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Tuesday June 25, 2024
CRUSHING DEFEAT: 'Cats Can't Hold Late Lead

Click the AUDIO button to hear Coach Potulny's post-game press conference. Photos courtesy of NMU and Mankato State.

MANKATO, Minn.---
Two minutes, 18 seconds.

That's all that separated the Northern Michigan University hockey team from the CCHA Mason Cup Championship and an unlikely spot in the NCAA Tournament.

Just 138 seconds to play, with a 2-0 lead on the strength of two Alex Frye goals and strong play from freshman goaltender Beni Halasz.

But in those 138 seconds, all of the hard work of the previous 57-plus minutes went out the window as the Minnesota State-Mankato Mavericks scored two goals with its goalie on the bench for an extra attacker to force overtime.

And then in overtime, just 1:08 in, Zach Krajnik scored the winning goal for the Mavericks. All of sudden, what looked like would be an NMU celebratory bus ride from Mankato to Marquette turned into the ultimate heartbreak.

The 3-2 loss sends the Mavericks to the NCAA Tournament, and ends the Wildcats' remarkable run that saw them take a sub-.500 record into the home stretch and win nine of ten games, including three straight in the CCHA playoffs.

After the game, a dejected NMU Coach Grant Potulny was almost speechless.

“Proud of our team's effort tonight,” Potulny said. “I mean, we couldn't have played better. Last five minutes of the game, you're down a man, two men, whether it's a penalty of their goalie is pulled. I just had to be in a room with a team that could not have played better. It's really, really hard for me right now.”

Potulny had warned in the weekly press conference that his team could not take penalties against the team with the nation's best power play.

They took penalties. Lots of them. But the 'Cats killed them all. All five of them. But that took an enormous amount of energy, and Potulny says that was a factor in those final three minutes when they weren't technically shorthanded, but the Mavericks had the extra attacker on the ice with the goalie pulled for a 6-on-5 man advantage.

“You're tired,” Potulny said. “It's your same guys going over and over again. I thought we had one chance to go for the (empty) net and we didn't. You're just hoping that your guys have a little bit of energy left, especially your D.”

But with 2:18 left, MSU's Ondrej Pavel scored, with assists from Simon Tassey and Andy Carroll. That brought Mankato to within 2-1.

The Mavericks continued to pound the Wildcat zone, and the exhausted NMU players couldn't get the empty-net goal that would have sealed the deal.

And with 57 seconds left, Christian Fitzgerald scored the tying goal, with assists by Jake Livingstone and Brendan Furry. All of a sudden, the sell-out crowd was rocking and the 'Cats were reeling.

They made it into the locker room for the full between-periods intermission, but the Mavericks finished the deal just 1:08 into overtime when Krajik slipped one past Halasz to win Minnesota State's second straight Mason Cup championship.

The game was a scoreless tie until the Wildcats broke into the lead with 3:39 left in the second period on Frye's first goal, assisted by David Keefer. Then in the third period, Frye scored again on an odd-man rush with 12:33 to play, assisted by Aiden Gallacher and Tanner Vescio. And when the 'Cats killed off a 5-on-3 power play later in the period, it looked like NMU's Cinderella story would continue for at least another week.

But then, those fateful 138 seconds, plus 68 seconds of overtime. Season over.

“When you're winning the game with two minutes or whatever it was, and you're in complete control,” Potulny said. “I mean, there's nothing happening in the game. Absolutely nothing. I mean, we're getting all of the chances. And then, penalties.”

Minnesota State (25-12-0) outshot NMU (21-18-0), 33-24, with Halasz stopping 30 of the shots. That's not the full story, though, as the Mavericks took a total of 89 shots, while the Wildcats got off 43 shots. Halasz kept his team in it, until that heartbreaking end.

“I thought he was outstanding,” Potulny said. “He made some really big saves. I thought to start the game, we were a little bit nervous, and he allowed us to get into our game.”

The Mavericks also dominated the face-off circle, winning 42 draws to just 17 for NMU.

In the end, it was one of the most bitter playoff losses in NMU history, rivaling the heartbreaker in 1992, when Northern led Michigan by three goals at the NCAA Regional at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena, only to lose, 7-6.

“The third period was all us,” Potulny said. “There were a couple rushes early and the rest was all us. Until the end. And that's hard.”

The Wildcats bored their two sleeper buses right after the game for what looked like would be a very happy late-night ride. Instead, it was a quiet, heartbreaking end.

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