Cloud In the Sky
Third Line Big as Huskies Reach First-Ever Frozen Four
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
TOLEDO, Ohio The matchups on paper for the Midwest Regional final, pitting St. Cloud State against Miami, were tantalizing. After all, there was the second-most prolific offense in the nation (St. Cloud) taking on the second-best defense (Miami) and the WCHA Player of the Year (Hobey finalist Drew LeBlanc) squaring off against the CCHA Player of the Year (Austin Czarnik). The game also featured the CCHA’s and WCHA’s top-scoring rookies (Riley Barber and Jonny Brodzinski, respectively).
In the end, though, the game – and weekend – proved to be a grand stage for the emergence of St. Cloud’s previously quiet third line, which wrote its own script by scoring three goals in the Huskies’ 4-1 triumph over Miami. As a result, in less than two weeks in Pittsburgh, St. Cloud will play in the first Frozen Four in program history.
And leading the way in the Huskies’ two victories this weekend was freshman Joey Benik. The Andover, Minn., native had two goals on Saturday against Notre Dame and added two more on Sunday.
“One thing we came into the weekend focusing on was getting a lot of shots to the net,” said Benik, a man of few words. “And that’s what we did.”
Prior to the weekend, Benik had just three goals in 21 games played this season. Sunday, he left Toledo as the Midwest Regional’s Most Outstanding Player.
The freshman left wing plays alongside sophomore right wing Brooks Bertsch and junior center Cory Thorson – whose empty netter against Miami, his second goal of the night, kick-started the wild celebration for the Huskies. The trio enjoyed a remarkable weekend in Toledo – Benik with four goals and two assists; Thorson (also named to the All-Tournament Team) with three goals and an assist; and Bertsch with three assists.
Perhaps more remarkably, St. Cloud head coach Bob Motzko created the line just days ago.
“We threw it together this week in practice,” explained Motzko. “Cory is having a great season for us. We felt Joey was really coming on. It just had some chemistry. And we went with it, coming into the Regional. They hadn’t been together all year. When you’re working hard and you have talent like that, good things will happen. They have a little confidence now.”
And understandably so.
In Sunday’s Regional final, Benik quickly picked up where he left off on Saturday. Just 5:28 into the first period, the rookie was left alone in the slot, and his quick wrist shot beat Miami goaltender Ryan McKay low to the stick side. He scored his second – at almost the exact time of the second period – after Bertsch drove forcefully across the crease, leaving the puck behind for Benik to deposit into an empty cage.
The efforts of the third line gave St. Cloud a two-goal lead to protect in the third period with a trip to Pittsburgh on the line.
“I’m spent, I really am,” said Motzko. “It was an emotional week. I think it’s going to hit me more tomorrow when we get back to St. Cloud. That third period in my eyes took two hours. I’m just so proud of these guys. Their compete level and their work level – just phenomenal guys.”
Of course, Benik’s season is notable not only for his recent success. It’s also been an inspirational comeback story for the freshman, who didn’t make his collegiate debut until Dec. 27 after missing the first half of the season with a broken leg suffered during the Huskies’ first practice of the year.
Recalled Motzko, “First 20 minutes of the first practice of the year, he broke his leg. It took him a while to warm up, but boy, he sure warmed up here in the playoffs.
“If you follow his track record, that’s what he does. When you break your leg, and it doesn’t heal as fast as you wanted, you have that discussion, should you redshirt him? I think we talked about it for 30 seconds, but we thought, let’s go for it, let’s get him back into our lineup.”
Prior to arriving on campus, Benik led the BCHL’s Penticton in scoring and won the Canadian Junior A national title in 2012. In the championship game, Benik scored the game-winner late in the third period after “he wouldn’t come off the ice” according to Motzko.
Now, Benik – who earned All-Conference status in both hockey and golf as a high-schooler – credits the chemistry with his linemates for his successful postseason surge. He also credits senior co-captain Drew LeBlanc, who came back from a devastating leg injury of his own, one that required the current Hobey finalist to red- shirt a season ago.
“He helped me a lot,” said Benik of LeBlanc. “It’s hard to be away from games for that long. You can be ready and try to get in game shape but you don’t know… There were obviously a few adjustments I had to make – I had to get the conditioning level up. Being away from the game so long, you lose all the little thoughts that you have [while you’re playing].”
Benik, certainly, stole the headlines all weekend. But he’s still the youngest member of St. Cloud’s third line. It was Thorson – the senior-most member of the line – who centered the newly-formed line all weekend.
“We get pucks deep, and we grind it out,” said Thorson of the line’s style. “We take hits, we give hits. It’s a muck and grind style of play.”
Muck and grind. And historically speaking – with a trip to the Frozen Four now on the horizon – the most noteworthy performance by a trio in program history.
That’s the third line for St. Cloud State – and for the Huskies in Toledo this weekend, that third line proved to be the charm.
NOTES: The Midwest Regional All-Tournament Team was: Joey Benik (F, St. Cloud), Cory Thorson (F, St. Cloud), Blake Coleman (F, Miami), Steven Spinell (D, Miami), Andrew Prochno (D, St. Cloud), and Ryan Faragher (G, St. Cloud) … Miami right wing Jimmy Mullin was injured early in the first period of Saturday’s regional semifinal against Minnesota State, and the sophomore was unavailable to play on Sunday … Faragher, the Huskies’ sophomore netminder, was dominant all weekend, making 20 saves in the Regional Final … St. Cloud head coach Bob Motzko closed his jovial press conference by complimenting the city of Toledo and picked out one particularly hospitable person he – and many others – encountered this weekend: “I got a new best friend – the guy in the parking lot. You guys know him … Yeah, Tom. We’re going to ask him to come to Pittsburgh next week too.”