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Castor's 34 saves give SCSU program 1st NCAA tournament shutout, Huskies advance to regional championship

Huskies get goals from Miettinen, Peart, Okabe, Cruikshank, kill three power plays to advance.

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Minnesota State's Ondrej Pavel attempts a wrap around shot on St. Cloud State goalie Jaxon Castor during the NCAA mens hockey west regionals on Thursday, March 23, 2023, at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — Jaxon Castor was not available to comment after the game. Luckily for the St. Cloud State men's hockey team, his play on the ice spoke volumes.

Castor made 34 saves to give the Huskies its first shutout in an NCAA Division I tournament game in a 4-0 win over Minnesota State University-Mankato on Thursday at Scheels Arena. It was the 26th national tournament game for SCSU since it moved up to Division I in 1987.

The Huskies (25-12-3) will play the winner between Minnesota (26-9-1) and Canisius (20-18-3) at 5:30 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU) for the region title and a trip to the Frozen Four.

Castor made 10 saves in the first period, 13 in the second period, 11 in the third and helped the Huskies go 3-for-3 on the penalty kill against the nation's best power play (27.9% going in).

"It's awesome when you can have a backbone like that," SCSU sophomore defenseman Jack Peart said of Castor. "Pretty much any of the shots you give up from the outside aren't going to go in and a lot of the back-door shots ... he makes those saves, too. Huge relief to have him in the net. He played well tonight."

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It was the second straight shutout for Castor, who made 17 saves in a 3-0 win over Colorado College for the NCHC Frozen Faceoff championship on Saturday in St. Paul. After splitting time with Dominic Basse during the regular season, Castor has started four straight playoff games and gone 4-0 with a 0.74 goals-against average and .971 save percentage.

Going into the region championship game, Castor has not given up a goal in the last 152 minutes, 16 seconds of play. It has been quite a turnaround from last season when Castor was 0-3, gave up 14 goals and had a save percentage of .852 in three playoff games.

"Huge turnaround for him," SCSU coach Brett Larson said. "I think the fact that (the Mavericks) were all over us early and got a bunch of shots early probably helped him. It got him into the game.

"He made some saves early. They had some nice plays and they were in our end a lot," said Larson, whose team was outshot 10-4 in a scoreless first period and blocked 23 shots in the game. "I don't think he had time to think. It was, 'Holy crap, they're on top of us already.' I think that helped him settle into the game and play the game he did."

It was the second loss of the season for the Mavericks (25-13-1) in a game that Castor started. Castor, a senior from Phoenix, stopped 30 of 32 shots in a 3-2 win over Minnesota State on Oct. 21 at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.

"He makes it look pretty simple," Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said of Castor. "I want to give St. Cloud credit on their ability to take second and third opportunities away.

"I thought pucks stuck to (Castor) and when they didn't, he put them in good spots and we weren't getting a lot of second and third (chances). At this time, you need special goaltending to move on and he had a special night and I want to give him and his team credit for it."

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Minnesota State's Zach Krajnik checks St. Cloud State's Grant Ahcan during the NCAA mens hockey west regionals on Thursday, March 23, 2023, at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
David Samson/The Forum

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Second period the difference

The Mavericks had a lot of momentum after the first period and went on the power play at 6:06 of the second period. The Huskies killed the penalty and then went on the power play when the Mavericks' Brendan Furry took a holding penalty at 11:44.

The Huskies capitalized and got the lone goal they would need when junior wing Veeti Miettinen's shot made it through a screen at 12:30.

"We made a good play there with (Grant) Cruikshank going to the middle to give me some support," said Miettinen, a Toronto Maple Leafs draft pick. "I had a lot of room there and I saw (Kyler Kupka) going to the net and I just waited for that and I just shot the puck and it went in."

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SCSU made it 2-0 on a good hustle play by the line of freshman wings Jack Rogers and Grant Ahcan with graduate student center Aidan Spellacy. Rogers was skating along the boards, flipped the puck past defenseman Akito Hirose and Ahcan won a puck battle below the goal line. Rogers fought through a check, caught a pass from Ahcan and then found Peart, a Minnesota Wild draft pick, near the top of the faceoff circle to the right of goalie Keenan Rancier.

