MSU hockey 2

Montana State arrived in Arizona as the No. 11 seed in the American College Hockey Association Division 2 West Region Tournament but will leave with a berth in the ACHA National Tournament in late March.

John Qualen provided a necessary lift with a goal late in the second period. As Montana State teammates gathered and celebrated, Williston State College goalie Angus Laing remained on his knee.

He simply looked forward without showing any emotion. No matter what they did, the Tetons couldn’t bottle MSU’s magic.

The No. 11-seeded Bobcats scored at least two goals in every period as they defeated No. 5 Williston State 7-4 on Saturday in the American College Hockey Association Division 2 West Region Tournament in Tempe, Arizona. With the win, the Bobcats advanced to the ACHA National Championships for the first time in program history which will begin in late March in Texas.

“The guys are obviously pretty pumped up here,” MSU head coach Dave Weaver said with a laugh. “To make it to nationals, it’s been our goal from the start. To fight and to realize this goal is just phenomenal.”

The Bobcats had played Williston State five times in the regular season and went 1-4 in that series. Most recently, the Bobcats lost to the Tetons 5-2 only just a week ago as a tune-up game before the regional tournament. Weaver felt the Bobcats particularly struggled scoring leading up to this week.

However, the Bobcats felt like a different team after defeating No. 3-seeded Boise State on a last-second goal to even compete against Williston State again. They felt more confident, and their play showed it as they scored 16 goals in three regional games.

MSU’s Ross Hanson opened up the scoring with four minutes to go until the first intermission, then Ryan Perius scored with 1:21 left in the first frame.

And just 10 seconds into the second period, a furious charge after the faceoff led to another Bobcats goal from Jay Forbes for a 3-0 lead.

“I thought punching in an early goal could only help us,” Weaver said. “We’re obviously a much better team when we’re playing with a lead.”

The Tetons (18-18) replied with three unanswered goals in the span of less than 10 minutes. Ryan Gruszka sped up the right side of MSU’s zone, skated in front of MSU goalie Christian Butler and scored in the five hole to open the Tetons’ scoring. Kenny Garrett connected on a top-shelf wrist shot with 16 minutes left in the second, then Will Landsverk scored on a rebound to tie it up six minutes later.

But as they have in their path to regionals, the Bobcats (18-12) remained persistent. With about five minutes left in the second, Perius scored again on a power play before Qualen scored his goal about two minutes later.

“Rather than collapsing or feeling sorry for ourselves, we went out and scored,” Weaver said. “They had the fortitude and the heart to battle through adversity, and it makes us a tough team to beat.”

Williston State appeared ready to shift the momentum in the third as Thomas King threw his hands up while celebrating his goal that cut MSU’s lead to two. But then Ryan Padden, who scored the game- winner against Boise State, recorded two points shorthanded, the first being on a solo breakaway. A few minutes later, Luke Bing passed to Padden at the right wing, making Laing overcommit. Padden passed back to Bing, who netted a backhanded goal to put the finishing touches on the win.

As soon as the final buzzer sounded, the Bobcats threw their gear across the rink and crowded near Butler’s net. The Bobcats completed their mission.

Going into the season, Weaver thought the Bobcats had a “real possibility” of making the regional tournament for the first time. Making the 16-team national tournament out of hundreds of teams was in the back of their minds.

At the very least, Weaver believed the Bobcats could compete with anybody in the region, and he was proven right. Now the Bobcats will be focusing on nationals after an 18-hour bus ride back, and Weaver doesn’t think they’ll have any problems setting aside more ice time at Haynes Pavilion for more practices.

“The goal now is to certainly enjoy this one tonight,” Weaver said. “Enjoy it and go right back to work. When we get to nationals, the goal will be to win.”

Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.