As the WCHA’s regular season crunched into February this past weekend — and with goals in such short supply — other stats took on added significance: Blocked shots, faceoff wins, and successful penalty kills become the keys to victory in a league defined by heavy play.
In this week’s RinkRap, there’s a miraculous finish in Anchorage, a game-winning goal deflected off a fearless attacker’s neck, and a historic win down in Alabama.
The Maverick Miracle
Not only was Minnesota State trailing 2-0 late Saturday night in Anchorage, but due to injury, the Mankato bench was as roomy as a Monday matinee at the Cineplex. Three veteran centermen were on the shelf: Marc Michaelis, Jake Jaremko, and Josh French. Add sophomore Julian Napravnik and freshman scoring star Lucas Sowder to the Mavs’ swollen injured list and a pair of game misconducts to Walker Duehr and Chris Van Os-shaw, so by crunch time in the third period Saturday, coach Mike Hastings was forced to jog a few steps to give his next attacking line a tap on the shoulder.
“The bench was a little roomy,” Hastings said to the Mankato Free Press.
Nevertheless, Minnesota State’s remaining skaters were resilient enough to send the game to overtime with two extra-attacker goals in the final minute, as Parker Tuomie and Ian Scheid lit the lamp in dramatic fashion. Defenseman Scheid scored his first goal of the season with less than a second remaining in regulation, and then buried one in the statistical netherworld of three-on-three overtime to steal the fifth point of the weekend for Minnesota State. It was the final game of the NCAA hockey weekend, but the rest of the hockey world woke up and took notice.
You know things are going well when you put a guy with zero goals in extra-attacker situation and he scores. Sticking with preseason pick that Mavs are going to Detroit. https://t.co/Z9J0LrUSnh— Brad Elliott Schlossman (@SchlossmanGF) February 2, 2020
The hard-luck Seawolves were left pondering religion after a single tick of the clock altered the course of a hockey pennant race.
“It would have been nice if the hockey gods had given the pesky Seawolves a break,” said Anchorage second-year coach Matt Curley with mixed emotions. “I’m really proud the way our guys competed.”
None more so than his captain Nolan Nichols, who laid out to block eight shots, leading all WCHA non-goalies for halting rubber bullets.
Despite forfeiting two points in the standings, the Seawolves’ tie against No. 3 Minnesota State inched them another point ahead of Ferris State in the race for the WCHA’s eighth and final playoff spot. If the season ended today, their quarterfinal opponents would be . . . Minnesota State.
A Heady Game
Even with their miraculous finish and five-point weekend up in the 49th state, Minnesota State lost ground to hard-charging Bemidji State in the race for the MacNaughton Cup. The Beavers swept a determined and desperate Bowling Green squad, accepting the challenge to play heavy hockey with the Falcons. They responded by winning board battles, dominating the faceoff dot, and scoring from the dirty areas. Friday night’s game-winner typified the Beavers’ fearless will, as sophomore Tyler Kirkup was credited with a goal after a point-blast caromed into the BGSU net off his neck. He found himself prostrate, surrounded by a gang of gleeful men in green.
“My teammates told me I scored, so I wasn’t too mad,” Kirkup said to the Bemidji Pioneer, who finished out the 4-1 victory despite his discomfort. “My neck’s a little sore, but it’s feeling better now.”
In the post-game, Bemidji coach Tom Serratore singled out two of his favorite grinders from the weekend sweep.
“Alex Adams and Tyler Kirkup, those guys played heavy, took care of the puck, and stepped up their physicality,” said Serratore, who preaches all those qualities. “T.K. gets a game-winner off his head, and Alex was a force.”
Bemidji’s stellar 10-1-3 record at home has kept them in the hunt for the WCHA’s regular-season title, but they will be on the road for their next four games. They do not return to the friendly confines of the Sanford Center until the final weekend of February, when rival Minnesota State busses north. If the Beavers can replicate their winning ways on the road, the MacNaughton Cup will be in the building.
History in Huntsville
It has not been a season for hockey celebration in Huntsville this year, but on Saturday, Mike Corbett’s Chargers did something they had never done before: beat Michigan Tech in Huntsville, downing the Huskies 3-1 in front of 1,136 faithful fans in the Von Braun Center. Jack Jeffers earned the game’s first star with the game-winning goal, and led all skaters with four blocked shots.
Although the Chargers are currently out of the WCHA playoff picture, they have already beaten two league powers in GLI champion Michigan Tech and third-place Northern Michigan. They host fourth-place Alaska Fairbanks this weekend, and travel to Lake Superior in mid-February for the landmark game in the Canadian Soo. They have a shot at beating all three Division I powers in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula in the same season, which would be another first for the program.
Tim Rappleye is the author of Jack Parker's Wiseguys: The National Champion BU Terriers, the Blizzard of '78, and the Road to the Miracle on Ice. He can be reached on Twitter @TeeRaps.