NCAA DI Men's Hockey

CCHA RinkRap: High Drama In Minnesota State Vs. Michigan Tech

CCHA RinkRap: High Drama In Minnesota State Vs. Michigan Tech

The final minute-and-a-half of hockey in Mankato, with the CCHA’s top seed and the MacNaughton Cup hanging in the balance, saw four season-altering swings.

Feb 27, 2023 by Tim Rappleye
Watch: Final Two Minutes of  MTU Vs. MNSU

Could the essence of Saturday’s Kafka-esque Ghost of MacNaughton weekend in Mankato really just boil down to a simple statistic? It might allow beleaguered Michigan Tech coach Joe Shawhan some peace knowing that losing both the MacNaughton Cup and the No. 1 seed—twice in forty-six seconds—was not a grand conspiracy, but a collapse of his supreme penalty-killing unit. 

Goaltender Blake Pietila, who made a convincing case Friday night that he was the best stopper in the land, was more Clark Kent than Superman on this night of darkness for Tech hockey nation. When the final buzzer of the CCHA’s regular season sounded Saturday night, it was Groundhog Day once again in Mankato, as the Minnesota State Mavericks took a victory lap with the heaviest trophy in hockey for the sixth straight year.

The final minute-and-a-half of hockey in Mankato, with the CCHA’s top seed and the MacNaughton Cup hanging in the balance, saw four season-altering, manic swings of destiny. Sadly, the viewers of this exquisite theater missed half of the story, as the home-team broadcast ignored the mountain of pathos exuding from the vanquished warriors in black and gold.

Scene 1 — The Reversal

With 1:31 remaining, Tech pulled Pietila and scored what appeared to be the goal that tied the game at two. Joy in Copper Country. The Huskies had suddenly gone from a disheartening loss to elation as top seed in the forthcoming CCHA tournament, should their new lead hold. 

But replays quickly revealed an extreme violation by Tech: there was Tech’s Tristan Ashbrook driving MNSU goalie Kennan Rancier into the ice with a crosscheck prior to the goal being scored. 

Yet for five excruciating minutes, the goal stood. Because it was not originally deemed an official CCHA review, Ashbrook’s transgression was beamed onto the Jumbotron for everyone to see, ratcheting up the tension in the sold-out Mayo Clinic Events Center. The delay created an obvious deja vu to last year’s Mason Cup hour-long replay debacle, with several of the same parties involved. 

But unlike the 2022 replay controversy, one in which Hastings was playing with house money because his club was already assured an NCAA berth, this year Hastings had a ton to lose. Not only did his club have a trophy and a top seed at stake, but having fallen to No. 15 in the Pairwise the night before, MNSU’s at-large bid to the national tournament was in serious jeopardy as well. 

As the delay to review continued, Hastings grew increasingly livid, with every passing minute, blood rushing noticeably to his head while admonishing and imploring ‌the officials to act. Finally the referees, who had emphatically signaled a good goal in real time, succumbed to popular demand, and skated to the replay monitors in the penalty box. 

Due to the overwhelming video evidence, it was no surprise when the goal was waived off. This was the time in which all hockey viewers are accustomed to seeing the reaction shot of the coach who was victimized by such a call. Viewers were indeed presented with a perfectly-framed shot of a coach, cut to perfection with impeccable timing. Except it was the wrong coach. 

The audience saw Hastings calmly exhale, and the game soon returned to action. Viewers can only guess how Shawhan—who has a persecution complex regarding officiating—reacted to his team’s tying goal being erased from the scoreboard.  

Scene 2 — The Penalty 

Thirteen seconds later, MNSU’s Ondrej Pavel attacked the net before being hooked by Tech’s Ryland Mosley, who was whistled for the obvious infraction. Pavel taunted the frustrated Huskies, knowing his team could now close out the remainder of the 2-1 game on the power play. Victory in regulation seemed assured for the home team.

Scene 3 — The Heroic Shorty

A game with no goals scored through its first 37 minutes was now enduring sea changes in rapid-fire succession. Thirteen seconds after going a man-down, 26 seconds after having his club’s tying-goal erased, Tech’s brilliant rookie Kyle Kukkonen scored an exquisite short-handed goal. 

Flying down the left wing, backhand, forehand, fish pole dangle for the finish. 

Incredibly, Tech had tied the game, and this goal stood. That prior paradigm: joy for Tech and misery for Minnesota State, had returned. The hockey gods, thanks to Kukkonen’s exquisite individual effort, had finally smiled on Shawhan’s warriors. 

If the game stayed at 2-2 after regulation, the sporting world would still be marveling at the feats of this sensational freshman, scoring gigantic goals in consecutive games, both with a championship on the line. But the fates had a cruel final twist for the men in black.

Scene 4 — A Very Special Team

Ignoring the swirling emotion, Hastings regrouped his Mavericks, who were still a man up. A play was put in motion, one that isolated MNSU captain Cade Borchardt on an island at the far side faceoff circle. After receiving a perfect feed from Andy Carroll, he calmly blasted the game-winning goal over the blocker of Pietila. It was the final entry in the Maverick’s mind-blowing 3-2 victory, a regular-season championship for the ages. 

Cue the montage of gold-and-purple glory. The “Ole” song surely played on an endless loop in the heads of all the Huskies during their bus ride home to Copper Country. Almost incomprehensibly, the live broadcast had no agony-of-defeat shots. In terms of post-game interviews, Shawhan’s words of frustration to radio stalwart Dirk Hembroff were omitted from Tech’s game report.

What ever outrage Shawhan might have felt about hostile buildings, low-flying video drones and complicit conspiracies has been lost to posterity. There is one undeniable fact, however—his vaunted penalty kill unit, the nation’s best at a shade under 90 percent, was punctured three times Saturday. His beloved goaltender Blake Pietila, clearly the CCHA’s most valuable performer, was beaten cleanly with a championship on the line.

Sometime early Sunday morning, perhaps between hours seven and eight of that interminable bus ride back to the Keewenau Peninsula, Shawhan and company begrudgingly accepted the fact that their best were beaten by the better team Saturday, the MacNaughton Cup champs. 

Viewers’ imaginations were triggered Saturday, not only by how the defeated exited the icy field of battle, but by what lies ahead. 

Should seedings hold, these same two teams will meet next month in an exquisite rematch, in the same building, with another major trophy at stake.