD, Nick Swaney 5 (Cole Koepke 5, Noah Cates 6) 14:35; 6. SCSU, Walker 2 (Micah Miller 2) 18:59. Penalties — UMD, Mylymok (checking from behind, major, game misconduct) 5:14; SCSU, Nick Perbix (holding) 5:47..
Third period scoring — 7. SCSU, Kevin Fitzgerald 4 (Luke Jaycox 2, Ondrej Trejbal 4) 2:29. Penalties — SCSU, Sam Hentges (interference) 15:58.
Goalie saves — SCSU, David Hrenak 6-12-9—27 (3 GA). UMD, Ryan Fanti 2-13-4—19 (3 GA).
Penalties-minutes — SCSU 3-6; UMD 3-17.
Power plays (shots) — SCSU 0-2 (4 shots); UMD 0-2 (3 shots).
Faceoffs — SCSU 31-21.
Referees — Cameron Voss and Tom Sterns.
Linesemen — Tony Aronson and Nick Biondich.
Three stars of the game — 1. Walker (SCSU), 2. Swaney (UMD), 3. Fitzgerald (SCSU).