Hatten: Top-ranked Minnesota ends an SCSU season that few expected
The Huskies went into 2022-23 with no idea who was going to play goal, looking to replace 44% of their goal scoring and 5 of their top 8 point producers. They won 25 games, reached regional final.
FARGO — The end of any season that does not end with a national championship hurts.
But the fact that the St. Cloud State men's hockey team was a legitimate contender for an NCAA Division I title in 2022-23 says much about the Huskies and their coaching staff.
The Huskies tried to rally and it was a one-goal game with eight minutes left, but top-ranked Minnesota pulled away for a 4-1 win for the Fargo Regional championship on Saturday before a loud crowd of 5,326 at Scheels Arena.
The Gophers (28-9-1) play Boston University (29-10) on April 6 at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., in the national semifinals. BU beat Cornell 2-1 on Saturday to win the Manchester Regional championship. Minnesota will be making its 23rd trip to the Frozen Four and will be looking to win its sixth national title.
St. Cloud State finishes its season 25-13-3 after winning the NCHC Frozen Faceoff to get an automatic bid to the national tournament. The Huskies didn't need the automatic bid. Even if they had lost the conference title game, they would have finished in the top 10 in the PairWise Rankings.
Find a goalie
If you take a step back and look at the big picture, the fact that the Huskies accomplished all that is rather remarkable.
Start in goal. The Huskies went into the season with no idea who was going to replace David Hrenak, who is all over the SCSU record book after playing in a record 146 games from 2017-22. Jaxon Castor, who gave up 14 goals in three playoff games in 2022 after Hrenak was hospitalized with pneumonia, ended up being a star in this season's playoffs.
In five playoff games, he was 4-1 with two shutouts, a .954 save percentage and a 1.18 goals-against average.
"I thought he played awesome in both (NCAA) games," fifth-year senior forward Micah Miller said of Castor, who had a 34-save shutout against Minnesota State Mankato in the region semifinals. "I just wish we could have done more in front of him. Even after he gave up one today, he kept battling. He was a great backbone back there. He just really battled and competed."
Spencer Meier, who is in his third season as the team's captain, was emotional as he talked about what Castor came back from after last season's postseason struggles.
"It's really cool, awesome to see," Meier said of Castor's play. "What he went through last year ... social media was ruthless, ruthless. I absolutely love our fans and they're great, but sometimes when you say that stuff on Twitter ... it was frustrating to see that.
"What he did this year, all year, man, did he shut those guys up. He's an amazing person. It was really, really cool to see what he could do and I just feel really awful that we couldn't get it done in front of him tonight."
Castor finished the season 14-8-1 with a .924 save percentage, 2.02 goals-against average and four shutouts. That's the second-best goals-against average in SCSU's Division I era (Jeff Smith, 2.01, 2018-19) and tied for the fifth-best save percentage (Bobby Goepfert in 2005-06 and 2006-07).
He split time with junior Dominic Basse during the regular season and Basse also had a very good season (11-5-2, .911, 2.30, 3 shutouts). Basse was a find in the transfer portal after two seasons at Colorado College.
"We weren't sure if we had a goalie who was any good," Larson said, remembering how the season started. "That worked out all right."
After last season, the Huskies lost 44% of their goals to graduation and needed to reload the power play. The coaching staff ended up getting center Grant Cruikshank (23 goals, 38 points, team-leading eight power-play goals) and defenseman Dylan Anhorn (25 points in 23 games) in the transfer portal and a number of veterans stepped up.
Senior center Jami Krannila (21 goals, 40 points, team-leading plus-23), senior wing Zach Okabe (18 goals, 36 points), junior wing Veeti Miettinen (12 goals, 36 points), senior wing Kyler Kupka (10 goals, 25 points) and sophomore defenseman Jack Peart (24 points) all had the best seasons of their careers.
