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Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down, Three Stars: Stejskal's surprise return boosted Bulldogs in Denver

A stomach bug impacting the UMD locker room Saturday prompted the early return to the crease for goaltender Zach Stejskal, who was diagnosed with testicular cancer in the fall.

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Minnesota Duluth goalie Zach Stejskal (35) takes off his helmet in a game against St. Cloud State on Saturday, March 6, 2021, at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud.
Jason Wachter / File / The Rink Live

Minnesota Duluth’s men’s hockey team went to Denver this past weekend and did what no one had previously done to the Pioneers in 2021-22. UMD beat them at Magness Arena.

The Bulldogs rebounded from a 5-3 loss on Friday to hand Denver its first loss since Dec. 11, 2021, via a 3-2 victory on Saturday, with Hermantown native and sophomore defenseman Darian Gotz scoring the game-winner for his first collegiate goal.

The loss to the Bulldogs was only the Pioneers’ second defeat in 20 games (17-2-1). The other loss was also to the Bulldogs back on Dec. 11 at Amsoil Arena.

The UMD women’s program improved to 11-2 since the holiday break via a home sweep of St. Thomas last weekend, winning 2-1 and 8-1 at Amsoil Arena. The Bulldogs outshot the Tommies 95-16 in the series, with the six shots on goal by UST on Friday being the lowest ever for a UMD opponent.

Here’s a deeper look back at last weekend’s UMD hockey action via the Thumbs Up, Thumbs Down and Three Stars by hockey reporter Matt Wellens, plus a look ahead of what’s to come for the Bulldogs this week.

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Thumbs up to Zach Stejskal

Zach Stejskal
Playing in his first game since being diagnosed with cancer in the fall, Minnesota Duluth sophomore goaltender Zach Stejkal (35) makes a save against Denver on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, at Magness Arena in Denver.
Contributed / Shannon Valerio Photography via University of Denver Athletics

Late in the first intermission of Saturday’s NCHC contest between the Bulldogs and Pioneers in Denver, UMD director of operations Christian Koelling leaned down from the coaches’ box and yelled a cryptic message to Bruce Ciskie and I.

“We got an early Valentine’s Day gift for you.”

It wasn’t flowers or chocolate. No jewelry, either. It was much, much better. It was UMD sophomore goaltender Zach Stejskal emerging first from the Bulldogs locker room, onto the ice and into the crease for the start of the season period.

Stejskal, the 22-year-old from Cohasset, had been diagnosed with testicular cancer in the fall, requiring surgery and chemotherapy. He officially missed just 14 games between Oct. 22 and Dec. 11, but since returning to the bench on Dec. 30 against Minnesota State in Mankato, he’d yet to get in a game.

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Minnesota Duluth goaltender Zach Stejskal (35) shoots the puck during warmups on Thursday Dec. 30, 2021, at Mayo Health System Event Center in Mankato.
Clint Austin / File / Duluth News Tribune

UMD turned to Stejskal on Saturday because a stomach illness began sweeping through the team late in the day Saturday, and it hit starting goaltender Ryan Fanti particularly hard. Fanti was able to make it through the first period — stopping 13 of the 13 shots he faced, including a penalty shot — but that was it.

Knowing what Fanti was going through, Stejskal said he anticipated he may have to play Saturday, so it wasn’t a total shock when he was called upon.

“I was really calm,” Stejskal said. “I knew I was going in. I was waiting for this moment for a long time. It felt really good to get back in there.”

Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said the team had been talking for the last week or so about when Stejskal would finally get back in a game. They wanted to make sure Stejskal was confident in his conditioning and stamina prior to putting him back in goal.

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Sandelin said they talked last week about splitting Fanti and Stejskal in a series — as UMD had been doing prior to the cancer diagnosis — but Fanti had been playing so well. He currently leads the NCHC in save percentage (.922) and goals against average (1.97) among goalies who have played 10 or more games.

Then Saturday happened.

“It’s unbelievable. He’s handled it so well,” Sandelin said. “It is great. He’s a big part of our team. The guys are pulling for him. The guys were excited he went in. They battled hard for him, just as they had done for Ryan. Maybe it gave us a little boost, who knows?”

Stejskal made 20 saves on 22 shots to get the win as UMD scored two goals in the third period to win the game and split the season series with the NCHC-leading Pioneers.

