The Minnesota Gophers and St. Cloud State Huskies both had something in common in their opening round games in the NCAA Tournament on Thursday. Both teams started slow and were the worse team in their matchups against Canisius and Minnesota State respectively for the first period and a half. But both teams shook off the rust and pounced in the final 25 minutes of the game to cruise to opening round victories and setup the third matchup of the season between the Gophers and Huskies. This one will mean a bit more than the home and home regular season series these teams played back in January. One team will advance to the Frozen Four in Tampa, Florida in a week and a half, and the other will join the rest of the state of Minnesota in hoping for the snow to melt ASAP to get the golf courses open.
Minnesota struggled early against a tight defense from Canisius. The Golden Griffins took a 2-1 lead early in the second period and had Minnesota fans into a bit of a panic. But, the Gophers would figure out how to beat the Griffins defense and after Aaron Hugelin and Connor Kurth struck late in the second to put the Gophers back ahead 3-2 after two periods the weight came off of the Gophers players. Taking advantage of a five minute major just seconds into the third period the Gophers would break the damn and would score six third period goals and eight unanswered goals in total to cruise to a 9-2 win.
The Huskies could not buy a goal for the first 32 minutes of the game against Minnesota State. But, the Huskies tight defense held as well, and the game remained scoreless until SCSU potted a pair of goals in the las eight minutes of the second period and two more in the third to pick up a 4-0 win and advance to Saturday. Huskies goalie Jaxon Castor would make 34 saves in his shutout—the first ever for SCSU in NCAA Tournament play.
Now two familiar foes—in-state and former conference rivals will face off with one team advancing to the Frozen Four for either the 23rd time in school history in the Gophers case, or the third time in program history for the Huskies. Minnesota holds a 60-36-12 all-time record against SCSU and are 1-0 all time in NCAA Tournament play. The Gophers defeated SCSU 4-0 at the X in 2014 to advance to the Frozen Four. But in recent years the series has been much closer with the Gophers holding a 3-2 edge in the series since Bob Motzko left the Huskies to become the coach of the Gophers in 2018.
As said these two teams split a home and home series in January. Minnesota had just gotten Logan Cooley, Mathew Knies, Jimmy Snuggerud and Luke Mittelstadt back from the US World Junior team, and the Huskies had just gotten back defenseman Jack Peart. IN the opener of the Saturday/Sunday series in St. Cloud the Huskies would pick up a 3-0 win which was much closer than the score would show. SCSU scored their lone goal on Gopher goalie Justen Close midway through the second period and would add a pair of empty net goals in the final minute of the game to extend a 1-0 game to a 3-0 final. The Gophers were held to just 23 shots on goal with Mathew Knies not getting a single shot all game long.
Knies would get his revenge scoring the first goal in the return trip to Minneapolis the next day before the Huskies would tie the game midway through the third period to force overtime. It would be one of the Gophers freshman phenoms in Logan Cooley who would win the game in OT to give the Gophers the 2-1 win and the series split.
Both goalies would allow just two goals in two games. Close and Castor were both fantastic, something that will be expected from them once again on Saturday night. Whichever goalie is more off his game may be the reason his team’s season ends.
It will be a complete clash of styles of play once again for the Gophers. Minnesota wants to skate and play a high octane offensive game. St. Cloud wants to pack four guys in front of Castor and play a 2-1 type game. Minnesota will need to be patient and take their chances when they get them. Minnesota needs to try and get a lead and play from in front. The Huskies would love nothing more than to take a lead into the third period and park the bus and make the Gophers score through nothing but bodies in front of the goal. It’s something that despite Minnesota’s offensive power this season they have struggled with. After Thursday the Gophers are now 21-0 when leading after two periods but are just 5-8-1 when either tied or trailing after two periods.
Minnesota will need to attack in a smart way. The Gophers surely are looking at film of how Minnesota-Duluth attacked the Huskies this season with a punishing forecheck. SCSU likes to pas d to d in their own zone to break out. If the Gophers can press the Huskies blue liners and make them make mistakes, they then need to put away their opportunities.
The opportunity is there for the Gophers taking. They know how to play against this Huskies team and have a full strength roster ready to do it. Their freshmen have now gotten a taste of NCAA Tournament action and should not be intimidated. The Gophers have the offensive firepower to blast through the St. Cloud defensive wall and to protect themselves from return fire. They just need to play their game, take control and earn their trip to the Sunshine State.
Both teams are good defensively, Both teams have a deadly power play. But while the Gophers have a good penalty kill, the Huskies are just 51st in the nation. Minnesota must take advantage of their power play opportunities when given the chance.
The omens are evident. Minnesota defeated Atlantic Hockey Champion Canisius 9-2 in the opening round Thursday night. Twenty years ago, in the last NCAA Tournament the Gophers won the Gophers defeated AHA Champion Mercyhurst 9-2 in the opening round. They would knock off Ferris State 7-4 in the Midwest Region Final the next day. Nobody expects the Gophers and Huskies to play a 7-4 game Saturday night in Fargo, but with what the Big Ten has done so far in the 2023 edition of the NCAA Tournament, anything is possible. As I said in Thursday’s preview, who cares how it happens, just inhibit the infamous Al Davis quote, “ Just Win, Baby!”
HOW TO WATCH: NCAA FARGO REGIONAL CHAMPIONSHIP
#2 St. Cloud State Huskies vs #1 Minnesota Golden Gophers
Where: Scheels Arena, Fargo, North Dakota
When: 5:30 PM Saturday
Stream: WatchESPN/ ESPN+