It was not supposed to be a season of expectations. This wasn’t a year when talk of the WCHA Final Five or the PairWise Rankings were likely to resonate in the halls of the National Hockey Center.
There was every reason to dislike St. Cloud State’s chances this season. The Huskies were coming off one of the worst campaigns in their recent history. There was no proven answer in net. No established scoring threats. A new head coach for the first time in the team’s Division I history was settling in behind the bench.
The season started off pretty much as expected — a shutout loss to Northern Michigan. The early season wasn’t always pretty, but the Huskies hacked out points where they could be found. As the calendar year turned, St. Cloud State had been denied points in only one weekend — at then-No. 1 Colorado College.
The detractors began to come around. Andrew Gordon and Joe Jensen were developing into the scoring threats that the team desperately needed. Billy Hengen was connecting with pass after pass, and Bobby Goepfert was rapidly developing as a force to be reckoned with in the WCHA.
The watershed moment came in January, when St. Cloud State rattled off seven wins in eight games, including a win over Denver and a road sweep of North Dakota. After splitting with Colorado College at home, the Huskies found themselves in a position no one believed they could have achieved: fourth place in the WCHA.
But almost as quickly as the Huskies had begun rising in the standings and in the polls, the flame appeared to be all but snuffed out in an instant. St. Cloud arrived at Minnesota State looking to continue its winning ways as the definitive favorite on the weekend.
Instead, the power play was shut down and the defense began showing a few holes. And just like that, the Huskies weren’t on top anymore — and all it took was two games. St. Cloud State floundered into the remainder of its schedule — which at one point had shown promise as a decent route into a home playoff series for the first time in four years — winning only one of their final six games.
As St. Cloud State limped into the playoffs, heading off to face one of the few teams to which it had lost the season series and with the power play continuing to sputter, the casual observer could have easily written off the team as having peaked too soon, having lost its edge.
Better luck next year.
But with a resilience the team had not shown in recent years, the Huskies refused to quit, and when Colorado College came out a bit flat, Goepfert and his forwards jumped on the opportunity and didn’t let go.
Three hard-fought games later, St. Cloud State had punched its ticket for the Final Five for the first time since the 2001-02 season, when the Huskies finished second in the WCHA only to fall in the Final Five semis to a Minnesota team that was on its way to its first national championship in over 20 years.
St. Cloud came out of the gate flying in the play-in game and never looked back.
Now, the Huskies stand where few would have dreamed they could have been at the start of the season — among the last four teams left standing in one of the most difficult leagues in the country.
“Craig Dahl was telling me all summer that this team was better than people thought,” said head coach Bob Motzko, who was named WCHA co-Coach of the Year for his efforts in turning around the St. Cloud State program. “I talk to him every week, and every time, it’s ‘I told you! I told you!’ We’re a pretty good hockey team.”
For the nation’s elite squads, a 21-15-4 record may not come off as a “dream season,” but five months ago, it was only in the wildest imaginations of the optimistic but understanding St. Cloud State fan base, even if Dahl and the coaching staff knew better.
But it’s clear to see that St. Cloud, through the players, coaches and fans alike, believes that this dream season has more chapters left to be written.
“Minnesota is the number-one team in the nation, and rightly so,” said Goepfert. “It’s going to be a big test, and we are going to see just how good we are tomorrow. I’m excited. I think everyone’s excited.”