Heartbreak at Home: Tommies fall to Lakers on late goal in Game 3

St. Thomas captain Lucas Wahlin leads a charge up ice during a Game 3 CCHA Quarterfinal against Lake Superior State on Mar. 10 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

By Ryan Stieg 

MENDOTA HEIGHTS, Minn. — It’s always hard for a college hockey team to have its season come to an end, but it’s even harder when it ends in heartbreaking fashion.  

That’s what happened to the St. Thomas men’s squad Sunday night. After forcing a deciding Game 3 in their CCHA Quarterfinal series against Lake Superior State despite having a depleted line chart, the Tommies were tied 2-2 with just seconds remaining in the third period when disaster struck.  

UST defenseman Mason Poolman tried to keep the puck in the Lakers defensive zone, but his pass was intercepted by LSSU’s Luke Levandowski, and he led a rush up the ice. Connor Milburn sent a cross-ice pass back over to Levandowski, who fired a one-timer on net. The shot was deflected up in the air and it fluttered over Tommies goalie Aaron Trotter’s shoulder and then went off LSSU’s Dawson Tritt before going down to Tritt’s stick. Trotter dove toward the post to cover the puck, but Tritt tapped it into the open net to give the Lakers a 3-2 lead with just six seconds remaining. LSSU then won the ensuing faceoff to nail down the victory and moved on to the CCHA Semifinals where it will travel to top-seeded Bemidji State.  

St. Thomas forward Ryan O’Neill tries to maneuver his way to the Lake Superior State net during a Game 3 CCHA Quarterfinal on Mar. 10 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

“A bad bounce,” UST head coach Rico Blasi said, choking up toward the end of his statement. “I don’t think there’s any way you can say it. We did everything right. It went off a shinpad and went right to their guy. It hit the kid in the chest and then down to his stick. Maybe there’s two bounces there. It’s the way it goes. As I told the team after the game, everything happens for a reason, and we’re probably not going to be privileged enough to know about it for quite some time. But I’m proud of the way they played. I’m proud of the way they competed. We were down to three lines again tonight with another injury. They can walk out of here with their heads held high because in my book, we talk about process and we talk about culture, and we talk about loving each other and we did that all year long, and we finished in second. That’s a big deal, and it’s probably something that I know you guys probably didn’t think we could do. We elevated our program and now, it’s the responsibility for the rest of us that are back next year to continue to elevate the program. And that’s not a task we take lightly. And to our seniors that are leaving, you don’t start a program from scratch without special people.” 

The first period of play started off even, but the Lakers started to control the pace of the game as it wore on. LSSU got some good looks on net, but Trotter stood tall. Even though the Lakers looked better offensively, it was UST who got on the scoreboard in the period. While on the power play, Tommies forward Ryan O’Neill fed Luc Laylin on a backdoor play and Laylin stuffed the puck past Lakers goalie Ethan Langenegger to make it 1-0 at the 13:34 mark. LSSU’s best scoring chance came with 27 seconds left as Harrison Roy had a clear path to the net, but his shot was gloved by Trotter, and it stayed 1-0 going into the second.  

St. Thomas’ Luc Laylin celebrates his goal during a Game 3 CCHA Quarterfinal against Lake Superior State on Mar. 10 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

It appeared as if things might continue to go UST’s way in the second period as LSSU’s Jared Westcott was handed a 5-minute boarding penalty and a game misconduct for a hit on the Tommies’ J.D. Metz. However, the Lakers swung the momentum their direction when Connor Milburn beat Trotter on a shorthanded rush to tie the game at 1-1 at the 5:10 mark. LSSU then killed off both the major as well as a too many men penalty soon after that.  

The Tommies weren’t deterred though as they drew an interference penalty on LSSU’s Branden Piku and New Jersey Devils draft pick Chase Cheslock took advantage of the opportunity, beating Langenegger blocker-side at the 16:16 mark to put UST up 2-1 going into the third. That was also Cheslock’s first goal as a Tommie.  

UST had two good chances to pad its advantage early in the third as both O’Neill and Cheslock rang shots off the pipe. Meanwhile at the other end, the Lakers eventually tied the game at 2-2 with 9:31 left when Reagan Milburn beat Trotter top shelf.

St. Thomas’ Noah Prokop tries to get a shot off during a Game 3 CCHA Quarterfinal against Lake Superior State on Mar. 10 in Mendota Heights. (Photo by Ryan Stieg)

The Tommies had three chances late in the third to take the lead again with the best one coming from Luke Manning, but Langenegger denied his attempt and the Lakers blocked two more shots to keep the score at 2-2 before Tritt’s heroics pushed them into the next round of the playoffs. 

“In a Game 3, Game 7-type atmosphere, it’s going to come down to a bounce and it wasn’t our time yet,” Blasi said. “Did they play hard? Yeah. So did we. But it comes down to a bounce.” 

UST ends its third Division I season with an overall record of 15-20-2 and a second-place finish in the CCHA standings, which is a huge improvement from two years ago when they only managed three wins with a mostly Division III-caliber roster. 

“For us to finish second and compete, I don’t know what else to say other than I’m so proud of the guys that competed every day in practice and battled their butts off,” Blasi said. “There’s something special going on in our locker room and I’m proud to be a part of it and I’m excited about what we have going on.” 

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