ST. CLOUD – The plan seemed simple enough. Gophers hockey players Casey Mittelstadt and Ryan Lindgren would return by air from the World Junior Championship in Buffalo, N.Y., to the Twin Cities around noon Saturday, plenty of time to arrive in St. Cloud for the 6:30 p.m. game against top-ranked St. Cloud State.
Mittelstadt and Lindgren made it.
Their equipment didn’t, because of courier issues, according to a team spokesman.
So, neither played in the 10th-ranked Gophers’ 5-2 loss to the Huskies at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center. The defeat was the fifth consecutive against St. Cloud State (13-2-3) for the Gophers (12-10-1), who’ll try to end the skid in the series finale on Sunday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
Even if the Gophers had everyone available, it likely wouldn’t have changed the outcome. Mikey Eyssimont scored two goals and added an assist as St. Cloud State improved to 10-0-1 at home.
“They’re the best team we’ve seen this year,’’ Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “We’ve seen some of the top teams, but what separates them is their depth. They have four lines of guys who can make plays.’’
The absence of Mittelstadt, the team’s third-leading scorer and the MVP at the World Juniors, and Lindgren, a top-pair defenseman, was compounded by the absence of forward Tommy Novak, Minnesota’s second-leading scorer. Novak missed the game because of an upper-body injury and is week-to-week, Lucia said.
Lucia juggled three of his four lines and two of three defense pairings but saw a positive that Mittelstadt and Lindgren didn’t have to play for the third consecutive day.
“Part of me didn’t want to play them,’’ said Lucia, who said both should play Sunday. “In the long run, it’s probably better that they didn’t play tonight. … Two guys wouldn’t have made a difference if other guys don’t step up.’’
St. Cloud State was without forward Ryan Poehling, who also played for the U.S. team in the World Juniors, but the Huskies showed in front of a crowd of 5,714 why they’re ranked No. 1. That was especially evident in a dominant second period, when they scored twice early for a 3-1 lead and outshot the Gophers 15-5. Minnesota didn’t have its first shot on goal in the second until 9:37 had expired.
“We got punched in the mouth a little bit, and we didn’t respond the way we wanted to,’’ said Gophers forward Brent Gates Jr., who had a goal and an assist.
The Gophers struck first when Mike Szmatula scored 2:34 into the first period. St. Cloud State tied it at 8:49 on Robby Jackson’s power-play goal.
St. Cloud State seized control in the second, with Eyssimont making a slick move and tucking the puck past goalie Eric Schierhorn 50 seconds into the period. Less than five minutes later, Easton Brodzinski made it 3-1 when, from behind the goal, he banked the puck in off Schierhorn’s back.
“We weren’t strong enough on a couple of those goals, and it ended up costing us,’’ Gophers captain Tyler Sheehy said.
Eyssimont made it 4-1 by scoring on a three-on-one rush 1:27 into the third.
Gates cut it to 4-2 with 12:54 left, but Jack Ahcan’s goal with 7:01 left set the final score.
“The message after the game is we’ve got to compete harder,’’ Sheehy said. “We kind of let it slip out of our hands with our effort.’’