St. Cloud State misses trip to Frozen Four, lose to rival Minnesota

The Gophers lived up to the hype.

On Saturday in the NCAA ice hockey regional final in Fargo, North Dakota, No. 1 Minnesota defeated No. 6T St. Cloud State 4-1, booking a trip to the Frozen Four in Tampa to play for the Gophers’ first title since going back-to-back in 2002 and 2003.

For most of this season, Minnesota (28-9-1) has been the consensus best team in the country. It has a frenetic attack, and the team's young forwards are known for their skillful stick play. Fourteen Gophers have been drafted by NHL clubs and the team is the second-best scoring offense in the NCAA with 4.22 goals per game.

“I thought their high-end skill level was able to come through in a couple of situations to win that hockey game,” SCSU coach Brett Larson said.

The Golden Gophers came out hot, firing 14 shots in the first period and doing a good job keeping SCSU defenders back skating on defense. Minnesota used clever passes and skilled skating to push the puck into the offensive zone where it was able to grind out long shifts.

Bryce Brodzinski scored the first Gopher goal, netting it with 12:20 to play in the first period.

“We looked a little tentative – I guess that’s the right word – for whatever reason,” Larson said. “We haven’t played that way much lately.”

The Huskies also like to go fast and play a lot of offense, sometimes at their disadvantage. Early Saturday SCSU had trouble a few times on breakouts, occasionally turning the puck over before reaching the blue line.

“We didn’t have a great first period in terms of breaking out of our zone and when we did get it out, we were pretty tired and kind of one-and-done on offense,” fifth-year senior Micah Miller said. “Hanging onto pucks and making them work down low was something we didn’t do great, but I feel like in the second and third periods we played our game a lot harder.”

Though they entered the game as clear underdogs and played that way through the first half of the game, the Huskies had a ton of momentum. They won six of their last seven and four straight, including high-pressure matchups with rivals No. 23 Minnesota Duluth (16-20-1), No. 18 North Dakota (18-15-6) and No. 12 Minnesota State Mankato (25-13-1). SCSU has been to five straight NCAA tournaments, tied for the most, but hasn’t won a championship, coming closest in 2021 when it finished runner-up.

Larson said the tough schedule definitely affected his team’s energy in the game.

“I thought they left it all out there,” he said. “I did think our guys expended a ton of emotional and physical energy this last run.”

In January the Huskies split their regular-season series with the Gophers, both teams winning at home In SCSU’s 3-0 win January 7, the Huskies handed Minnesota its only shutout this season. Senior goalie Jaxon Castor started in that game, and in the regional championship.

It was Castor’s fifth consecutive game in goal after splitting games the whole regular season with junior Dominic Basse.

SCSU allowed 30 shots on goal Saturday, more than their season average of 26.3 shots per game. Castor made 26 saves and SCSU defenders blocked 25 of Minnesota’s 63 total shots.

After the game, captain defenseman Spencer Meier gave a lot of credit to his goaltender, who he said received a lot of online hate after a 5-4 loss to Quinnipiac in the first round of the NCAA tournament last year.

“It was frustrating to see that for sure,” Meier said. “And what he did this year, the whole year, man did he shut those guys up.”

Despite the offensive talent, the Gophers gave up opportunities to score. Five Minnesota players spent time in the penalty box, amassing nearly 10 minutes with a man disadvantage. St. Cloud State only capitalized once, with freshman Adam Ingram netting the Huskies’ only goal, tying the score at 1-1 three minutes into the second period.

“I think we were just kind of directing pucks toward the net and we had a lot of good looks there,” Meier, who is a Sartell-native, said. “Got to give credit to their goalie (senior Justen Close). I think we could have had a few more.”

When SCSU did get pucks in deep, Minnesota turned fast and threatened on the fast break. The Huskies outshot the Gophers 22-16 in the second and third periods, but Minnesota would blaze down the ice, like with 5:57 to go in the second, when Jack LaCombe flicked a long pass down the ice to Logan Cooley, who scored on the breakaway to give Minnesota the lead for good.

“We were just getting our game going, too,” Larson said. “That one was a tough blow to take.”

The sold-out crowd of mostly maroon and gold set a Scheels Arena record with an attendance of 5,326. It came alive twice more in the third period, when LaCombe scored with 11:44 to play and when Jaxon Nelson put away the empty-netter unassisted.

Cooley assisted LaCombe’s goal and Nelson and Mason Nevers assisted Minnesota’s opening goal.

“(The seniors) led the team to a one-goal game with eight minutes left to go to the Frozen Four, if you would have told us that at the beginning of the year, we would have taken it,” Larson said.

In the Frozen Four in Tampa, Florida, Minnesota will play No. 4 Boston (29-10), which beat No. 11 Cornell (21-11-2) by a score of 2-1.

Playing Sunday for a chance at the Frozen Four, No. 3 Michigan (25-11-3) faces off against No. 6T Pennsylvania State (22-15-1).

This article originally appeared on St. Cloud Times: SCSU loses region championship to Minnesota