MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers punched their ticket to St. Paul, but it wasn’t easy.
The Minnesota men’s hockey team defeated Bemidji State by a 4-3 final on Saturday at Mariucci Arena to sweep the best-of-three series and advance to next weekend’s Final Five. As was the case one night earlier, though, the Beavers made the Gophers earn their trip to the Xcel Energy Center.
“They don’t beat themselves. Their commitment level from start to finish made us work for everything we were going to get this weekend,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia of the Beavers. “Credit to them and how well they played and how hard they played. … But our guys, they found a way.”
The Gophers eked out a 2-1 overtime win on Friday to take a 1-0 lead in the series. Two early goals by the Beavers on Saturday put Minnesota on its heels. Jordan George scored on the power play late in the first period and Cory Ward made it a 2-0 Bemidji State lead midway through the second.
Trailing by two midway through the night, the Gophers had work to do to avoid a decisive game three on Sunday. Things seemed to be turning in Minnesota’s favor when Nick Bjugstad got the Gophers on the board with a power play goal at the 15:33 mark of the second period. Only 14 seconds later, though, the Beavers answered with a goal by Jeff Jubinville.
Just like that, the Gophers were once again down by two goals and again had their work cut out for them.
“When they got to three, I was worried,” Lucia said. “I thought, ‘OK, we might be in trouble here tonight.'”
After falling behind 3-1, Lucia’s team once again showed the resiliency it had exhibited all weekend as Minnesota fought its way back. Erik Haula’s shot deflected off of Nate Condon’s leg and past Beavers goalie Andrew Walsh to cut the Bemidji State lead to 3-2 heading into the second intermission.
An unlikely source provided the game-tying goal for Minnesota, but that’s sometimes what needs to happen for teams to have success in the playoffs. Freshman forward A.J. Michaelson collected a rebound, made a move to fake out Walsh and buried the puck for just his third goal of the season to make it a 3-all game at the 7:38 mark of the third period.
One night earlier, Lucia talked about the benefit of getting production from the team’s players not typically known for scoring goals. On Saturday, the Gophers got that from Michaelson.
“You’ve got to be happy for him. He works really hard out there,” said Gophers defenseman Ben Marshall. “You get a goal like that in this type of atmosphere, it’s going to better him and give him more experience for the upcoming games.”
Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said he still felt good about his team’s chances once the game was tied 3-all in the third. The Gophers felt otherwise, as Ben Marshall’s backhand goal with 52.7 seconds remaining in regulation proved to be the game winner and sealed Minnesota’s trip to St. Paul next weekend.
It took the Gophers 92 shots and one overtime session to beat Bemidji State’s hot goaltender this weekend. Nothing seemingly came easy for Minnesota against the Beavers. Perhaps that’s a good test for a Gophers squad hoping to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament later this month.
“I thought this weekend was great for us, because we told our guys going in that Bemidji plays a playoff style,” Lucia said. “But it was good for us to have to claw our way back, have to fight for everything all weekend long.”
The Gophers’ first opponent in the Final Five is yet to be determined, but there’s a chance Minnesota might face North Dakota at some point next weekend if UND wins Sunday against Michigan Tech. It was UND that knocked the Gophers out of the Final Five in the semifinals last year.
Minnesota isn’t focused on its opponent, though. The Gophers are just happy to be returning to St. Paul once again.
“Playing at the X, you just watched the state tournament go on. That’s even fun. You can imagine what it’s going to be like when the college guys are there,” Marshall said. “Obviously we’re excited. Whoever we play, I’m not sure who it is, we’ll be ready.”