Peart's wrist shot went off the craossbar and in at 17:23 to give the Huskies a two-goal lead going into the third period.

"It was a big goal for us right at the end of that period to get another one," Peart said. "That kind of set us up for the third."

In the third period, senior wing Zach Okabe knocked in a second rebound off a rush at 13:03 to make it 3-0. Spellacy had the first shot off a pass from Miettienen out of the corner, though it happened so quickly, Miettinen did not have a vivid memory of it.

"To be honest, I don't even know" what happened, Miettinen said of the play. "Oky made a good play and the next thing I know, the puck was in the net. I don't know what happened or how it went in."

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The Huskies added an empty-net goal by Cruikshank at 16:44 to make it 4-0.

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St. Cloud State players celebrate a third period goal against Minnesota State during the NCAA mens hockey west regionals on Thursday, March 23, 2023, at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
David Samson / The Forum

End of a Mavericks turnaround

The loss ends the season for the Mavericks, who rallied to make the tournament with a strong second half of the season.

At the holiday break, Minnesota State was 10-9-1 after getting swept in a series at home by Bemidji State. After that, the Mavericks were 15-4-1, rallied to win the CCHA regular season title and then rallied from a late two-goal deficit to beat Northern Michigan in overtime in the conference championship game to clinch a bid into the NCAA tournament.

This will also be the first time since 2019 that the Mavericks did not make the Frozen Four.

"Coach (Hastings) was just talking to us outside the room there and had us reflect on what we've been able to accomplish ... league championships and playoff championships," Minnesota State senior Cade Borchardt said. "Right now, it hurts. Down the road, we'll be able to look back and appreciate what we've done. Being able to be a Maverick and all the support we've gotten from the faculty, staff, school and fan base.

"It's been an unbelievable journey and we're just so thankful to be a part of that."

In the last four seasons, Minnesota State has won four straight conference regular season titles and the first two conference playoff titles since the CCHA was re-formed.

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St. Cloud State's Veeti Miettinen (29) celebrates his second period goal against Minnesota State during the NCAA mens hockey west regionals on Thursday, March 23, 2023, at Scheels Arena in Fargo.
David Samson / The Forum

St. Cloud State 4, Minnesota State 0

MSUM 0-0-0—0
SCSU 0-2-2—4

First period scoring: None. Penalties — MSUM, Christian Fitzgerald (slashing) 9:39; SCSU, Grant Cruikshank (hooking) 9:39.

Second period scoring: 1. SCSU, Veeti Miettinen 12 (Grant Cruikshank 14, Adam Ingram 15) 7:30 (pp); 2. SCSU, Jack Peart 3 (Jack Rogers 5, Grant Ahcan 3) 17:23. Penalties — SCSU, Jami Krannila (slashing) 6:06; MSUM, Brendan Furry (holding) 11:44; SCSU, Josh Luedtke (interference) 12:48; MSUM, Lucas Sowder (embellishment) 12:48.

Third period scoring: 3. SCSU, Zach Okabe 18 (Aidan Spellacy 8, Miettinen 24) 13:03; 4. SCSU, Cruikshank 23 (Micah Miller 12) 16:44 (en). Penalties — SCSU, Mason Reiners (tripping) 2:38.

Goalie saves — MSUM, Keenan Rancier 4-8-4—16 (3 GA); SCSU, Jaxon Castor 10-13-11—34 (0 GA).

Penalties-minutes — MSUM 3-6; SCSU 4-8.

Power-play goals, opportunities (shots) — MSUM 0-2 (2 shots); SCSU 1-2 (3 shots).

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Faceoffs — SCSU 28-26.

Three stars of the game — 1. Castor (SCSU), 2. Miettinen (SCSU), 3. Peart (SCSU).

Referees — Cameron Lynch, Chris Pitoscia.

Linesemen — Adam Wood, Stephen Drain.

Mick Hatten is a reporter and editor for Forum News Service and helps manage TheRinkLive.com, a website dedicated to hockey. He began working for Forum Communications in November 2018 and has covered St. Cloud State University hockey since 2010. A graduate of St. Cloud State, he has more than 30 years of experience as a journalist and has been a youth hockey coach since 2014. mhatten@forumcomm.com

For more coverage of St. Cloud and the surrounding communities, check out St. Cloud Live.
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