Last fall, St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko had a decision to make. Freshman forward Joey Benik had broken a leg only 20 minutes into the first practice of the hockey season, and it was not healing as quickly as either of them hoped.
Motzko thought it might be best to redshirt Benik and allow him to start fresh next season. But he quickly dismissed the idea—and on Sunday, the coach and the rookie combined to make history. Benik scored two goals, including the winner, to defeat Miami (Ohio) 4-1 in the finals of the NCAA Midwest Regional in Toledo, Ohio, sending the Huskies to their first Frozen Four.
Benik — who also netted the winning goal in Saturday’s semifinal victory over Notre Dame — was named most valuable player of the Midwest Regional after finishing with four goals and an assist. Linemate Cory Thorson, a junior from Crystal, also scored twice Sunday. The Huskies (25-15-1) will play Quinnipiac, the nation’s top-ranked team, in the Frozen Four semifinals in Pittsburgh at 7 p.m. on April 11, following the Yale vs. UMass-Lowell semi at 3:30.
St. Cloud State had a 1-9 record in eight previous NCAA tournament appearances. After claiming one of the last at-large bids, it entered the Midwest Regional as the No. 4 seed. The Huskies, ranked ninth in the nation, beat top seed Notre Dame 5-1 in Saturday’s semifinals.
“It’s a great moment for our program,’’ said Motzko, who played at St. Cloud State from 1984 to ’86 and began his coaching career as an assistant to then-Huskies coach Herb Brooks. “I can’t say enough about the character of this team.
“We thought, ‘Should you redshirt [Benik] and get that fourth year back down the stretch?’ We talked about it for about 30 seconds and said, ‘Let’s go for it. Let’s get him back in our lineup.’ We’re all starting to see what he’s capable of doing.”
Benik, an Andover native who played at St. Francis High School, was joined by three teammates on the all-Midwest Region team: Thorson, goaltender Ryan Faragher and defenseman Andrew Prochno of Shorewood. Thorson finished the regional with three goals and an assist. Prochno had a pair of assists and was part of a stellar defensive effort through both games, with Faragher as its anchor. The sophomore stopped 37 shots in the two games, including 20 against Miami.
Motzko had just put Benik and Thorson on the same line in a practice last week, sensing they would work well together. Benik did not begin playing until after Christmas and entered the NCAA tournament with three goals and three assists in 21 games.
Sunday, he opened the scoring at five minutes, 28 seconds of the first period, beating Miami goalie Ryan McKay from the high slot on an assist from Thorson. Benik got the winning goal at 5:36 of the second. McKay stopped Brooks Bertsch on a drive to the net, but a trailing Benik swatted the rebound past the goalie.
After Blake Coleman cut the lead to 2-1 at 7:50 of the second, St. Cloud State turned up the pressure. Bertsch set up Thorson for his first goal of the game at 10:12, and Thorson added an empty-net goal with one second remaining.
“It’s a relief to finally get to the Frozen Four,’’ Thorson said. “It’s been a dream of mine. To finally have it come true, it’s another step in the history of such a great program.’’
Quinnipiac 5, Union 1: Matthew Peca recorded the fastest hat trick in NCAA tournament history, scoring three goals in a 3:12 span of the first period, leading the top-seeded Bobcats (29-7-5) over the Dutchmen (22-13-5) in the East Regional final in Providence, R.I.
The Gophers’ Warren Miller had the previous fastest hat trick, doing it in 4:20 on March 17, 1975, against Harvard.