PITTSBURGH — Minnesota State was ready to add another entry to a series of firsts.
The Mavericks were 10 minutes away from slapping their name onto the final game of the bracket. After winning their first NCAA tournament game and getting to the Frozen Four for the first time less than two weeks ago, they had a lead in the third period Thursday.
Two critical plays, however, made for another dramatic pivot and gave St. Cloud State a first of its own — a debut in the national championship game.
The Huskies got a tying goal by Joe Molenaar midway through the final period and Nolan Walker’s last-minute winner in a 5-4 victory at PPG Paints Arena.
Senior defenseman Riese Zmolek didn’t see it as the Mavericks failing to see things through to the finish.
“They’re a good hockey team. They’re going to make plays,” he said. “Hats off to them late in that third period.”
After falling behind 3-1 in the second period, the Mavericks gained momentum with an inspired five minutes. Walker Duehr cut the deficit to one and Nathan Smith scored his second power-play goal of the game to equalize.
Dallas Gerads put Minnesota State ahead 4-3 early in the third period and things were tilting toward the Mavericks.
They led in the third period of 21 games this season entering Thursday and had closed out 20 of them. The only exception was a 4-3 overtime loss to Bemidji State on Feb. 27.
The Huskies added another one.
“Even a couple shifts before Molenaar scored, I felt like we were starting to get some jump back in our legs and were able to push the pace a little bit more and get up on the forecheck a little bit more,” St. Cloud State coach Brett Larson said. “Until then, I thought they really controlled the areas that they wanted to control and it was really difficult for us.”
Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings said he thought his players lost body positioning on Molenaar’s tying goal with 9:46 remaining. On Walker’s go-ahead goal with 53.2 seconds left, the Mavericks lost battles for the puck along the boards.
“We had some opportunities over that last 4½ minutes ourselves. They found a way to capitalize,” Hastings said. “I didn’t think we backed off. I just thought that they made a play. At that time of the game, that’s the difference.”
The result in a game of momentum swings left the Mavericks with the empty feeling of seeing the season end abruptly. There was another first for them to claim but it was snatched away.
“It’s unbelievable the distance we’ve come,” Smith said. “Riese and all the rest of the seniors, they paved the way for us. I just hope we can come back next year stronger.”