ST. PAUL, Minn. — Ultimately, the implications of Friday’s game were small for the Gophers men’s hockey team. Minnesota is already assured a spot in the NCAA Tournament and, unlike Friday’s opponent, didn’t need to win the WCHA Final Five to secure a bid.
That didn’t make the 2-0 loss any easier for the Gophers to swallow, however, as bragging rights were still on the line. In the school’s final game ever in the WCHA, Minnesota ran into a hot goalie in CC’s Joe Howe. The senior netminder stopped all 35 Gophers shots he faced as Minnesota was blanked for just the second time this season.
As a result, it’s the Tigers, not the Gophers, moving on to Saturday’s Final Five championship game against Wisconsin.
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“I’m disappointed, to be quite frank, that we’re not playing tomorrow night,” Gophers head coach Don Lucia said after Friday’s loss. “Any time you have a chance to play for a championship you want to play for a championship, especially the last one that we get to be a part of here.”
The Gophers didn’t have to play in the first round of this weekend’s WCHA Final Five. Meanwhile, Colorado College needed overtime to beat North Dakota on Thursday, which extended its season for another day. The Tigers’ only chance at the NCAA Tournament is to win the WCHA Final Five title Saturday against the Badgers.
Friday night, CC played like a team whose season was indeed on the line.
“They had nothing to lose. They need to win out to make the tournament,” said Gophers senior Seth Helgeson. “Obviously that was part of their game plan. They’re desperate and they needed to come out and play that way. Obviously it worked out for them tonight.”
Colorado College got on the board just 59 seconds into the second period. Rylan Schwartz beat Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox over his right shoulder for a 1-0 CC lead. Less than four minutes later, it was sophomore Charlie Taft giving the Tigers a 2-0 cushion as he took advantage of a Gophers turnover and turned it into his seventh goal of the season.
From there, Howe closed the door on the Gophers, who were shut out for the second time this month. They also lost a 2-0 game to Denver on March 1. The Tigers’ senior goalie and Plymouth, Minn., native, stymied the Gophers from start to finish. Yet while Minnesota had 35 shots on goal, the players weren’t particularly happy with the shot selection.
“You’ve got to give him credit. He’s playing well right now,” Gophers captain Zach Budish said of Howe. “But at the same time, I think we had 35 shots … but we didn’t get a lot of second-chance opportunities in front of the net.”
Minnesota’s biggest letdown came in the third period when the Gophers went on a five-minute power play after CC’s Joe Marciano was whistled for cross-checking. Despite the extended man advantage, Minnesota got just one shot on goal. The same Xcel Energy Center fans that chanted, “Let’s go Gophers!” before the power play began to boo their team when they couldn’t muster any scoring chances to get back into the game.
Even though there was plenty of time left after the power play yielded nothing, those five minutes seemed to take all the wind out of the Gophers’ sails.
“It was a pretty good opportunity there. … Our power play’s been pretty good all year, but it was embarrassing how bad our power play was tonight,” Budish said. “We didn’t even get a whole lot of end zone time that entire five minutes. That’s where you need your power play guys to step up.”
As the final horn sounded Friday, Minnesota’s run in the WCHA was officially over. The Gophers will move to the newly formed Big Ten Conference next season, leaving behind a conference rich in rivalries and history.
Losing in the semifinals was not the way Minnesota wanted to end its tenure in the WCHA, but the Gophers now move on to bigger things. They’ll wait to hear where they’re playing in the NCAA Tournament, which begins next weekend.
“Coming into the weekend, our goal was to win Friday and put ourselves in position Saturday to win a championship,” Budish said. “We didn’t take care of business tonight. We’ll learn from this game, watch some film on it, see what we need to correct before the regional next Friday or Saturday.”