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'We're going to Pittsburgh!': Minnesota State beats Minnesota to earn first trip to Frozen Four

Dryden McKay earned his NCAA-best 10th shutout of the season and four Minnesota State forwards scored as the Mavericks beat Minnesota 4-0 in the West Region championship game.

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Minnesota State forward Nathan Smith celebrates after scoring the Mavericks' third goal of the NCAA West Region championship game on Sunday, March 28, 2021, at Budweiser Event Center in Loveland, Colorado. (Zachary BonDurant photo)

Mike Hastings pumped his fist five times when he walked into the Minnesota State locker room late Sunday night.

He hugged senior captain Riese Zmolek after accepting the game puck, then kept his speech short and to the point. He ended his 25-second talk with four words he’s been waiting nine years to say: “We’re going to Pittsburgh!”

One night after earning their first-ever NCAA tournament victory, the Mavericks earned their second, a victory that is no doubt the biggest in the program’s history. A dominant 4-0 win against in-state rival Minnesota at the Budweiser Event Center in Loveland, Colorado, sends MSU to the NCAA Division I Frozen Four for the first time ever.

“It’s a huge step for us,” Zmolek said. “For a long time we talked about not being able to win that first (NCAA tournament game), so getting that done and then getting this one tonight, I’m pretty sure no one will be sleeping on our ride back to Minnesota.

“It’s a big-time accomplishment, but we have to get back to work when we get back to Mankato and start working toward the Frozen Four.”

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No. 5-ranked MSU (22-4-1) will face another in-state rival at 4 p.m. on Thursday, April 8, when it meets St. Cloud State at PPG Paints Arena in a national semifinal game on ESPN2.

Hastings credited his predecessors — Don Brose and Troy Jutting — and all of the Minnesota State hockey alumni for paving the way for this season’s team to make history.

“To finally find a way to win one (NCAA tournament game) and to win a regional,” Hastings said, “All the guys before me and the alumni, I’m very happy for all of them and especially for this group of young men.”

MSU arrived in Colorado on Wednesday, having never won an NCAA tournament game and having been blown out on its home ice in its previous game, a 5-1 loss to Northern Michigan in the WCHA tournament semifinals, perhaps its worst game of the season.

Sunday may have been its best.

The Mavericks limited a high-powered Gophers offense to just nine shots on goal through the first two periods and never relinquished the momentum they gained after Sam Morton and Ryan Sandelin scored 2:07 apart midway through the first period for a 2-0 lead.

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Minnesota State forward Sam Morton scores a goal in the first period of the NCAA West Region final against the Minnesota Gophers on Sunday, March 28, 2021, at Budweiser Event Center in Loveland, Colorado. (Zachary BonDurant photo)

Dryden McKay — who put his name right back at the top of the list among Mike Richter Award candidates — stopped all 22 shots he faced to record his 10th shutout of the season and the 24th of his career. The 5-feet-11, 175-pound junior from Downers Grove, Illinois, is just two shutouts behind former Michigan State star Ryan Miller on the NCAA career shutout list.

“I … read the stuff and knew people were writing us off and me personally after that Northern Michigan game,” said McKay, who was pulled from that game after giving up four goals on 14 shots. “I wasn’t at my best (that night), but as a team we came here with a chip on our shoulder. We came here to prove ourselves.”

They did just that by controlling play for a majority of the game against the No. 2-ranked team in the country. The Gophers struggled to slow the line of center Brendan Furry, with Morton and Sandelin on his wings.

Morton scored the game-winning goal at the 10:23 mark when he attempted a wraparound, paused when he got to the far side of the net, then lifted it over the outstretched pad of Gophers goalie Jack LaFontaine. Sandelin and Zmolek assisted on the goal at the 10:23 mark.

The Mavericks stretched the lead to 2-0 just 2:07 later, when Furry made a strong play to rush the puck up the wall with speed and into the offensive zone. He drove into the right circle before firing a cross-ice pass back to senior defenseman Jack McNeely at the point. McNeely sent a shot toward the goal that Sandelin re-directed past LaFontaine.

Sandelin’s second goal and third point of the weekend gave the Mavericks some breathing room. The 6-foot, 195-pound sophomore from Hermantown — and the son of Minnesota Duluth head coach Scott Sandelin, whose team is also Frozen Four-bound after a dramatic five-overtime victory against North Dakota on Saturday — scored the game-winning goal in OT on Saturday, in a 4-3 win against Quinnipiac.

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“I’m just so proud of the young man,” Hastings said of Sandelin, “but it doesn’t surprise me because of the apple tree he fell from — phenomenal people. I’m blessed to coach some really good young men who have great family trees.

“I’m just happy for him. He was a difference-maker for us this weekend.”

With a two-goal lead, MSU’s defense went into lockdown mode and frustrated a Gophers team that entered the game as the third-highest scoring team in the country, averaging 3.90 goals per game. Minnesota didn’t record its first shot on goal until 12:48 remained in the first period. They didn’t record their 10th shot on goal until early in the third period.

“We needed to withstand that first period,” Minnesota coach Bob Motzko said. “That’s really it. They were going to put it all on us in the first. They got that 2-0 lead and then it stayed 2-0 forever. We did gather ourselves back up and started to fight in the second, but we needed to survive that first and it didn’t happen.”

Just as the Gophers were starting to gain some life, Nathan Smith all but sealed the win, putting MSU up 3-0 halfway through the third. Julian Napravnik won a puck battle along the wall and the puck slid to Cade Borchardt, who sent it across the ice to Smith for a one-timer with 10:10 remaining.

Dallas Gerads added an empty-net goal 2:19 remaining to seal the biggest victory in program history.

“Our motto since we started the WCHA playoffs was all about earning respect,” said McKay, who improved to 21-3-0 this season. “We knew the only way to do that was to come to the big stage and get the job done.”

All-Tournament Team

Mavericks players dominated the All-West Region Team, taking five of the six spots.

McKay was named the All-West Region goalie, posting a 2-0 record, a 1.37 goals-against average and a .942 save percentage over the weekend. Minnesota's Brock Faber and MSU's Jake Livingstone were selected as the All-Tournament defensemen, and Furry, Sandelin and Borchardt were named the team's forwards.

Sandelin earned Region MVP honors.

MINNESOTA STATE 4, MINNESOTA 0

Minnesota State 2-0-2—4

Minnesota 0-0-0—0

First period — 1. MSU, Sam Morton 5 (Ryan Sandelin 2, Riese Zmolek 12) 10:23. 2. MSU, Sandelin 7 (Jack McNeely 5, Brendan Furry 8) 12:30. Second period — no scoring.

Third period — 3. MSU, Nathan Smith 7 (Cade Borchardt 15, Julian Napravnik 16) 9:50. 4. MSU, Dallas Gerads 8 (Wyatt Aamodt 5) 17:41 (en).

Shots on goal — MSU 14-7-6—27; MINN 5-4-13—22. Goalies — MSU, Dryden McKay (W, 21-3-0, 22 saves-22 shots); MINN, Jack LaFontaine (L, 22-7-0; 23 saves-26 shots). Power-play opportunities — MSU 0-for-3; MINN 0-for-2. Penalties — MSU 4-8 minutes; MINN 3-6 minutes.

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