MINNEAPOLIS — For Zach Okabe, maybe it was getting back to the family home in Okotoks, Alberta, for the holiday.
Maybe it was the fact that his dad, Nobuaki, and sisters Milly, 16, and Leila, 21, were in attendance for the first time.
Or maybe he was just overdue.
Whatever the reason, Okabe broke out of a season-long scoring slump in a big way by scoring a Mariucci Classic-record four goals to lead the St. Cloud State men's hockey team to a 7-2 win over second-ranked Minnesota State University-Mankato on Saturday, Dec. 28 at 3M Arena at Mariucci.
St. Cloud State (6-7-4) will play Minnesota (6-9-4) for the championship in the Mariucci Classic at 7 p.m. Sunday. The Mavericks will play Bemidji State (8-6-3) at 4 p.m. for third place on Sunday. The Gophers beat the Beavers 5-2 on Saturday.
By the time the title game is played, the smile on Okabe's face may not be gone yet.
"I was a little snake-bitten in the first half," said Okabe, who had not scored in his first 14 career shots. "My linemates (Jami Krannila and Chase Brand) have been playing good the last couple of games and it kind of all came together in this game. Things happened the way we were hoping."
Okabe, an 18-year-old who played mostly center in his junior hockey career, is playing right wing on an international freshman line for the Huskies. Krannila, a 19-year-old from Pori, Finland, is playing center on the line. Brand, a 20-year-old from Nevis, Minn., is the left wing.
The trio has played together for six straight games. Krannila, who had assists on all four of Okabe's goals, said that his linemate may have been frustrated with his lack of scoring, but he was not showing it.
"I've been telling him that if he gets his first, he's going to get his second (goal)," Krannila said of Okabe. "I did not expect that — four goals on four shots.
"Obviously, he has to have been frustrated, but he doesn't show it too much. He keeps working hard and trying his best. Eventually, we knew he was going to start scoring. Happy it started now."
Okabe played two seasons for the Grande Prairie Storm in the Alberta Junior Hockey League. He was the AJHL Rookie of the Year in 2017-18 when he had 22 goals and 57 points in 58 games. Last season, he had 31 goals and 58 points in 60 AJHL games.
And despite the scoring slump, he's played in 14 of the Huskies' 17 games. So what had the 5-foot-8, 170-pound forward been doing to stay in the lineup?
"His first five or six games, he was just getting his feet under him, a true freshman from Alberta — it's a big jump," Huskies assistant coach Nick Oliver said. "The thing that we liked the most about him is that he's been playing really hard and he's been generating a lot of chances.
"It was unfortunate for him that he didn't have a goal at Christmas time because he's had a ton of chances, probably starting up at the series up at North Dakota," Oliver said of the Nov. 22-23 series when he joined the line with Krannila and Brand. "Zach was really fired up when he popped that first one and, obviously, he was able to ride that momentum."
And to have three family members on hand to see it was the topper.
"The first half (of the season) of college was really stressful," Okabe said. "It was good for me to go home, take a breath and relax.
"My dad went to St. Cloud (State) and is a huge fan and my sisters — they haven't seen me play in so long, so it was good to have them here. My mom couldn't make it, but she was back home watching and it was good for my sisters and my dad to see it. I'm glad I could show them that."
Castor's 1st win
Okabe's performance overshadowed the first career college win for goalie Jaxon Castor, who started his first college game.
Castor, a freshman from Phoenix, Arizona, spent last season playing on St. Cloud State's club team as he was working on getting academically eligible. Castor stopped 16 of the 18 shots he faced to get the win.
"I found out (Friday) afternoon at our meeting, so it gave me some time to prepare and I was taking it as any other game," Castor said. "We liked the way we'd been playing the last few weekends."
Castor played in his first college game in St. Cloud State's last game before the holiday break on Dec. 14. He came on in relief of David Hrenak and stopped 16 of the 17 shots he faced in a 4-3 overtime loss to Nebraska-Omaha.
Hrenak, a junior from Bystrica, Slovakia, who has been the team's No. 1 goaltender each of the last two seasons, had started every game this season.
"Before we left for the (holiday) break, we had conversations with both David and Jaxon about playing after the break," Oliver said. "David flies home to Slovakia for Christmas and then we get back (on campus) on the 26th. That's a quick turnaround to get back to sleep patterns and get his energy back.
"It was kind of a joint decision to let him get adjusted. Jaxon played really good when we put them in there against Omaha and we felt comfortable with him."
After the win, Oliver said that the coaching staff has not decided who will start in goal in the championship game.
Big win and without Larson
St. Cloud State moved up to No. 35 in the PairWise Rankings with the win. The PairWise try to mimic the criteria used by the NCAA Division I tournament selection committee to select the 16-team playoff field. That may not sound like a great number, but the Huskies have spent time at 50 or worse this season in the PairWise.
And St. Cloud State pulled off the upset without head coach Brett Larson, who is with Team USA as an assistant coach for the 2020 IIHF World Junior Championships. Oliver and assistant coach Mike Gibbons are in charge of the team in his absence.
So what the heck did the Huskies do to pound the Mavericks Saturday?
"I think we understood the challenge that was in front of us," said Oliver, whose team outshot the Mavericks 20-8 in the first two periods. "I thought we had (the puck) quite a bit in the first couple of periods. I thought we made plays and didn't just throw (the puck) away.
"We weren't gripping the sticks too tight. We walking the line of being urgent, but also making plays and looking to attack. Mankato is probably the best forechecking team we've seen on film. They get so much of their puck possession off their forecheck. We were able to get back to pucks quick and when they did get on us, our structure was good."
SCSU 7, MSU-MANKATO 2
First period scoring — 1. SCSU, Zach Okabe 1 (Jami Krannila 4, Chase Brand 4) 5:22; 2. SCSU, Okabe 2 (Krannila 5, Brand 5) 16:08. Penalties — SCSU, Brendan Bushy (tripping) 12:39; MSUM, Parker Tuomie (holding) 19:36.
Second period — 3. SCSU, Okabe 3 (Nolan Walker 5, Krannila 6) 1:38; 4. SCSU, Easton Brodzinski 7 (Walker 6, Hentges 15) 3:30; 5. MSUM, Parker Tuomie 8 (unassisted) 5:45; 6. SCSU, Okabe 4 (Ondrej Trejbal 3, Krannila 7) 7:17; 7. SCSU, Jake Wahlin 2 (Spencer Meier 3, Trejbal 4) 11:25. Penalties — MSUM, Riese Zmolek (roughing) 13:21; MSUM, Lucas Sowder (tripping) 19:30.
Third period — 8. MSUM, Jack McNeely 1 (Nick Rivera 2, Josh French 3) 7:51; 9. SCSU, Micah Miller 2 (unassisted) 10:38. Penalties — None.
Goalie saves -— MSUM: Dryden McKay 6-3-x—9 (5 GA), Jacob Berger x-5-4—9 (in at 7:17 of 2nd, 2 GA); SCSU: Jaxon Castor 3-4-9—16 (2 GA).
Penalties-minutes — MSUM 3-6; SCSU 1-2.
Power plays (shots) — MSUM 0-1 (0 shots); SCSU — 0-3 (1 shots).
Faceoffs — MSUM, 25-22.
Referees — Anthony Czech and Brian Aaron.
Linesmen — Nicholas Bradshaw and Samuel Shikowsky.