Gophers seniors closed careers strong
Seven seniors for the University of Minnesota hockey team started this season hoping to avoid being the first senior class since 1970 to miss the NCAA tournament.
Kent Patterson, Taylor Matson, Jake Hansen, Nico Sacchetti, Joe Miller, Nick Larson, and Jake Kremer and their underclassmen teammates did much more than that. While hard to reflect on after Thursday's 6-1 loss to Boston College in the national semifinals, this senior group will now be known for helping put the Gophers back on the map.
"I'm still proud of our guys," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "They played so well and so hard all season long. Like I told them, 'One team's happy at the end of the year. That's it. Everybody else is disappointed.' But you know what? There's about five great things you can do in a season and that's win your league. You can win your playoffs. You can get to the NCAAs. You can get to the Frozen Four and you can win a national title. And you know what? We did three of them.
"That's something for these seniors to feel good about. Where they were last spring and the work they put in to get themselves back into this position and this stage. For that, I'm really grateful and proud of this team and what they were able to accomplish all year. It's a bitter pill when you lose your last game, but that doesn't take away how much enjoyment I think we all had during the course of this season."
Hansen scored early in the third period with assists to Erik Haula and Sam Warning to give the Gophers momentary hope at pulling a surprise comeback, but Boston College countered 22 seconds later to steal momentum again. In the end Minnesota couldn't solve Eagles goaltender Parker Milner, who made 30 saves, including several key stops in the first period to keep Minnesota from gaining any traction.
"Their goalie made some big saves," Gophers forward Zach Budish said. "I don't think we got that frustrated when they got an early lead. We had a pretty solid first period and they capitalized on their chance midway through the first and took a 1-0 lead. Part of our game plan was to jump on them early because they're a team that scored the first goal a lot. Obviously we wanted to score first and that didn't happen."
Boston College, the top overall seed in the tournament, will face Ferris State in the national championship game on Saturday. The Eagles will move on despite being outshot by Minnesota 31-25, including a 10-5 advantage in the first period for the Gophers.
Playing Boston College, who has won two of the past four titles, Minnesota looked like the team that entered the postseason without any NCAA tournament experience. As the game slipped away, the Gophers weren't the composed group they had been all season and goaltender Kent Patterson gave up six goals, equaling the most he had given up all season while starting every game.
"It's just one of those nights for a couple of guys that had played so well all year long," Lucia said, speaking about his young defensive corps. "Tonight we had a couple guys that didn't play the way they had done most of the season. That's going to happen. It gets hard in a game like this. You don't get another chance tomorrow night to come back and play."
Not many would have predicted the Gophers would still be playing on this day when the year started. Minnesota was picked to finish sixth in its own conference, the WCHA, and definitely weren't expected to return to the NCAA tournament.
But the Gophers set out with designs on returning the program to national prominence.
They started the season with six straight wins, including a sweep on the road of defending national champion Minnesota Duluth. Minnesota was ranked No. 1 in the country in November. The Gophers won five of their last six games to earn the MacNaughton Cup for the WCHA regular season title for the first time since 2007.
Minnesota swept Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the postseason tournament to make its way to the WCHA Final Five for the first time since 2009, before losing to eventual-tournament champion North Dakota.
And then they made their first NCAA tournament since 2008, beat Boston University and North Dakota by a combined 12-5 score in the West Regional to make it to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005.
All of that success can't be washed away in one loss.
"It just hurts so bad because this was such a great team," Hansen said. "Obviously winning the MacNaughton Cup and getting to the Frozen Four and playing a team like BC, you couldn't ask for a better stage. To have a year end like this, where we were playing so well and just to play so sloppy at times and to lose 6-1, it's really embarrassing because it just got out of control.
"You don't want to quit. It's to the point where you don't want it to be 7-1. More than anything it just hurts so bad."
Follow Brian Hall on Twitter.