Fargo to Tampa: Huskies, Gophers to battle for spot in Frozen Four
The teams split a nonconference series during the regular season, will meet with the season on the line on Saturday
FARGO — The St. Cloud State and University of Minnesota men's hockey teams played in games that were quite different on Thursday in the semifinals of the NCAA Division I Fargo Regional at Scheels Arena.
The Huskies (25-12-3) played in a physical game against Minnesota State Mankato, which ended up a 4-0 win for SCSU following an empty-net goal. But the Mavericks out-shot the Huskies 34-21, SCSU blocked 23 shots and were 3-for-3 on the penalty kill.
The top-seeded Gophers (27-9-1) trailed 16th-seeded Canisius 2-1 in the second period, but scored eight straight goals for a 9-2 win. Minnesota was 4-for-5 on the power play and out-shot the Golden Griffins 15-5 in the third period with several rush goals in the last 20 minutes.
It will be interesting to see how both teams react when SCSU plays Minnesota at 5:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line.
They’re on a heater right now.
St. Cloud State and Minnesota have split four regular season games in the last two seasons with the Huskies picking up two wins in regulation and the Gophers winning two games in overtime. The Huskies were the lone team to shut out Minnesota, the highest-scoring team in the nation (4.2 goals-per-game) this season.
St. Cloud State got 23 saves from senior Jaxon Castor in a 3-0 win over Minnesota on Jan. 7 at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. The Gophers picked up a 2-1 win over SCSU on an overtime goal by Logan Cooley on Jan. 8 at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
The Huskies are on a bit of a roll going into the game, having won four straight games behind the strong play of Castor. In those four wins, he is 4-0 with a 0.74 goals-against average and .971 save percentage. Castor is the first SCSU goalie to post a shutout in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff (a 3-0 win over Colorado College in championship) and the first to post a shutout in an NCAA tournament game.
"They’re on a heater right now," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said of the Huskies following his team's Thursday win.
He glanced at Minnesota Duluth coach Scott Sandelin, standing at the back of the press conference room, and talked about SCSU's charge into the regional final.
"They’ve had a tough stretch, they knocked Sandy off in three (games) and then they had to take on the green team," Motzko said. "They’re on a roll right now and playing awful well. They’re playing with confidence too and that’s one thing you can see with them."
The connections between these two teams abound, and not just because of their proximity and 30-year history as in-state rivals. Huskies standout forward Grant Cruikshank played for the Gophers last season. Motzko played for the Huskies and coached them for more than a decade, before going to Minnesota in 2018.
The Gophers rebounded from a 4-3 loss to Michigan in the Big 10 championship game to post the most goals by the Gophers in an NCAA game since a 9-2 win over Mercyhurst in 2003. Senior forward Bryce Brodzinski led the way for Minnesota with four points (three goals and an assist) against Canisius.
Leaders for Gophers, Huskies
St. Cloud State's leading scorers have led the way in the playoffs.
In the last four games, the Huskies' International Exchange Line of senior center Jami Krannila, junior wing Veeti Miettinen and junior wing Zach Okabe has combined for six goals, 13 points and three game-winning goals. For the season, that line has combined for 51 goals and 113 points in 40 games. Graduate student center Grant Cruikshank has also rediscovered his scoring touch with three goals and three assists in the last four games. Sophomore Jack Peart (24 points, plus-16) and graduate student Brendan Bushy (11 points, plus-18) and sophomore Josh Luedtke (10 points, plus-21) lead the defense for the Huskies.
"They’re a solid team. Coach said after the game they’re going to try to shut us down defensively," Gophers sophomore forward Aaron Huglen said. "We’ve just got to bring it to them, play smart and get a win."
The Gophers' top line of freshman center Logan Cooley, sophomore wing Matthew Knies and freshman wing Jimmy Snuggerud has combined for three goals and 12 points in three playoff games. For the season, that line has combined for 61 goals and 146 points in 37 games. Senior wing Bryce Brodzinski is fourth on the team in goals with 18 after picking up a hat trick against Canisius. Junior Brock Faber (25 points, plus-25), senior Jackson LaCombe (33 points, plus-10) and junior Mike Koster (27 points, plus-13) lead a deep group of defensemen for Minnesota.
Senior goalie Justen Close (24-9-1, 2.02 GAA, .927) is an All-Big 10 Second Team selection for Minnesota.
The Gophers will be seeking their 23rd trip to the Frozen Four, the most recent of which was last season in Boston when they fell 4-1 to Minnesota State in the semifinals. The Huskies are looking for their third trip to college hockey's biggest show. They lost 5-0 to Massachusetts in the 2021 NCAA title game in Pittsburgh.