Huskies beat Wildcats, repeat as WCHA champs

A shot hits the post alongside Michigan Tech goaltender Patrick Munson during the WCHA championship game against Northern Michigan on Saturday in Marquette. (Courtesy Photo/Daryl T. Jarvinen)

MARQUETTE — There was a gripping plot: two rival schools, located just 98 miles apart and playing for a conference title and an NCAA tournament bid.

There were the necessary parallels to build intrigue — a pair of first-year head coaches trying to prove themselves while guiding newly re-built programs onto the biggest stage college hockey offers.

For Tech, there was Patrick Munson, a goalie that hadn’t played in over a month before guiding the Huskies to a sweep over No. 3 Minnesota State. And for NMU, a collection of defensemen leading an offensive charge.

At the end of Saturday’s WCHA championship at the Berry Events Center, Michigan Tech emerged as 2-0 victors and back-to-back conference champions.

Munson made 21 saves for his ninth win and had some luck on his side during the St. Patrick’s Day game after the Wildcats hit the post.

“You can’t say enough of these guys. I’m certainly blessed to be around them. We challenged them at the beginning of the year to get out of their comfort zone and make the most of things, and they did,” Tech coach Joe Shawhan said. “From the goaltending on out, it was tremendous.”

Before the game, Shawhan said the Huskies were ready to play as long as they needed to, whether that meant a regulation finish or an overtime battle that took “until dawn.”

After the first period, it appeared the Huskies and the Wildcats might be in for the latter, as it closed with a 0-0 tie.

Play was consistent, with neither team dominating and both squads coming up with defensive plays when they needed to. There was a stop here, a save there and the occasional offensive mishap, but nothing special.

Then, in the second Tech took a 1-0 lead as Greyson Reitmeier fielded a ricochet and snuck it past NMU’s Atte Tolvanen with 14:24 to go in the period. Still, other than giving the Huskies a lead, the goal was nothing special.

The special part was the emergence of Munson between the pipes.

Munson started 12 of the first 16 games for the Huskies, but as Tech struggled to find consistency, the Huskies started looking for other options in goal.

On Feb. 2, Munson made what was easily his worst start of the year. Tech lost 7-2 at Bowling Green, and Munson sat the bench for the next 10 games. Some days he wasn’t even sure he would get to dress, but when Devin Kero was out of the lineup against Minnesota State in the second round of the WCHA playoffs, Munson was thrust back in the story. He had two exceptional games, and with Kero still fighting to get healthy, he earned the start against NMU.

“I never imagined this,” Munson said. I really appreciate Joe (Shawhan) giving me a chance down the stretch … It sounds dumb, but it was all about trusting the process. Never taking a shot off in practice, and just being a good teammate whether you are in the net or not. (Robbie Beydoun and Devin Kero) supported me a lot, and the guys in front of me have been phenomenal.”

Like every hero, he faced his share of adversity.

There was his unlikely journey to Tech — transferring first from Vermont, then from Denver to Tech.

In the contest against NMU there were close calls. A two-on-one stop with 2:17 left in the second as Demico Hannaoun fired a shot that forced Munson to do the splits in order to make the save, and a Robbie Payne shot off the pipe in the third. But Munson stood strong — as heroes do.

“It is almost easier when you see a lot of shots,” he said. “You are just tracking every puck, and the guys in front of me haven’t allowed bad bounces. They have just been keeping guys to the outside and letting me play my game and play positionally and put pucks in the corners.”

The guys in front served as a strong supporting cast. Tech’s defensive core had 22 blocked shots, stopping most of NMU’s chances before the puck even got close to Munson.

Then, with 47 seconds to play, Joel L’Esperance connected on an empty-net goal to seal the victory for the Huskies. Munson skated to the side of the ice, looked up at the Tech fans and pounded on the glass with his fist in celebration.

With the win Tech, qualifies for its second-straight NCAA tournament. The Huskies will play Notre Dame in Bridgeport, Connecticut on Friday at 3 p.m. The game will be televised on ESPN 2.

The 2-0 loss was NMU’s first instance of being shut out at home. It was also Tech’s seventh win in the last nine contests.

But this one ended with a full-on celebration. Munson stood up in the net and saw his teammates skating towards him for his favorite moment in hockey.

“When I was a kid, that’s the only thing I ever saw, was everyone skating to the goalie,” Munson said. “I didn’t realize you had to stop the puck. I was watching the clock, and knowing there was 4 seconds left, and knowing that was going to happen, that was an unbelievable feeling.”

MTU 0 1 1 — 2

NMU 0 0 0 — 0

Second Period

MTU — Greyson Reitmeier (Justin Misiak, Mitch Meek), 5:36

Third Period

MTU — Joel L’Esperance (Jake Lucchini, Dane Birks), 19:13

Saves

Tech: Patrick Munson 21; NMU: Atte Tolvanen 19.

Penalties

Tech: 2/4; NMU: 2/4.

Power plays

Tech: 0/2; NMU 0/2.

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