Zach Halverson | @ZachHalverson
ST. PAUL, Minn. — It was revealed late Tuesday afternoon that this weekend’s fourth annual North Star College Cup would be the final tournament it it’s short history at Xcel Energy Center. There was no specific reason given, though the few in attendance for any of the first three tourneys would point to the sea of green seats as a probable reason for the North Star Cup’s demise.
While the fans may not have shown up, the players on all four teams certainly did as all four teams provided the 12,167 spectators with a doubleheader of entertaining semifinal hockey. St. Cloud State and Bemidji State kicked things off with a low scoring affair, with St. Cloud State edging Bemidji State 2-1, while Minnesota Duluth held off an impressive third period rally by Minnesota to beat the inaugural North Star Cup champs Minnesota 3-2.
The victories set up a championship game between the returning champion Huskies and the Bulldogs, who haven't yet hoisted the red oak-made trophy.
St. Cloud State 2, Bemidji State 1
It was a hard fought affair between the NCHC’s St. Cloud State and the WCHA’s Bemidji State. The game was close until the final buzzer as the Huskies held off the Beavers to return to the North Star College Cup championship game after winning the tournament last year.
Jacob Benson got the Huskies up 1-0 with a power play goal. Blake Winiecki tallied an assist on Benson’s goal before scoring a goal of his own mid-way through to give the defending champions a two-goal lead.
The Beavers continued to press the Huskies in the second period, outshooting the Huskies 10-2 in the middle frame. Zach Whitecloud was able to solve Huskies goaltender Jeff Smith late in the period to pull Bemidji State back within one of St. Cloud State.
Both teams had chances in the third, however the goaltenders stood tall, each stopping eight third period shots in the 2-1 St. Cloud State victory. Smith stopped 26 of 27 shots while Beavers netminder Michael Bitzer turned away 19 of 21.
Huskies head coach Bob Moztko was pleased his team’s ability to make adjustments to their game.
“I thought we played a good game tonight,” said Motzko. “Bemidji forces us to play a little different system than we are used to, but we took them out of there transition game which we had to do.”
The Huskies return to the Final to take on Minnesota Duluth. The Huskies and the Bulldogs are familiar foes, as their matchup on Saturday night in the Final will be their fifth meeting this season. The Bulldogs swept the Huskies in St. Cloud earlier this season before the teams split a series in Duluth two weeks ago. Bulldogs head coach Scott Sandelin says it reminds him of the way things used to be when he played.
“It reminds me of the old days back in the old WCHA when I played where you played teams six times and then probably another two or three in the playoffs,” said Sandelin. “It’s fun to play them, they’re a good team and we always have good games with them. It’s fun hockey to play because both teams play the game the right way.”
Minnesota Duluth 3, Minnesota 2
Brent Gates’ power play goal just over five minutes into the first period wasn’t the way the Bulldogs wanted to be welcomed back to the North Star College Cup after sitting out last year. It set the tone for what turned out to be an entertaining affair in the first and only regular season meeting between the former WCHA rivals.
The Gophers held on to their 1-0 lead until late in the end of the first period when Blaine native Riley Tufte found some space in the slot and fired it top shelf to tie the game. Later on in the second period, Alex Iafallo netted a 5-on-3 power play score to put Minnesota Duluth up 2-1 and the Gophers on their heels the rest of the middle frame.
Minnesota dominated much of the third period, however it was Minnesota Wild prospect Avery Peterson who sprung free and scored the eventual game winning goal on a breakaway off a Gophers neutral zone turnover. It was a costly mistake for the Gophers who otherwise were the better team in the final 20 minutes of regulation, outshooting the Bulldogs 22-2.
Brent Gates added a second goal in the final minute of the game to cut Minnesota Duluth’s lead to 3-2, however Bulldogs netminder Hunter Miska stood tall in the remaining 39 seconds to seal the victory. The freshman Miska shut the door on 37 of 39 Gophers shots and earned the No. 3 star in his 15th victory of the season.
Despite the loss, Gophers head coach Don Lucia was proud of his team.
“I thought both teams came out and competed really well,” Lucia said. “I know we had a good push to begin the game and ultimately when you play good teams and you makes some mistakes they’re gonna make you pay.”
With the victory, Minnesota Duluth earned their second trip to the Final. The Bulldogs lost in a shootout to Minnesota in the inaugural North Star College Cup and are the only team other than Minnesota State University, Mankato to not have North Star College Cup title. If Minnesota Duluth wins, the North Star College Cup will finish it’s brief four year run with four different champions.
Bemidji State and Minnesota kick off the final evening of North Star College Cup hockey in the consolation game at 4 p.m. and St. Cloud State and Minnesota Duluth will follow with a scheduled puck drop of 7 p.m..