By Shane Frederick
Free Press Staff Writer
MANKATO — What a way to get home ice.
Brett Knowles with an overtime winner. Stephon Williams with a plethora of highlight-reel saves. A standing-room-only crowd of 5,088.
“I’m assuming that resembles a playoff game,” Minnesota State coach Mike Hastings deadpanned after his team’s 2-1 overtime victory over No. 5 North Dakota at the Verizon Wireless Center.
For the 10th-ranked Mavericks, the win clinched their first WCHA upper-division finish in five years and the fourth since joining the league fulltime in 1999-2000.
The victory also snapped a 10-game losing streak to UND and came in the two teams’ final regular-season meeting as conference foes.
“That was two good teams playing a good hockey game,” said Knowles, a freshman winger who slammed in Jean-Paul LaFontaine’s pass behind goalie Zane Gothberg at 3:22 of the extra period. “That was one of the funnest games I’ve played in in my life. The crowd was unreal.”
The Mavericks (22-11-3, 16-11-1 in WCHA) finished the regular season in a tie for fourth place in the WCHA after back-to-back 11th-place finishes. They also set a Division I-era record for wins.
“It’s great for our community, great for our team, great for our school,” senior defenseman Tyler Elbrecht said. “It’s great for everybody. We’re where we want to be. But there’s still a lot to accomplish.”
Minnesota State will be either the fourth or sixth seed in the first round of the conference tournament, depending on the outcome of today’s game between Denver and Alaska Anchorage, and will host either Minnesota Duluth or Nebraska Omaha.
“It’s huge for us,” said Williams, who all but locked up the WCHA’s goaltending title with a 1.93 goals-against average in league play. “We accomplished one of the goals we set at the beginning of the season. But we’re not satisfied. We’ve still got the playoffs.”
Williams stopped 30 shots, including three in overtime. His quick glove snagged several quick shots by UND’s freshman phenom, Rocco Grimaldi, throughout the game. He also stymied a 2-on-1 rush in the second period and had a nifty poke check on a Michael Parks breakaway in the third.
“(North Dakota) came hard,” Hastings said. “Stephon did a phenomenal job keeping them at one.”
The Mavericks looked like they were in trouble early on.
Just 63 seconds into the game, Williams mishandled a shot by Brendan O’Donnell and the puck fell into the crease behind him. Danny Kristo swooped in before Williams could track down the puck and tapped it in for the quick 1-0 lead.
North Dakota dominated the period from there, outshooting the Mavericks 15-7, but Williams didn’t let that early error bother him.
“You just gotta forget about it,” said Williams, who won his 19th game. “You gotta refocus and give your team a shot. You have to pretend like nothing happened.”
The Mavericks had a better showing in the second and looked like they were going to go into the third still down 1-0.
But with 25.9 seconds to go, freshman Dylan Margonari tied the game. Keeping the puck on a 2-on-1 with LaFontaine, Margonari beat goalie Gothberg, who was also outstanding with 35 saves, at the far post as he dashed in from the left circle.
The overtime winner came off a faceoff in the UND end, with Eriah Hayes moving the puck across to LaFontaine behind the net. Knowles was left open on the weak side, and LaFontaine made the perfect pass across the goal mouth to him for the winner.
“It felt pretty good,” Knowles said.
Tickets for next weekend's playoff series — Friday, Saturday and Sunday (if necessary) — go on sale at 10 a.m. Monday.
North Dakota 1-0-0-0—1
Minnesota State 0-1-0-1—2
Scoring: 1. UND-Kristo 21 (Knight 31, MacWilliam 10) 1:03
Penalties: Stern, MSU (holding) 5:00; Knowles, MSU (elbowing) 13:03
Scoring: 2. MSU-Margonari 10 (Gaede 10, Elbrecht 6) 19:34
Penalties: Schmaltz, UND (interference) 6:02; MacWilliam, UND (holding) 9:49
Penalties: Gaarder, UND (slashing) 16:01; Blueger, MSU (slashing) 18:11; Gaarder, UND (roughing) 18:11
Scoring: 3. MSU-Knowles 5 (LaFontaine 21, Hayes 15) 3:22
Shots on goal: UND 15-6-7-3—31. MSU 7-14-15-1—37. Penalties: UND 4 for 8 minutes; MSU 3 for 6 minutes. Power-play opportunities. UND 0 for 2; MSU 0 for 3. Goalie saves: UND Gothberg 7-13-15-0—35 (2 GA); MSU Williams 14-6-7-3—30 (1 GA)
UND called its timeout at 2:49 of OT
Referees: Craig Welker, C.J. Beurline. Linesemen: Sterling Eagan, Tony Czech.