Gophers end season with WCHA first-round loss to Sioux

Minnesota will miss second-straight NCAA tournament after three-game series defeat to North Dakota.

Gophers end season with WCHA first-round loss to Sioux

Max Sanders

GRAND FORKS, N.D. âÄî The first postseason showdown between college hockeyâÄôs biggest rivals in Grand Forks since 1987 took all three games to be decided, and in the end it was the better team moving on to St. Paul for the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five. âÄúWe didn’t score enough tonight,âÄù Gophers menâÄôs hockey coach Don Lucia said after a 4-1 loss in SundayâÄôs deciding game at Ralph Engelstad Arena. âÄúBut I am happy for the guys the way they came back and competed and played the last two nights.âÄù FridayâÄôs opener didnâÄôt give any hint of the seriesâÄô drama to come. North Dakota absolutely dominated Minnesota in every facet, handing the Gophers a humiliating 6-0 loss. It was MinnesotaâÄôs worst postseason defeat since a 7-1 loss to Wisconsin in the 1990 WCHA Final Five championship game. âÄúWe took [the ice] first period with no energy,âÄù Gophers center Ryan Flynn said. âÄúWe’ve got to compete way harder than that.âÄù Minnesota came out flat from the very first shift, and North Dakota took advantage, scoring just 99 seconds into the game. The puck deflected off falling Gophers forward Nick Larson in the crease and bounced right to streaking Sioux forward Danny Kristo, who put the first shot of the game past Gophers goaltender Alex Kangas . While the goal appeared to be a fluke âÄî and an example of the GophersâÄô bad puck-luck all season âÄî the remaining play proved it was the rule, not the exception. The Sioux took advantage of MinnesotaâÄôs sloppy puck-handling all night en route to a 6-0 shutout. âÄúWhether you win by one or lose by one, or like we did tonight [by six], it really doesn’t matter,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúYou just got to come back and try to win tomorrow.âÄù Facing elimination Saturday night, the Gophers stormed back, matching North Dakota hit-for-hit. Gophers forward Jacob Cepis , who had already wrapped up an outstanding regular season, was the creator Saturday night. The junior drew two penalties and capitalized each time. In the first period, Cepis drew a tripping penalty on Sioux goalie Brad Eidsness. Just 12 seconds into the one-man advantage, Cepis centered a pass to forward Mike Hoeffel, who was waiting in the crease and banged the puck home for an early 1-0 lead. North Dakota responded with two straight goals, the second coming midway through the second period when forward Matt Frattin took a pass from forward Chris VandeVelde and fired a shot from the far Minnesota faceoff circle that went low past Kangas for the goal. Eight minutes from the potential end of the GophersâÄô season, Cepis again drew a penalty. On the power play, he fired a shot from the near Minnesota circle that went right through the legs of Eidsness for the equalizer. Less than a minute later, Gophers freshman defenseman Seth Helgeson added the game-winner. At the most crucial of times, Helgeson collected his first career point when his shot from just inside the blue line crept past Eidsness. âÄúHe just threw it at the net,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWe didn’t get many that got through. That was one that got through and had some eyes.âÄù Sophomore forward Jordan Schroeder added an empty-net goal to cap a 4-2 Minnesota win, forcing a decisive third game with a berth in the Final Five on the line. The deciding game was eerily similar to Friday nightâÄôs debacle in the early going, with North Dakota taking an 8-0 shot advantage midway through the first period. The Sioux capitalized on a power play when defenseman Ben Blood fired a shot from just outside the far circle that went high past Kangas for the gameâÄôs first goal. Minnesota responded just seven minutes later, when forward Jake Hansen lost control of the puck in the slot but managed to put a shot on net that found its way through Eidsness to tie the game. But Sunday was all about the Sioux. They used their physicality to overpower the Gophers. Frattin started the hard hitting five minutes into the second period, jumping up near the Minnesota boards and laying out Gophers defenseman Kevin Wehrs . The hit earned Frattin a five-minute major, though Lucia felt the penalty should have been more severe. âÄúThat was a vicious hit, say what you want,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúIt’s not the kind of hits we want to see in the game. My own personal feeling [is that] it was more than a [five-minute penalty].âÄù Wehrs didnâÄôt return to the game, and fellow defenseman Nick Leddy was also injured in a knee-on-knee collision, leaving Minnesota with just four defensemen the rest of the game. âÄúHere you are in game three, the second half of the game, and you are down to four [defensemen],âÄù Lucia said. âÄúBy the end of the game they were gassed.âÄù In the second period, North Dakota took a lead it wouldnâÄôt relinquish when forward Jason Gregoire tipped in a Kristo shot. Frattin and forward Brett Hextall added goals to seal a 4-1 victory, ending MinnesotaâÄôs season. âÄúThis is probably as difficult of an environment as there is in college hockey,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúThe guys really went toe-to-toe right to the end tonight.âÄù North Dakota advanced to the Final Five play-in game, eventually winning the WCHA title with a 5-3 win over St. Cloud State. The Gophers ended its second straight season without a trip to the NCAA tournament.