An ominous start to his freshman season has suddenly transformed into an unbelievably prosperous finish for St. Cloud State forward Joey Benik.
After breaking his leg in the first hour of his first college hockey practice in October, the left winger returned to capture the spotlight at the NCAA Midwest regional at the Huntington Center this weekend.
Benik scored two goals to lead St. Cloud State to a 4-1 victory over Miami on Sunday as the Huskies earned a trip to the Frozen Four for the first time in school history.
“We’re all starting to see what he’s capable of doing,” St. Cloud coach Bob Motzko said. “He’s sure starting to warm up here in the playoffs. It was a big moment.”
Benik, who also scored two goals in the Huskies’ 5-1 upset of Notre Dame in the semifinals on Saturday, tallied the first two goals on Sunday.
“Both games, yesterday and today, went very well,” Benik said. “Everyone’s really excited. It’s the first time in school history making it to the Frozen Four so obviously there’s a lot of excitement.”
Benik said he learned a lot about dealing with his injury from senior Drew LeBlanc, a forward who suffered a compound fracture during a game against Wisconsin in November, 2011. LeBlanc returned for his senior season and was named a finalist for the Hobey Baker award.
“Right when it happened I was talking to Drew, and he helped me out a lot,” Benik said. “When you’re away from games you kind of lose all the little thoughts in your head. I just worked on it every day.”
He returned for his first college game on Dec. 21. He said it took time for his conditioning to catch up. Benik came into the regional tournament with three goals and four assists in 21 games. With his four goals and an assist this weekend, Benik has five goals and three assists in his last five games.
“It’s been a great season, but it’s not over yet,” Benik said. “We’ve still got one final goal to accomplish.”
Benik, a native of Andover, Minn., set the single-season high school state record for goals with 63 in 2009. Motzko said he thought about red-shirting Benik for about “30 seconds.”
“We decided ‘let’s go for it’ and get him back in our lineup,” Motzko said.
St. Cloud, which entered the regionals as a fourth seed, also got two goals from Cory Thorson. Sophomore goalie Ryan Faragher finished with 20 saves for the Huskies (25-15-1).
St. Cloud will face No. 1 overall seed Quinnipiac (29-7-5) in the semifinal April 11 in Pittsburgh.
Miami freshman goalie Ryan McKay finished with 18 saves. Miami sophomore Blake Coleman scored the lone goal for the RedHawks (25-12-5), which were the second seed.
After Benik scored his second goal to give St. Cloud a 2-0 lead early in the second, Miami cut it to a one-goal edge. Just 2:22 later, the Huskies went up 3-1 midway through the second period.
“They took over in the second period, and I just didn’t think we had an answer for it,” Miami coach Enrico Blasi said. “I think we worked hard. We tried to generate some things, but in the end they were just up for the task. They deserve to be where they’re at.”
St. Cloud countered quickly to go back up by two on a terrifically placed shot by Thorson.
“We just want to keep this train going,” Thorson said.
The crucial goal made it 3-1 with 9:48 left in second period.
“When you get that close, then they come back and score a goal, that’s hard to accept,” Blasi said.
Miami hit the post twice in a span of 18 seconds in the first.
“If we would have gotten one in the first it may have been a different game,” Blasi said
McKay gave up three goals but also was very strong at times. He stoned Benik, preventing the hat trick late in the second. St. Cloud State had a two-man advantage for 1:08 in the second period, but McKay was up to the challenge to keep it a two-goal game.
“This isn’t the end of the world,” Blasi said. “We won a CCHA championship. We got to a regional final, which is not easy to do. And we lost to a great St. Cloud team.
"You know, we’ve been on the other side of things, too. I think you need to take the good with the bad.”
The Huskies added an empty net goal with less than a second remaining with Thorson’s second.
Faragher, who was named goalie of the tournament, said Benik’s first goal was pivotal.
“That goal lifted the group,” he said. “I think we jumped up to another level and the guys’ feet felt a little lighter.”
Motzko, a 1987 graduate of St. Cloud who is in his eighth season, guided the Huskies to their first NCAA playoff victory in 2010.
“It’s a great moment for our program,” Motzko said. “St. Cloud State’s been awful close. This program needed to cross that hurdle. This is definitely a big step.
"We have a proud following. I can’t say enough about the character of this hockey team.”
Contact Mark Monroe at: email@example.com, 419-724-6354 or on Twitter @MonroeBlade.