“It’s so special,” Gotz said of winning Saturday’s game for Stejskal. “He was my roommate last year when we were freshmen. Just seeing his smile everyday at the rink and what he’s going through, you would you never know the battle that he's going through because he shows up every single day to the rink and has that smile on his face. He just has a bubbly personality and he just gives it to everybody.”

Thumbs down to Friday’s third period in Denver

Tied 1-1 at the start of the second period Friday at Denver, the Bulldogs had a chance to take control of the game when the Pioneers took a major penalty for kneeing 2:12 into the second period.

UMD failed to capitalize on the five-minute power play after pushing pause for two minutes in the middle of the major because their own minor penalty. Instead, Denver took control of the period by scoring three-straight goals in seven and a half minutes for a 4-1 lead.

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Not all was lost in the second, however, as fifth-year senior center Casey Gilling scored 51 seconds prior to the second intermission. A late-period goal was exactly the kind of boost UMD needed to spark a third-period rally against Denver.

“It’s a way different game being down two versus three going into the third period,” UMD senior wing Tanner Laderoute said. “It gave us a lot of hope, but we needed every single guy on the team to come out in the third and play the best they can.”

That’s not what happened. UMD was held to just four shots on goal in the third period, with all four coming after Denver’s empty net goal at 18:34. One of those four shots on goal did find the back of the net, but the goal by Laderoute was too little, too late.

"That was huge. That was a big goal by Gilling,” UMD sophomore wing Blake Biondi said. “(Luke) Loheit made that play happen going hard to the net, and then Gotz made a good play getting the puck back to the net. I thought that was big for us. If we just could have got some momentum off that, but we didn’t. We just didn’t get the goals when we needed it.”

Matt’s Three Stars

3. UMD freshman wing Gabby Krause — The WCHA Rookie of the Week had four points in the sweep of St. Thomas, scoring goals in both games. Her three-points via a goal and two assists Saturday was a collegiate-high.

2. UMD fifth-year senior wing Kobe Roth — The Warroad product scored two goals Saturday at Denver, giving UMD a 1-0 lead 31 seconds in and tying the game at 2-2 with 12:14 to play.

“He’s been really good for us,” Sandelin said. “He’s stepped up as a real vocal guy, too, and he’s leading by example on the ice. You can tell in how he’s playing, he’s trying to be that guy and I thought he had a really good game.”

1. UMD sophomore goaltender Zach Stejskal — The state champion out of Grand Rapids High School made 20 saves on 22 shots in a surprise return and relief appearance following a battle with cancer.

Up Next: More Tuesday hockey in St. Cloud

It’s a doubleheader weekend coming up at Amsoil Arena with the women hosting St. Cloud State at 3 p.m. on Friday and Saturday while the men host North Dakota at 8 p.m. Friday and 7 p.m. Saturday.

The Bulldogs women play three games this week against the Huskies to close out the regular season with the first matchup taking place at 3 p.m. Tuesday at the Herb Brooks National Hockey Center in St. Cloud. It’s the final makeup game from the series that was postponed back in January due to COVID-19 protocols at UMD.

The Bulldogs rolled to a 5-1 win at SCSU two weeks ago in the first of the two Tuesday makeup games. It was UMD’s first game on the National Hockey Center’s Olympic-sized ice sheet since the 2019-20 season, and Crowell said it took her team some time to adjust.

“I liked the way we played last time. I thought it took us a little bit to get going at the start,” Bulldogs coach Maura Crowell said Saturday. “I’d like to sea us start a little faster, but I also know that when you go to St. Cloud for the first time ever, that rink is quite a bit different than what we're used to. I think it just took a little while to settle in. I'm hoping the familiarity with the facility and everything helps us pick it up right away.”

Minnesota Duluth Women’s hockey routs St. Thomas to complete series sweep
Minnesota Duluth forward Clara Van Wieren (25) shoots the puck near St. Thomas forward Luci Bianchi (15) on Saturday, Feb. 12, 2022, at Amsoil Arena in Duluth.
Clint Austin / Duluth News Tribune

Sophomore forward Clara Van Wieren takes a seven-game point streak into the final week of the regular season. She had two goals and two assists last weekend against St. Thomas and four goals and five assists in UMD’s last seven games.

The Bulldogs enter the final week of the regular season fourth in the WCHA. They’ll host either Minnesota State or Bemidji State in a best-of-three WCHA quarterfinal series Feb. 25-27 at Amsoil Arena.

Co-host of the Bulldog Insider Podcast and college hockey reporter for the Duluth News Tribune and The Rink Live covering the Minnesota Duluth men's and women's hockey programs.
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