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Glory to Goalies

Goaltenders across Minnesota’s DI college ranks helped their teams to victories.

UMD freshman Eve Gascon was WCHA Rookie of the Week after battling Ohio State, then sweeping MSU Mankato. (MHM Photo / John Gilbert)

Goaltenders often wind up in the same position as football quarterbacks — getting too much credit when a team wins and too much criticism when it loses.

But last week’s action involving Minnesota’s six Division I college hockey teams resulted in some impressive goaltending performances that made headlines in the Big Ten Conference, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference, the Central Collegiate Hockey Assocation, the women’s Western Collegiate Hockey Association for women, and even the NHL.

The Minnesota Gophers stayed at the top of national men’s ratings, despite splitting two games at North Dakota, with the goaltending of Justen Close. He was responsible for the Gophers’ 4-0 victory in game one, and he couldn’t be faulted when he made 32 saves when the Fighting Hawks came back to beat Minnesota 2-1 in the rematch at Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks.

Close’s first-game victory gave him back-to-back shutouts. But the Hawks got 21 saves from Ludvig Persson, their goaltender of the hour, in game two. Minnesota’s loss didn’t cause it to drop out of the No. 1 national ranking because both Boston University and Michigan, ranked No. 2 and No. 3, also lost over the weekend. The only movement among the top five was North Dakota, which appropriately moved up from fifth to fourth and served notice to their NCHC rivals that they are, indeed, equipped for contention.

Frost gets 2-year extension; WCHA packs top-10 rankings
The Gopher women, also ranking high at No. 4 in the WCHA, gave coach Brad Frost a two-year contract extension because he simply forms a contending team year after year. They stand No. 4 after running up a 5-0 record in the early going, including a WCHA midweek match with ever-improving St. Cloud State. The Gophers lost a lot of offensive firepower from last season, causing Frost to proclaim that it will take a more defensive posture to win this year, and beating the Huskies was a clear example.

Frost’s goaltender was Skylar Vetter, who was trying for the fourth-straight Gophers shutout. Avery Farrell spoiled the shutout big with a goal with 5.2 seconds left in the third period. Minnesota had gained the advantage when Ava Lindsay scored midway through the second period, and Taylor Stewart, a fifth-year transfer from University of Minnesota Duluth, scored a short-handed goal into an empty net with 47 seconds left. Fifth-year goaltender Jojo Chobak — another transfer from UMD — was pulled for a 6-on-3 skater edge. The Gophers won 2-1.

The Gopher women have a big challenge this weekend, with a trip to Ohio State (5-1), which is ranked No. 2 in the WCHA-dominated top 10. Wisconsin, Ohio State, Colgate and Minnesota make up the top-four ranked teams, followed by unbeaten Quinnipiac and Yale. UMD (4-2) is ranked No. 7 with St. Cloud State (7-2) rising to No. 10. 

UMD swept Minnesota State Mankato in WCHA play by 3-1 and 4-1 margins. Mary Kate O’Brien, Reece Hunt and Hanna Baskin scored for the Bulldogs in game one. In the second game, Gabby Krause scored a pair of goals to go with goals from O’Brien and Jenna Lawry. Bulldogs freshman goaltender Eve Gascon made 21 saves in the second game, and she was named WCHA Rookie of the Week for her stinginess. 

An interesting part of this coming weekend’s UMD trip to Bemidji State is that it will be a homecoming of sorts for Hunt. She transferred from Bemidji State to UMD for her fifth year, seeking a master’s degree in business with UMD’s curriculum.

Bemidji State’s Mattias Scholl watches his blocked UMD shot trickle past him. (MHM Photo / John Gilbert)

Cohasset natives shine in net at college, NHL levels
Minnesota-Duluth’s men may have good reason to help the good folks of Cohasset, Minn., a tiny mining town on the Western tip of the Iron Range, build a statue to goaltenders. Hunter Shepard, a Cohasset native, is a former Grand Rapids High School standout who guided the Thunderhawks to the Class 2A state tournament before playing junior hockey on his way to UMD. He was the MVP as the Bulldogs won back-to-back NCAA championships. Shepard recorded 15 shutouts in his days at UMD.

While he continued to do his hometown of Cohasset proud by winning the American Hockey League’s Calder Cup trophy for Washington’s AHL franchise, he was called up to start his first NHL game for the Washington Capitals vs. New Jersey on Oct. 25. That was the same day that current UMD goaltender Zach Stejskal was named NCHC Co-Goaltender of the Week for recording his first collegiate shutout in last Friday’s 4-0 victory over Bemidji State before also surviving a wild, power-play-filled shootout to beat the Beavers 5-4 in overtime Saturday in Bemidji.

“I know I came close a lot of times,” Stejskal said, of getting a shutout victory. “I remember one game we were tied 0-0 against St. Cloud, and they beat us 1-0 in overtime. When we’d win and I’d give up a goal late, I’d always say that shutouts didn’t matter, winning was what was important. But now that I finally got a shutout, I’ve got to admit, it’s pretty neat.”

Both nights, Stejskal had to outduel Bemidji State’s Matthias Scholl, who was victimized by a three-goal first period for the Bulldogs, all on power-play tallies from Matthew Perkins, Luke Bast and Aaron Pionk. The next night was not a pleasant one for either Stejskal or Scholl.

“I thought their goalie (Scholl) played great,” said UMD coach Scott Sandelin. “We looked really confident on our power play in the first game, but there were some unnecessary penalties that we will have to tighten up.”

After a miraculous recovery from cancer, UMD senior Zach Stejskal recorded his first career shutout against Bemidji State to keep the Bulldogs unbeaten at 3-0-2. (MHM Photo / John Gilbert)

Stejskal’s story has a double impact, because he, too, is from Cohasset, Minn., and was a state tournament star at Grand Rapids before playing at UMD. After one impressive season, however, Stejskal was stunned by the news in the fall of his sophomore season that he had testicular cancer and would miss the entire season during treatment. He made it through treatment, got a clean bill of health, made it back last season and has become the No. 1 netminder as a senior for the Bulldogs.

Somebody asked Sandelin what he thought Shepard would be going through in his first NHL start at Washington, and the coach said: “Knowing Shep, he’s probably nervous, excited, and probably won’t show it.”

Unlike the 6-foot Shepard, Stejskal is 6-foot-5, towering over the crossbar, the crease and just about everybody on both teams. Maybe they’ll need twin statues up in Cohasset.

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