If Joe Jensen was just biding his time, he picked quite a moment to make an impression.
The freshman fourth-liner, who had just one assist in 15 games coming into Friday night, scored his first three collegiate goals — including the game winner with 29 seconds remaining in regulation — to give St. Cloud State a come-from-behind 4-3 victory over Minnesota.
Jensen’s winner was as sudden as it was shocking. Off a faceoff, the winger snuck in behind a crowd at the dot, pulled the puck out of the pile and simply hammered it inside the far post, under the crossbar and over the glove of Gopher netminder Travis Weber.
“[Peter] Szabo tied up the center on the draw, and I dug it out of the ref’s skates,” said Jensen.
“It’s a warrior mentality,” said St. Cloud head coach Craig Dahl of Jensen’s hard-working winner. “I never have to worry about Joe Jensen having it.”
Under different circumstances, Jensen might not even have been on the ice. Dahl skated three lines during the third period, and with Jensen already having scored the first goal for St. Cloud (8-7-2, 6-5-2 WCHA), he was among the chosen.
“We felt like we had a lot of energy,” said Dahl, “so we decided to go down to three … Our best players tonight played.”
“He had a great game,” said Gopher head coach Don Lucia of Jensen, “and a great shot at the end.”
Jensen’s hat trick was backed by a 38-save performance from rookie goaltender Jason Montgomery, who helped keep the Huskies close after Minnesota (11-5-4, 7-3-2 WCHA) took the lead on two occasions.
“I thought [Montgomery] made the saves he needed to,” said Dahl.
St. Cloud won without scoring assistance from its high-powered top line, which saw eight-game scoring streaks for both Ryan Malone and Jon Cullen end.
“I think if you’d told us we would keep their first line [scoreless] and not give up a power-play goal, we would have been pretty happy,” said Lucia.
With SCSU playing its first game since Dec. 16 and Minnesota coming off two wins at the Dodge Holiday Classic, the Gophers were expected to be sharper in the early going. And they were.
Charging straight up the middle after a lead pass from Paul Martin, Mike Erickson managed a shot between two Husky defenders, and Brett MacKinnon was there to stuff the rebound home to the right of Montgomery at 6:38 for his first goal of the season.
Thomas Vanek nearly made it 2-0 seconds later, but Montgomery was able to get over to stop his wrister from the left side of the slot. SCSU’s Joe Motzko had a chance to tie the game with a minute left in the first, but his swat at a carom off the back boards went wide left.
Weber kept St. Cloud off the board early in the second. On the power play, Matt Hendricks chased down a puck and flipped it back to a streaking Motzko, but Weber was there to deny the chance.
Montgomery returned the favor on a St. Cloud man-advantage, getting a leg out to block Troy Riddle’s wraparound, then deflecting Tyler Hirsch’s redirection just after the expiration of the penalty.
But at 13:15, Riddle and Vanek tacked on the second Gopher goal. Montgomery saved Riddle’s shot from the left circle, but Vanek — camped out in the slot — banged the puck home a moment before getting flattened.
The Huskies narrowed the gap just 38 seconds later. Jonathan Lehun fought through traffic in the high slot, then dropped the puck for a crashing Jensen, who zipped it past the glove side of Weber to narrow the lead to 2-1.
Both teams had sterling chances in the waning moments of the second period. First, Vanek fired Riddle’s pass wide on a two-on-one, and then SCSU’s Mike Doyle, parked all alone to Weber’s left, missed the net far-side.
The missed opportunities continued early in the third as Motzko pushed a short shot wide of the net around the seven-minute mark.
At 8:23, though, a semi-busted play produced SCSU’s second goal. A pass out of the defensive zone appeared to bounce off a stick — possibly two — at center ice and skip ahead to Jensen, who won a race to the puck, then beat Weber five-hole with a backhander to tie the score. Brock Hooton and Ryan LaMere got the assists.
Minnesota didn’t let the tie stand long. A shot by Joey Martin from the left point deflected off traffic, then banged off Montgomery’s helmet and lay in front of the crease, where Jake Fleming backhanded it home to give the Gophers a 3-2 lead at 10:13.
Less than a minute later, Husky defenseman LaMere hooked Matt Koalska down in front of the net, promising a chance for Minnesota’s power play to give the hosts some insurance. Instead, the Huskies capitalized at 11:33. Derek Eastman — playing his first game of the year after academic issues — saw his shot-pass from the top of the right circle hit Szabo and go into the net to knot it at 3.
That set up Jensen’s winner in the final minute. Minnesota pulled Weber in the closing seconds, but Montgomery sent Keith Ballard’s last-gasp shot wide as the horn sounded.
“It’s not hard to get up for a Gopher game,” said Jensen of his dramatic performance. “They’re our biggest rival.”
The win provides a welcome boost for the Huskies, who played a difficult first-half schedule and came out of the holiday break with a .500 record.
“We played well enough to win against North Dakota [a pair of one-goal losses], and then the win and the tie against Denver [Dec. 13-14],” said Dahl.
For Minnesota, the defeat was a lost chance to push farther up into the WCHA standings. “We had those chances to widen the lead in the second, and we couldn’t do it,” said Lucia.
Minnesota visits St. Cloud Saturday night to finish off the home-and-home series.