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DI College Hockey Preview

Six ways for the state to win an NCAA title.

UMD freshman Anthony Menghini, who scored the shootout winner against Michigan Tech, added a vital tying goal against Northern Michigan for a 5-5 tie before another shootout finish.. (MHM Photo / John Gilbert)

In the good ol’ days when the WCHA ruled college hockey in the country, the only team that had a chance to win an NCAA national championship was the Minnesota Gophers of the legendary Herb Brooks. Then along came University of Minnesota Duluth, which broke through and has now won three NCAA titles since the Golden Gophers last won one. Now, we have St. Cloud State and Minnesota State Mankato knocking on the door as elite level teams, with Bemidji State not far behind.

But wait. For the current 2023-24 season a sixth Minnesota Division I program has vaulted into immediate contention, with the University of St. Thomas opening the season with a startling split with St. Cloud State and taking the then-No. 1 ranked Gophers to overtime before falling 6-5 before more than 11,000 fans at Xcel Energy Center.

The WCHA is, of course, no longer in operation. It shattered when Minnesota went off to help start a Big Ten hockey conference, prompting Minnesota-Duluth and St. Cloud State to start up with the new, and supremely powerful, National Collegiate Hockey Conference (NCHC) and leaving MSU-Mankato and Bemidji State in what was left of the WCHA. That league changed its name to the CCHA, recapturing the Central Collegiate Hockey Association call letters forced by Michigan when it branched off from the WCHA to form its “bus league.”

While St. Thomas, under proven mastermind Rico Blasi as head coach, raised all its sports to Division I status, nobody expected the Tommies to be the surprise of the state’s college hockey stalwarts this quickly.

Sophomore Ben Steeves scored a shootout goal as UMD solved a 2-2 tie with Michigan Tech. (MHM Photo / John Gilbert)

Regardless, we have to turn back to Minnesota Duluth to find the new king of bargain promotions in college hockey. The Bulldogs started off this season unbeaten through three games, while giving their fans the benefit of a bargain for their ticket prices. In two of their first three games, the Bulldogs skated to ties, then through scoreless overtimes, and then through shootouts before prevailing to turn those deadlocks into symbolic victories.

A young student, new to big-time hockey, saw the teams prepare for the shootout after UMD and Michigan Tech tied 2-2 in the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame game and asked: “Do they get a point if they win the shootout?” He was told no, that there was no tangible benefit, no points, no indication of winning, but only giving the fans the satisfaction of seeing the game end in something other than a tie.

He was unimpressed at the answer, but as the shootout saw Ben Steeves score a goal, and then freshman Anthony Menghini clinch it 2-1, the fans, all of whom stood in their AMSOIL Arena seats, erupted with a roar that would do a league playoff championship proud. The young man acknowledged, “OK, now I get it.”

A week later, in their first official non-conference game against Northern Michigan, UMD started with a 3-0 lead before allowing three unanswered goals and needing to rally to go back ahead 4-3 on Steeve’s second goal of the night, then fell behind 5-4. That left it up to Menghini, the freshman, to score another pivotal goal, tying the game 5-5 with 2:58 remaining. Then the Bulldogs and Wildcats sparred through six rounds of the shootout before Matthew Perkins, another freshman, scored to claim another 2-1 shutout victory. Again, however, it was not a victory, just an official tie. But don’t tell the 5,947 screaming fans that!

They went home happy and, thanks to the return of a previous promotional deal with area Culver’s restaurants, every fan turning in a ticket stub whenever UMD scores five goals or more gets a free scoop of frozen custard. How can you beat having extra-time hockey and free frozen custard after your team won the game — as far as you’re concerned.

The next night, UMD kept rolling through Northern Michigan in a second penalty-fest that saw a repeat of double-digit penalty calls with each team scoring three power-play goals and the Bulldogs getting an 8-5 victory and a sweep.

“These are games that test your inner strength,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said afterward. “I thought we handled the adversity a little better tonight than in the first game, and fortunately our power play was clicking.”

Fears of struggling to score were washed away in that series sweep, thanks to Steeves and a couple of freshmen, starting a trend that seems to have engaged the whole team, which Sandelin will welcome as he tries to take his team off to the NCAA tournament in quest of his fourth national title at UMD.

