PITTSBURGH – All season long, St. Cloud State has been exceeding expectations.
Picked to finish fourth in the NCHC, the Huskies men's hockey team took second in both the regular season and conference tournament.
Seeded second in the NCAA Northeast Regional, St. Cloud State beat No. 3 seed Boston University and No. 1 Boston College by a combined seven goals.
And now the Huskies will play for the NCAA Division I national championship after their dramatic, 5-4 victory over Minnesota State Mankato on Thursday in the Frozen Four semifinals at PPG Paints Arena.
Nolan Walker redirected Seamus Donohue's shot from the point past Mavericks goalie Dryden McKay with 54 seconds left in the third period as the Huskies rallied from a goal down to advance to the national championship game for the first time. St. Cloud State (20-10) will play the winner of Thursday's second semifinal between two-time defending national champion Minnesota Duluth and Massachusetts on Saturday night.
"I'm speechless,'' Walker said. "This was such an incredible game. What a journey we've been on this year. … This team's so special. We never give up.''
Said Mavericks coach Mike Hastings: "They made a play. At that time of the game, that's the difference.''
Freshman Joe Molenaar tied the score 4-4 for the Huskies at 10:14 of the third period after Minnesota State (22-5-1) had rallied from a 3-1 deficit to take a 4-3 lead with three consecutive goals. Spencer Meier, Kyler Kupka and Will Hammer also scored for St. Cloud State, and goalie David Hrenak made 25 saves.
"Obviously, we're excited right now,'' Huskies coach Brett Larson said. "It was a man's game. It was a battle. And we certainly played against a great team tonight.''
Nathan Smith scored two goals and Walker Duehr and Dallas Gerads one each for the Mavericks, who got 17 saves from McKay.
St. Cloud State held a 2-1 lead after one period and stretched it to 3-1 on Hammer's goal 2:40 into the second.
Minnesota State flipped the momentum in the final 10 minutes of the second period, getting Duehr's rebound goal at 12:07 and Smith's second power-play tally at 14:23 to tie it 3-3.
After Duehr won a puck battle along the boards in the neutral zone, Gerads gave Minnesota State a 4-3 lead at 4:18 when he tapped in a pass from Duehr past Hrenak.
"We've had a pretty good year when we're playing with the lead,'' Hastings said.
Molenaar bucked that trend, scoring at 10:14 to tie it 4-4 with his first career goal, taking a pass from Meier in front of the net and beating McKay.
"The puck bounced right on my stick,'' he said.
"Probably one of the easier goals I've scored.''
Said Larson: "We finally found a little bit of life. Even a couple of shifts before Molenaar scored, I felt we were getting some jump back in our legs and able to push the pace a little bit more.''
The game looked as if it would be going overtime, but Walker had other ideas in the final minutes, putting the Huskies one win from the national championship.
"We're so happy to be where we are right now,'' Walker said.