PITTSBURGH — All season long, St. Cloud State has been exceeding expectations.
Picked to finish fourth in the NCHC, the Huskies took second in both the regular season and conference tournament.
Seeded second in the NCAA Northeast Regional, St. Cloud State beat No. 3 seed Boston University and No. 1 Boston College by a combined seven goals.
And now the Huskies will play for their first NCAA Division I national championship after their dramatic, 5-4 victory over Minnesota State Mankato on Thursday in the Frozen Four at PPG Paints Arena.
Nolan Walker redirected Seamus Donohue’s shot from the point past Minnesota State goalie Dryden McKay with 54 seconds left in the third period as the Huskies rallied from a goal down in the third period to advance to the national championship game for the first time. St. Cloud State (20-10) will play the winner of Thursday’s second semifinal between two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth and Massachusetts on Saturday night.
Freshman Joe Molenaar tied the score 4-4 for the Huskies at 10:14 of the third period after Minnesota State (22-5-1) had rallied from a 3-1 deficit to take a 4-3 lead with three consecutive goals. Spencer Meier, Kyler Kupka and Will Hammer also scored for St. Cloud State, and goalie David Hrenak made 25 saves.
Nathan Smith scored two goals and Walker Duehr and Dallas Gerads also scored for the Mavericks, who got 17 saves from McKay
St. Cloud State got the game’s first power play 2:12 into the first when Minnesota State center Brendan Furry was called for hooking, and the Huskies made the Mavericks pay. Captain Spencer Meier pounced on a rebound of a shot by Zach Okabe and shot the puck past McKay for a 1-0 lead at 3:18.
Minnesota State didn’t get the start coach Mike Hastings wanted, and the Mavericks didn’t get their first shot on goal until 9:21 had expired. The Mavericks were getting the puck deep in the Huskies zone but had trouble connecting on passes to create scoring chances.
Finally, pressure paid off for the Mavericks. Julian Napravnik’s hard work with the puck led to a hooking call on Donohue, and Smith tied it 1-1, hammering home a rebound of an Akito Hirose shot at 16:09.
St. Cloud State needed only 10 seconds to retake the lead, 2-1, when Walker won a battle along the wall and fed Kupka for a tap-in.
The Huskies stretched the lead to 3-1 at 2:40 of the second period when Hammer grabbed a loose puck after a Mavericks turnover along the boards and rifled a shot past McKay.
Minnesota State flipped the momentum and got back in the game in final 10 minutes of the second period.
The Mavericks cut the lead to 3-2 at 12:07 when converted a rebound of an Andy Carroll shot. Minnesota State immediately pushed the pace, and St. Cloud State took a penalty at 12:52 when Chase Brand was called for tripping.
Smith tied it 3-3 on the power play, working down from the half-wall, finding an open lane and firing a shot past Hrenak at 14:23.
St. Cloud State was strong in the first three minutes of the third period, but Mankato took control and took the lead shortly after.
After Duehr won a puck battle along the boards in the neutral zone, Gerads gave Minnesota State a 4-3 lead at 4:18 when he tapped in a pass from Duehr past Hrenak after a Mavericks rush.
Molenaar answered for the Huskies at 10:14 to tie it 4-4 with his first career goal, taking a pass from Meier in front of the net and beating McKay.
The game looked as if it would be going overtime, but Walker had other ideas.