"The three transfers came in and did great," Larson said. "We knew we couldn't replace (Easton) Brodzinski, (Nolan) Walker, (Sam) Hentges and (Nick) Perbix and all their scoring with one or two players. We needed everybody to pick it up to replace that.
"All those guys that we were hoping would pick up 5-7 points more a guy and we knew one guy wasn't going to come in and replace all those guys ... all of them did a really good job of getting us to this point."
When Larson was mentioning all the players they had to replace, he inadvertently forgot to mention Kevin Fitzgerald, who was the team's top center, top goal scorer, leader in points and an All-NCHC Second Team pick in 2021-22.
On top of replacing a number of key players, the Huskies battled a number of injuries throughout the season.
It started on opening night when sophomore defenseman Josh Luedtke suffered a concussion and missed a month. As a freshman, Luedtke led the defensemen in plus/minus (plus-17) and he finished this season on the top defensive pairing.
Senior wing Chase Brand battled three injuries. Kupka had to have an appendectomy and missed a month of the season. Meier missed nine games with an upper body injury.
Anhorn was on pace to being a legitimate top three candidate for the Hobey Baker Award. He was leading the Huskies in assists and minutes played when he broke three bones in his foot in a freak accident during warm-ups on Jan. 21.
The Huskies battled through a stretch afer that where they went 1-5-3 and social media was all over SCSU. OK, you don't just replace legitimate Hobey Baker candidates in the middle of a season.
Then look what happened. The Huskies won six of their last nine games, won their third conference playoff title (2016, 2001) and reached an NCAA regional championship game for the second time in three years and seventh time in program history.
Oh, did I mention that they won 25 games? Do you know how rare that is? Since the program moved up to Division I in 1987, this is the seventh time that it has won at least 25 games in a season.
"You're in one-goal hockey game to go to the Frozen Four with 8 minutes left" against the top-ranked team in the country, Larson said. "You work all season to put yourself in a position like that."
If you expected this Huskies team to be in that position before the start of the season, you should have put some money on it because the odds were against it.
SCSU in Region championship games
Michigan 4, SCSU 3
Wisconsin 5, SCSU 3
SCSU 4, Miami 1
Minnesota 4, SCSU 0
North Dakota 4, SCSU 1
SCSU 4, Boston College 1
Minnesota 4, SCSU 1
Minnesota 4, St. Cloud State 1
First period scoring: 1. UM, Bryce Brodzinski 19 (Jaxon Nelson 16, Mason Nevers 13) 6:40. Penalties — SCSU, Grant Cruikshank (tripping) 6:14; UM, Brock Faber (holding) 7:04; UM, Rhett Pitlick (holding) 14:13.
Second period scoring: 2. SCSU, Adam Ingram 8 (Cooper Wylie 5, Grant Cruikshank 15) 3:07 (pp); 3. UM, Logan Cooley 20 (Jackson LaCombe 26) 5:57. Penalties — UM, Matthew Knies (interference) 1:33; UM, Cooley (slashing) 3:14; SCSU, Micah Miller (hooking) 14:02.
Third period scoring: 4. UM, Jackson LaCombe 9 (Cooley 37) 11:44; 5. UM, Jaxon Nelson 9 (unassisted) 19:28 (en). Penalties — UM, Brody Lamb (hooking) 3:18; SCSU, Ingram (holding) 16:25.
Goalie saves — SCSU, Jaxon Castor 13-6-7—26 (2 GA); UM, Justen Close 6-8-13—27 (1 GA).
Penalties-minutes — SCSU 3-6; UM 5-10.
Power-play goals, opportunities (shots) — SCSU 1-5 (10 shots); UMD 0-3 (0 shots).
Faceoffs — SCSU 32-28.
Three stars of the game — 1. Cooley (UM), 2. Close (UM), 3. LaCombe (UM ).
Referees — Cameron Lynch, Chris Pitoscia.
Linesemen — Adam Wood, Stephen Drain.
Attendance — 5,326.