After beating the Duluth Bulldogs on the road last Friday night, the Golden Gophers still had an outside chance to make the NCAA tournament with an at-large bid. After one of their worst performances of the year the next night, though, the Minnesota Gophers will more than likely need to win the WCHA conference tournament to make the big dance.
On Duluth's Senior Night, the Gophers lost 3-0 to a fired up Bulldogs squad that was still fighting for its NCAA tournament life. With the score tied 0-0 in the first period, Minnesota hit two posts that, if either would have gone in, may have changed the complexion of the game. The first post was off a wicked wrist shot by Mike Hoeffel, with the second coming on a Jordan Schroeder shot off of a nice 2-on-1 rush. After those two posts, the Gophers seemed dejected, as if they felt like they could not get one past Bulldog goalie Brady Hjelle and into the net. It may have been a self-fulfilling prophecy, because Hjelle only needed one of the Bulldogs three goals to beat the Gophers, picking up the shutout.
As good as Friday night's game against Duluth was, Saturday was as bad a game as I have seen the Gophers play all year. They were sloppy with the puck connecting on very few passes, and they did not give consistent effort throughout the game.
The hope was that playing an arch-rival like the Wisconsin Badgers the next weekend would fire up the team. It may have taken a game longer than expected, but the fire was back for at least one night.
Friday's game against the Badgers was played at the Target Center. It was first college hockey game at the Target Center in at least five years, and it showed in the quality of the ice. Numerous times the referees had to stop play to patch holes in the ice, which took away from the flow and excitement of the game as a whole.
Excitement was not in short order in the first period, though, as a quick shorthanded breakaway goal by Ryan Flynn of all players resulted in an early 1-0 lead for the Maroon and Gold. However, Wisconsin quickly tied up the game at 1-1 on a Craig Smith goal at 6:53 of the period. Wisconsin then took a 2-1 lead that they would hold for nearly the rest of the game on a Justin Schultz tally in the 18th minute of the first period.
No goals were scored in the second period, which was notable more for the lack of decent hockey than for anything resembling a scoring chance. Both teams were sloppy with the puck, and action was interrupted by whistles numerous times.
The third period got off to a better start for the Maroon and Gold, as Nick Larson deflected a Kevin Wehrs slapshot past goalie Scott Gudmandson of Wisconsin to tie the game at two goals a piece. After the game-tying goal, play was intense and furious as Wisconsin and Minnesota battled to get the go-ahead goal. Wisconsin was the team that got it, as the disappearing-act Gopher defensemen let Craig Smith dawdle around in the high slot before beating Alex Kangas with a brilliant shot in the upper corner of the net. Wisconsin held on despite a comeback effort by the Gophers with the goalie pulled to win 3-2.
This game was also notable for a little bit of bad luck on the part of the Gophers. Three times the referees went into the replay booth to see video replays of potential Gopher goals, and three times the referees waived them off. The first play, a Jacob Cepis breakaway that clanged off of the crossbar, was a relatively straightforward call - the puck never went into the net, so no goal. The second play, a Mike Hoeffel five-on-three powerplay goal, was waived off because Hoeffel was six inches inside the crease. The third goal, occurring during a Gopher flurry in front of the Badger net, was waived off because the net had become dislodged a fraction of a second before the puck crossed the goal line. Three tough calls that went against the Gophers. When the team struggles to get goals, having three waived off is not a good omen for your chances in the game.
The Gophers must have taken the beatings to heart in the Sunday game against Wisconsin, because they put the rout onto the third-ranked Badgers. On senior day, the eldest class put on a show, getting two goals each from Mike Carman and Tony Lucia, as well as assists from Carman (2), Lucia and Flynn, on the way to a commanding 6-1 triumph. The Gophers scored five powerplay goals in the game, as the Badgers, frustrated by the play of the Gopher team, sent a steady stream of their own players to the penalty box. Alex Kangas kept the Gophers in the game until their breakout in the second period, stopping 26 of 27 Wisconsin shots.
The Gophers finished the regular season in seventh place in the WCHA, and will head up to Grand Forks to face the North Dakota Fighting Sioux in a best-of-three rivalry matchup where anything can happen. Both teams usually play for keeps in this series, so we'll see if it can motivate the Gophers to play their best hockey of the year this weekend.