Snuggerud is back for the Gophers
Down Interstate 35 a couple of hours, Bob Motzko has assembled a flashy crop of talent led by Jimmy Snuggerud, who started off hot after several of his classmates turned pro after last season’s near miss at NCAA time. Motzko got his way by narrowing the Olympic-sized, 200-by-100-foot ice sheet at 3M Arena at Mariucci to a hybrid width, now 200-by-89 feet. With an inability to use the wider ice surface favored by the late Herb Brooks and Doug Woog to win his first national title with a dressing room filled with NHL draft choices, maybe a narrower rink will help.

At the start, Snuggerud made the plan work. After scoring the overtime winner against upstart St. Thomas to climax a rally from a 4-2 deficit in the third period, Snuggerud brought his teammates back to Mariucci for the second game and scored twice for a 2-0 lead that the Gophers expanded with an empty-net goal for a 3-0 victory and a sweep.

The media-heavy Twin Cities promotional backing may have helped the Gophers gain the No 1 ranking in the nation despite losing four players to early NHL contracts. But Snuggerud makes it appear they won’t be missed as the Gophers try to repeat as Big Ten champions.

Early adversity for St. Cloud State 
The St. Cloud State Huskies, who rose up from a disappointing season to make a run at the NCAA tournament last spring, lost some big scorers. But coach Brett Larson has proven to be a master at fashioning his talent into contenders as the season progresses. The Huskies were the first victim of St. Thomas, losing 5-4 in overtime, and had to go to the Mendota Heights home of the Tommies to battle for a 1-0 victory and a split.

But next came a huge rivalry series against MSU Mankato, which spotted the Huskies the first two goals before roaring back to tie the game 2-2 in the second period and beat St. Cloud 3-2 on Adam Eisele’s overtime goal. The next night, Mankato stung the Huskies 5-1 for a sweep.

New coach leads Minnesota State Mankato
Minnesota State Mankato suffered what seemed like crushing setbacks when Mike Hastings left to become head coach at Wisconsin, and several of his top Mavericks entered the transfer portal to go with him. New head coach Luke Strand, however, has regenerated the Mavericks right from the start.

They were heartened by the return to form of Sam Morton, a fifth-year captain who went out after only 10 games with a knee injury last season. Alex Tracy looks solid in goal. The Mavericks have retained a great tradition, as they blocked 23 shots in the 5-1 game against St. Cloud State.

Beavers host Ice Breaker Tournament
Bemidji State is another team joining Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech in trying to unseat MSU Mankato as CCHA champion, and the Beavers got an early taste of the competition by co-hosting the Ice Breaker Tournament with North Dakota to open the season. That came after losing 5-2 at Minnesota in an exhibition opener. Back home, Bemidji State dropped a 4-3 overtime game to Wisconsin and the reappearance of old rival Hastings on the visiting bench.

The next night, Army came to Bemidji’s sparkling Sanford Center and the Beavers made a determined rally to tie the Cadets 2-2 on Eric Pohlkamp’s goal at 7:30 of the third period. Lleyton Roed scored the game-winner at 0:59 of overtime for a 3-2 triumph. Roed also had a goal against Wisconsin, when the Badgers outshot Bemidji 61-19 and only the 57 saves by goaltender Mattias Scholl kept the Beavers in the game.

Toms roll in game one
The state’s newest DI team, the St. Thomas Tommies, served notice of their intentions not only against in-state rivals like Minnesota and St. Cloud State, but challenging the CCHA as a legitimate contender. Blasi established his skills in building Miami of Ohio into a solid team in the NCHC. After he was let go by Miami he was a natural choice to lead the Tommies into DI. So, his team’s early successes this year shouldn’t be a surprise.

Benefitting by the transfer portal, Blasi has assembled speed and talent that went on display in the season-opener at St. Cloud State. Goals by Jake Braccini, Cameron Recchi, Luke Manning and Matthew Gleason got the Tommies into overtime, where former Duluth East star Ryder Donovan scored at 1:11 to win it 5-4. It won’t be easy for St. Thomas to keep knocking off powerful rivals, but Blasi has made a name for himself by sending tough, tenacious teams over the boards.

Now that St. Thomas is planning a new arena for its future, about all they need is to find an ice cream shop — or maybe a St. Paul pizza joint — and come up with a promotion whenever they score five goals.

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