ST. PAUL, Minn. — A week of hearing about its letdown against in the WCHA Final Five had worn on long enough for the University of Minnesota hockey team.
If the Gophers weren’t replaying last week’s loss to North Dakota in the WCHA tournament, when they allowed six straight goals in a Friday semifinals loss, they were hearing about it from everyone else. Facing UND on Sunday in the finals of the NCAA West Regional, Minnesota had its chance to put an end to the talk.
The Gophers did so, emphatically, with a 5-2 win against North Dakota on Sunday at the Xcel Energy Center to advance to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005.
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“I was so sick of it all week long because I think more was made out of it than needed to be,” coach Don Lucia said of rehashing the loss in the Final Five. “But the guys did a good job all night long tonight and ate pucks. We blocked a lot of shots and just played a pretty complete game tonight.”
Taylor Matson had a goal and assist. Erik Haula scored his 20th of the season, and Travis Boyd added his first career goal for Minnesota (28-13-1). Ben Marshall and Nate Condon also chipped in with goals in support of goaltender Kent Patterson, who made 24 saves, as the Gophers exorcised any demons from last week.
Minnesota, as the top seed in the conference tournament, had dominated the first 30 minutes of play last week and had a 3-0 lead. But UND called a second-period timeout, got on the board before the period was over and added five more scores in the third to rout the Gophers.
Twice on Sunday, Minnesota had three-goal leads. Lesson learned. Those leads weren’t going to slip away.
“We kind of wanted to get that last game out of our system against North Dakota,” Matson said. “Hats off to our team, we went back to work this week in order to get prepared for BU and play North Dakota tonight. When we’re facing North Dakota, if you can’t get up for that game, you can’t get up for any game.
“The bench was great all night. We were motivating guys on the bench and everyone was excited.”
Marshall scored in the first and Haula staked the Gophers to a 2-0 lead just 20 seconds into the second period. But North Dakota’s Danny Kristo, an Eden Prairie native, scored just 1:23 later. It was one of just two shots in the period for UND though. Minnesota controlled the period, outshooting North Dakota 12-2.
Matson later added the game-winner midway through the second and Travis Boyd scored his first goal to give Minnesota its first three-goal lead this week. Then the Gophers received a pep talk during the second intermission from an unlikely source, strength coach Cal Dietz. Lucia joked that Dietz, “scared them.”
Whatever he said, it worked.
“He didn’t say anything out of the ordinary,” Matson said. “Cal just pushed us to the limit this past season in the weight room and off the rink, so credit to him for pushing us so hard.”
Condon would put the Gophers up 5-1 with 4:07 left in the game and the ticket to the Frozen Four was seemingly punched.
However, North Dakota countered 14 seconds later.
“It’s kind of a freaky goal off the plexiglass there,” Matson said. “The biggest thing for us is our next shift is huge. We’ve talked about that all year. Our next shift’s got to be a momentum changer and our team’s been resilient and we’ve come back all the time and scored on the next couple shifts.”
This time against UND, the resiliency was there.
“You can sense as a coach when your team has that energy,” Lucia said. “Usually when it does, it’s vocal. It’s that communication and they were talking today, that’s for sure. Doing the little things, block shots, chip it out and get it in, whereas last weekend they didn’t do that. They got quiet and all of a sudden, you get on your heels and you’re afraid to make a play.
“You’ve got to win. Nobody’s going to give it to you. You’ve got to go play to win and tonight they did. And they have most of the year in that situation.”
Patterson was named the MVP of the regional, stopping 55 of the 60 shots he faced. Kyle Rau and Nate Schmidt were also named to the all-tournament team.
The Gophers will play Boston College in the Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla. on April 5. The NCAA championship is April 7.
“It was one of the goals to start the season,” Haula said. “One of them was obviously winning the MacNaughton Cup (for the WCHA regular season title) and one was winning the Final Five, which we didn’t get. To get to the Frozen Four is a great accomplishment, but as a team we’re not satisfied with that. We want to keep playing good hockey and keep going all the way.”