Pittsburgh, PA – Junior forward Nolan Walker has been St.Cloud State’s rabbit foot during the 2021 NCAA tournament. On Thursday vs Minnesota State University, Walker deflected a puck past the Mavericks Dryden McKay with 53.2 seconds remaining to complete a comeback win and a date with the University of Massachusetts in the national championship game on Saturday, April 10th.
A game that appeared to have the Huskies cruising to a win with a two-goal lead early in period two suddenly turned south as the Mavericks scored three straight goals to take an early third-period lead requiring some late-game heroics by Joey Molenaar and Nolan Walker. Molenaar scored his first goal of the season and Walker his 10th to lift the Huskies to the title game.
SCSU coach Brett Larson admitted it was a difficult game. “I felt like we had to play a little rope-a-dope tonight. I thought Mankato played really well. They played really heavy. We had trouble breaking pucks out and maintaining offensive zone time for extended periods. Fortunately, we were opportunistic tonight. When we got a chance we were able to bury it. But I thought for a lot of the game they really controlled the puck possession and controlled the momentum of the game. Obviously, we’re excited right now. But it was a man’s game. It was a battle. And we certainly played against a great team tonight.”
Molenaar played in his first game since February 27th and scored the tying goal and Kyler Kupka was elevated to a line with Nolan Walker and Micah Miller due to the injury to Easton Brodzinski and had a two-point game. “Fortunately I thought Kupka held his own on that line,” said Larson. “He was able to play his game. He didn’t try to change his game. And that’s what we asked out of him. And Molenaar went into a huge game after not playing for a while and came up big for us. So obviously having those two players fill the roles we needed really helped.”
Junior forward Nolan Walker was a key performer for the third straight game and has six points in these games after an assist and the game-winning goal vs Minnesota State. “I think he’s really trusting in how he needs to play and he’s seeing the rewards for it. As a coach, when you see a guy really push his game to the next level through work and effort and becoming a better 200-foot player and winning more battles and things that we’ve just really needed them to do you feel proud because he’s put in the effort and he cares about his teammates enough to do it. I’m really happy for Nolan because he was a guy that we needed to take a step and he put in the work to do it,” said Larson.
On the game-winner, Walker described “I kind of found that soft spot up top, on the high tracks, as we call it. And Seamus, he made a great shot right on my stick. I was lucky enough that it went in. If you were to tell us we were going into a tie game in the semifinals of the Frozen Four, we would take it. It wasn’t a pretty game for us, I don’t think. We got up two goals and they kind of made a push in the second. I think the message was just to stick with it and play our game. I think in the third period we played our game and our identity and we got the job done.”
“It was not a great start,” said Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings. “I thought we were a little tight for whatever reason. But then again I think you’ve got to give credit to St. Cloud. They’re a really good hockey team, well-coached. They came out and took advantage of a couple of mistakes that we made. But, we came back, ended up getting it tied, and actually get a lead. We’ve had a pretty good year when we’re playing with a lead. So to see that evaporate and they make a push to get it tied up 4-4 and then make a play to score with 50-some seconds left. It was a heck of a hockey game as far as both teams going and battling. Congratulations to St. Cloud State on moving to the national championship game.”
The Huskies pushed the pace of the game early and found themselves on the man advantage just 2:12 into the contest when the Maverick’s Brendan Furry was whistled for hooking. It didn’t take the Huskies long with Spencer Meier (Okabe, Fitzgerald) scoring slightly over a minute later burying a rebound from the right low slot. Fitzgerald fed Okabe who was in the low right slot and he placed a quick shot on Dryden McKay that rebounded to an open Meier who scored on an out-of-position McKay for a 1-0 SCSU lead.
SCSU held an early 5-2 shot advantage but got into penalty trouble themselves at 14:56 with a holding call on Seamus Donohue. And, they responded with a goal by Nathan Smith at 16:09 on a shot through traffic in the mid-slot that beat Hrenak to tie the game at 1-1.
But, it was a mere 10 seconds later when Kyler Kupka (Walker, Hentges) who was elevated to a line with Micah Miller and Nolan Walker scored his third goal of the year. Walker made a strong play off the right wall attacking the net and feeding Kupka in the low left circle who one-timed a shot past Mckay for a 2-1 lead.
In a good period of play for the Huskies, they outshot the Mavericks 8-6.
An early goal by Will Hammer stretched the lead to 3-1 and the Huskies seemed to have the Mavericks on the ropes early. Hammer capitalized on a turnover and beat McKay with a wrist shot from the left dot for the two-goal lead.
But, things turned sour for the Huskies after the midway point of the period as the Mavericks began a determined effort to get back into the game. MSU’s Walker Duehr pounced on a big rebound off a shot by Dallas Gerads and backhanded the puck past Hrenak at 12:07 and suddenly it was a one-goal game again.
The Huskies were forced to take a timeout at 12:43 and nine seconds later the Huskies Chase Brand was penalized for tripping and you could see the momentum of the game changing. The Mavericks converted again with Nathan Smith’s second goal of the game at 14:24 and suddenly it was the Mavericks taking control of the game. Smith beat Hrenak clean top-shelf glove side with a quick shot from between the circles.
In a big period for Minnesota State, they outshot the Huskies 11 to 3 in the second half of the period and entered the final period with game momentum on their side.
The Mavericks completed their comeback 4:18 into the period with a goal by Dallas Gerads. Charging the SCSU goal, Gerads took a goalmouth feed from Walker Duehr and the stunned Huskies were suddenly behind for the first time in the game.
The Huskies began to push back and were able to respond with a goal from an unlikely source at 10:14. Joey Molenaar, who had not been in the lineup since February 27th, made his appearance known with his first goal of the season. Spencer Meier placed a shot on goal and Molenaar (Hammer, Meier) outmuscled freshman Jake Livingstone in the left goalmouth for the puck and tapped it past McKay to tie the game at 4-4.
With less than seven minutes remaining, the teams traded opportunities with the Huskies Sam Hentges placing a point-blank shot on McKay and a key save by Hrenak on a shot from the right circle by MSU with 1:14 remaining. It was then Seamus Donohue making a smart play with 53.2 seconds remaining one-timing a pass to the left point towards the goal and Walker with a picture-perfect deflection over the right shoulder of McKay for the game-winning goal.
In a tight third period with SCSU outshooting the Mavericks 8 to 7 the Huskies persevered outscoring Minnesota State 2-1 in the period and capturing the 5-4 win to send them to the championship game on Saturday, April 10th vs the University of Massachusetts Minutemen who defeated the UMD Bulldogs 3-2 in overtime in the late game on Thursday, April 8th.
The Mavericks had a nine-shot advantage over the final two periods outshooting the Huskies 29-22 for the game. SCSU’s David Hrenak turned aside 25 of 29 shots while Hobey Baker finalist Dryden McKay stopped 17 of 23 shots on goal.
The Mavericks also had the advantage in the faceoff circle winning 35 of 68 faceoffs (51.5%).
Nolan Walker had the game-winning goal and an assist for a two-point game. Kyler Kupka (1-12), Will Hammer (1-1-2), and Spencer Meier (1-1-2) also had a multi-point game for the Huskies.
The Huskies return to the ice on Saturday, April 10th at 6:00 PM CT in the championship game vs the University of Massachusetts.