NCHC Frozen Faceoff Notebook: SCSU coach gets emotional talking about goalie, Colorado College steps up
Brett Larson shed some tears when he was asked about Jaxon Castor's playoff performance in championship game. Huskies' big players come up big in title game. Tigers come up short, but gain experience
ST. PAUL — When St. Cloud State men's hockey coach Brett Larson was asked about Jaxon Castor's playoff performance in the last three games, he shed some tears as he talked about the senior from Phoenix.
Castor made 17 saves on Saturday in a 3-0 win over Colorado College to help the Huskies win the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship Saturday at Xcel Energy Center. St. Cloud State (24-12-3), already a lock to make the NCAA Division I tournament, secured the conference's automatic bid to the national tournament with the win.
In three conference playoff games, Castor stopped 66 of 69 shots (.957 save percentage), which included winning an elimination game over Minnesota Duluth (3-1), an overtime win over North Dakota (3-2) and Saturday's shutout over CC.
HIGHLIGHTS: Castor's clean sheet backstops @SCSUHuskies_MH to 3-0 win over @CCTigerHKY in #FrozenFaceoff Championship Game— The NCHC (@TheNCHC) March 19, 2023
🎥: @CBSSportsNet #NCHChockey // #HuskyHockey pic.twitter.com/IwqrvngOgX
Castor was put into a tough situation last season. He had not played a game in almost a month and had made six total appearances when starting goalie David Hrenak caught pneumonia as the Huskies were heading into the postseason.
Castor took two losses to Minnesota Duluth and then a loss in the opening round of the NCAA playoffs. In those three games, he gave up 14 goals and had a save percentage of .852.
So when Larson got a chance to see Castor be named to the Frozen Faceoff All-Tournament Team after his team won its first NCHC playoff title since 2016, it meant a lot.
"The way last year ended, man it was tough," Larson said in the postgame press conference, fighting to keep his composure. "Social media can be really tough. It was really hard on him what he went through last year.
"To see what he's done this year — right from the St. Thomas game, Game 1 ... I've got to tell you, I was a little nervous that game," Larson said of Castor, who stopped 10 of 11 shots to win the opener. "I thought that this was a make-or-break game for Jax right in Game 1. We were in their rink and it was a tough game and they were all over us. Jax just showed up with a ton of compete and a ton of poise.
"From that start at St. Thomas to right now, I've been so proud of him with how much he's grown as a person and as a player. To be able to get through all that and come out on top. He's an NCHC champion right now and ... hmm, quite a difference in a year."
Saturday's performance gave him his third shutout of the season.
"It's playoff hockey and the guys, you can tell, are playing desperate and it's a lot of fun to play behind those guys," Castor said of his teammates. "They're blocking tons of shots for me and letting me see the puck and making it pretty easy on my end. It's been a fun ride so far. Hopefully, we can keep it going."
His other two shutouts were against Minnesota and Denver. The Gophers are ranked No. 1 in the nation and Denver, the defending national champion, is No. 3.
For the season, Castor is 13-7-1 with a 2.07 goals-against average and .920 save percentage.
"I think I've carried a chip on my shoulder all year," Castor said. "Obviously, that was not a way you want to end a season (in 2022), playing like that. You can look at it two ways. You can either embrace it and learn from it or you can let it bury you.
"It was a good motivating factor for me. It's been good."
To put Castor's season in some perspective, consider that he's 10th in the nation in goals-against average, 13th in save percentage and tied for 16th in shutouts. Since SCSU moved up to Division I, Castor's goals-against average is currently second on the program's season list, his save percentage is tied for eighth and his three shutouts are tied for fourth. All that and he has mostly split time with junior Dominic Basse.
Big-time players in a big weekend
In the biggest weekend of the season so far, the Huskies' top scorers all stepped forward.
The International Exchange Line of senior center Jami Krannila, senior wing Zach Okabe and junior wing Veeti Miettinen combined for five goals and nine points in the two games. For the season, that line has combined for 49 goals and 109 points.
On Saturday, graduate student center Grant Cruikshank had a goal and an assist. Cruikshank leads the team in goals with 22.
Okabe, who scored the game-winning goal in overtime on Friday, set up the game-winner on Saturday. He picked off a puck near the right boards and took a slap shot that went off Krannila and went past goalie Kaidan Mbereko for a 1-0 lead at 14:54 of the first period.
"I saw him going for a slap shot — like he often does," Krannila said with a laugh. "I kind of tried to get in the way to tip it. He missed the net completely and it wound up hitting me and bounced over the goalie. Good stuff."
Cruikshank played a key role in the last two goals of the game. He was standing on the back door when Miller won a puck battle behind the net and passed it to him from the other side of the net at 2:43 of the third period to make it 2-0.
Then Kupka stole the puck in the neutral zone, passed it to Cruikshank coming down the middle and Cruikshank passed it back to Kupka, who went in all alone, made a move and scored at 6:40 of the third period to make it 3-0.
"Those are two guys who are fun to play with," Cruikshank said of being on a line with Miller and Kupka. "Us three playing together, we want to suffocate the other team with our pressure, our sticks and our bodies.
"Micah made a great play just to stuff it. We knew it was going to be greasy type goals, right there in front of the net," Cruikshank said of playing against Tigers goalie Kaidan Mbereko. "Kupka had a nice little finish."
Colorado College makes a statement
In Kris Mayotte's second season as Colorado College's head coach, yeah, the Tigers finished seventh in the eight-team NCHC during the regular season. But Mayotte and his team deserves some credit for taking some big steps in the postseason.
After Colorado College finished 0-11-2 in its last 13 games of the regular season, the Tigers went and swept second-seeded Western Michigan in Kalamazoo, Mich., in the quarterfinals and then upended third-ranked Denver, 1-0, in the semifinals.
"I thought CC did a great job at the end of the year," Larson said. "To get to this point and play as well as they did down the stretch — going into one of the toughest buildings in this league (at WMU) to win a couple games and to win here, I thought they did a great job. It turned into a great game tonight between two great teams."
Mayotte is a former assistant coach at St. Lawrence University, Providence and Michigan. While the Tigers finished seventh in the standings, they also picked up a road win at St. Cloud State, a road win at Minnesota Duluth and a series sweep over Nebraska Omaha, the team that finished third in the NCHC.
"This is our program expectation," Mayotte said of reaching the tournament title game. "Even when we were losing hockey games, we knew we could beat anybody in the country. This is where we expect to be. This is where our guys expect to be. This is where this program belongs.
"It's unfortunate that we didn't get it done (Saturday) for the seniors. But for the guys coming back, now they know what it feels like. They know what it's about. Now all of a sudden, we do have the experience. We're not necessarily young in terms of seniors, juniors, sophomores and freshmen. But we're young in terms of winning, what that feels like and how you do it and how you do it consistently. We just played for a championship. That's a huge step. Yeah, we'll be back."
Conference tournament titles
For St. Cloud State, it was its third conference tournament title since the move to Division I. SCSU's other conference tournament titles were in 2016 (3-1, Minnesota Duluth, NCHC) and 2001 (6-5 in overtime, North Dakota, WCHA).
The Champs 🏆 pic.twitter.com/yPbDkmmcvq— St. Cloud State Men's Hockey (@SCSUHuskies_MH) March 19, 2023