As you may have gathered by my sullen silence since Saturday the 12th, the Gopher hockey team was swept at home by Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. The losses sent UAA to the WCHA Final Five and sent the Gophers packing, as Minnesota's Pairwise ranking was not high enough to advance into the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers' first loss to the Seawolves on Friday night was a comedy of errors. UAA got out to a 3-0 lead midway through the second period on goals from Wiles in the last minute of the first, Portwood at 1:56 of the second and Alex Gellert shorthanded at 9:19 of the second. Minnesota finally showed some signs of life in the second half of the game, as Jake Hansen scored the Gophers' first goal of the game on a penalty shot at 12:12. The Gophers scored another goal just 16 seconds later, as Aaron Ness' slapper from the point beat Anchorage's Chris Kamal to get the Gophers back within one. The Gophers tied the game with just under ten minutes left in the third period as Kevin Wehrs skated through the entire Anchorage team and fired a slapshot past Kamal. 130 seconds later, though, the Seawolves put a puck past Kent Patterson on the power play, and Anchorage held that 4-3 lead all the way until the buzzer rang to signal the end of the game.
Having lost on Friday, the Gophers were in a win-or-go-home situation on Saturday, as one more loss would knock Minnesota out of the WCHA playoffs and out of contention for the NCAA tournament. This game was eerily reminiscent of the 1-0 UAA victory on January 29th. In that game, Anchorage played a stifling defensive system, capitalized on one Minnesota mistake and came away with a 1-0 win. Saturday's tilt featured that same Anchorage defense, and saw the Seawolves take advantage of Gopher mistakes in the third period to score on Patterson and win the game 2-0 to end Minnesota's season. Minnesota had quality chance after quality chance, but Chris Kamal made save after save. Anchorage finally got on the board at 2:32 of the third period, and with the Gophers pressing to score a goal Tommy Grant scored on a breakaway at 13:24 to seal the game and send the Seawolves to the WCHA Final Five.
With the two losses, the Gophers have now missed the WCHA Final Five two years in a row and the NCAA tournament three years in a row. In fact, the last time Minnesota made the Big Dance was in Alex Kangas' stellar freshman season in which the Gophers beat Mankato in two straight overtime games to advance to the Final Five. If that seems like an awful long time ago to you, you're not mistaken. Minnesota has never missed the Final Five two years in a row in the expanded WCHA era beginning with the inclusion of Minnesota State-Mankato in 1999-2000. The Gophers haven't missed the NCAA tourney three years in a row since the end of the Doug Woog era and Don Lucia's first season. This performance is unacceptable for Gopher Hockey.
However, U of M Athletic Director Joel Maturi saw fit to extend the contract of Head Coach Don Lucia for a couple more seasons. Lucia's contract would have expired at the end of the 2011-2012 season, and since having a coach going into the final year of a contract hinders recruiting Maturi decided to extend Lucia as opposed to letting him go.
Among the departing Gophers this season include seniors Jay Barriball, Mike Hoeffel, Jacob Cepis, Patrick White, Cade Fairchild, Kevin Wehrs and Alex Kangas, as well as junior Aaron Ness, who signed with the New York Islanders. Thank you to all of the departing Gophers - I appreciate everything you've done in your time with the Maroon and Gold!
Up next: a look ahead at the 2011-2012 version of the Gophers including the incoming freshman class, as well as a few reasons for Gopher fans to be hopeful coming out of one of the darkest periods in Gopher Hockey history.