The St. Cloud Norsemen peppered the net relentlessly Friday night and outshot the Minot Minotauros by a healthy margin 39-25 but could not solve goaltender Lawton Zacher and fell by a final of 3-0. The Norsemen would exact their revenge on Minot and Zacher on Saturday night however, as they never trailed and skated away with the 4-2 win and a split on the weekend.
Friday night didn’t get off to the start the home crowd was looking for on Charlie Boike Night as Minot struck just 75 seconds in. St. Cloud was able to dump the puck in deep but Zacher corralled the puck and left it behind his cage for Colby Woogk, who took the handoff and jettisoned around the bend and up the left wing boards with a full head of steam. Woogk’s outlet pass from inside his own zone found newcomer to the Minotauros Kolby Amici, who one-touched it around the last man and sprung himself on a partial breakaway. The NAHL veteran Amici, who played a season with the Jamestown Rebels and the first half of this season with the El Paso Rhinos, scored his first for Minot in his third game with the club, beating Tomáš Boľo low glove-side.
That was the only goal of the first two and a half periods, but it certainly wasn’t for a lack of effort from St. Cloud as they had 15 shots on goal in each of the opening two frames to Minot’s seven in the first, six in the second. The Minotauros worked the puck down low on the right side halfway through the third and an attempted Norsemen clearance of the zone went high off the glass by was gloved down by Woogk who was guarding the boards and he quickly shuffled the puck to the left side with a D-to-D pass to Joe Blackley. Blackley wristed a shot from above the left circle through a ton of traffic that found a seam and went in unabated at 10:34 of the period. Ben Johnson would pick up an empty netter as he sauced a shot from above his defensive left circle three-quarters the length of the ice with 55.8 seconds left to seal a 3-0 victory.
The script was completely flipped Saturday night in the rematch when Anthony Ruklic required just 66 seconds to get the Norsemen on the board. After Minot dumped the puck behind the St. Cloud net goalie Ethan Dahlmeir rimmed it around the boards and Ruklic made a pass from circle to circle and found Duke Kiffin on the right side in his own end. Kiffin’s stretch pass was deflected at the center line forward and onto Nik Hong who skated into it and up the right wing boards. On a partial 2-on-1, just ahead of a flurry of backcheckers, Hong slid the puck to Ruklic who lifted it over Zacher’s right pad to put St. Cloud on top early. On back-to-back nights a midseason acquisition for the Minotauros would get them on the board first as Cameron Boche scored his second in his 16th game for Minot after coming over from the Wisconsin Windigo when his shot from the right faceoff dot beat Dahlmeir five-hole at the 10:47 mark. The game was even after one and probably a fair result as the Tauros had the slimmest of edges in shots on goal 13-12.
St. Cloud would outshoot Minot 14-12 in the second and it was those two extra SOG that were the difference in the period. Again, the Norsemen scored in the opening two minutes of the frame when an offensive zone faceoff for St. Cloud was pushed into the left corner and Hunter Hanson muscled it behind the net and over to his winger Elmeri Hällfors. Hällfors threw it out front from the goalie’s right to Daniels Murnieks and his partial wraparound resulted in a left pad save for Zacher but Murnieks lifted his own rebound high and into the yawning net to give the Norsemen a 2-1 lead. Murnieks would then double it when he won a defensive zone restart that Briggs Orr, a former Minotaur now playing for St. Cloud, handed off to Severei Sulonen below the goal line and he banked it off the left side boards to neutral ice. It was fanned on and misplayed by a Tauro which developed into a 2-on-1 for Murnieks and Hanson. Murnieks looked off Hanson and from the inside sliver of the left circle rifled one past the glove of Zacher, about halfway up the right goal post 8:53 into the period.
“It was a great play by Sulonen, just playing it simple and Elmeri taking the D away,” compliments Murnieks on the play of his teammates. “It was an easy play for me, just take the puck and go on a 2-on-1. I didn’t see a passing lane so I just shot it.”
St. Cloud extended their lead when moments after a big blocker save by Dahlmeir the Norsemen brought it up the right wing via Ruklic who dropped to the trailer in Kiffin. Kiffin’s shot off the right pad of Zacher went straight to Kade Peterson’s tape and on a night where his game worn jersey from last season was auctioned off, Peterson lifted it high over Zacher’s outstretched leg and gave St. Cloud a 4-1 lead 3:35 into the final period. Minot got back on the board when the Norsemen turned a puck over in their own zone and Braden Fischer moved the puck from the right circle to the back side and Hunter Longhi , who shoveled into the net 12:28 into the third. That’s as close as the Minotauros would be able to crawl back however, even with the netminder pulled late, and St. Cloud would hold on for a 4-2 victory.
All nine goals on the weekend were scored outside of special teams play so Minot’s power play went 0-8, failing to convert on four attempts each night, while St. Cloud’s went 0-7 after five chances Friday and just two Saturday. The Norsemen’s penalty kill rate of 86.3% is second stingiest of the 29 NAHL teams, trailing only Oklahoma.
St. Cloud ended up outshooting Minot 36-34 for the game and Dahlmeir points out it was out of character for the Norsemen defensemen to give up that many shots as of late. “They’ve been doing a good job the last couple weeks keeping the shots to a minimum. It was hard for them tonight, they only had four skaters tonight after Briggs was kicked out. They’ve been playing well in front of me,” Dahlmeir acknowledges. When asked about facing more shots versus less, Ethan feels as a goalie there are advantages to seeing a lot of rubber. “Obviously it helps you stay in the game, stay in the moment when you have more shots and you see the puck more. I’d rather have higher shot games than lower shot games.”
Murnieks is optimistic the team can get some momentum off this win. “Yesterday was a tough loss but it was great to bounce back today, make a little separation from them and hopefully we can go on a run now,” theorizes Murnieks.
The other two series in the Central Division were also splits and no games went to overtime so the point differential in the standings remained the same as it was heading into the weekend with St. Cloud in third just a point behind Aberdeen and three clear of Minot who in fourth holds the last playoff spot. Bismarck though is not far behind as they trail their in-state rival by two and North Iowa sits just three out of that final postseason spot.
St. Cloud improved to 22-17-2-3 with the victory and their next matchup is against the Austin Bruins this Friday at the MAC. Puck drops at 7:00 and tickets can be purchased at tickets.stcloudnorsemen.com. They’ll wrap up the home-and-home in Austin on Saturday night with action getting underway at 7:05 and you can watch that game online at hockeytv.com.