Judd Stevens is too diplomatic to lash out at his critics.
But after this edition of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team – the one that was labeled a youthful rebuilding project – clinched the program’s third Frozen Four berth in four years, Stevens admitted he and his senior classmates were a little hurt.
The Gophers’ senior class, made up largely of role players and forgotten in the wake of emerging stars like Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen, was the difference in Sunday’s 2-1 win over Cornell in the NCAA West Regional final.
And for Stevens, the team’s captain, the vindication was sweet.
“You don’t like to say it, but the (talk about the team’s youth) was a little bit of a backhand slap,” Stevens said. “We heard the rebuilding talk thrown around. But this program plays for championships and to hang banners.”
Thanks to their seniors, the Gophers will have another chance to do just that.
Forward Garrett Smaagaard provided two assists, setting up the game-winning goal in Saturday’s 1-0 victory over Maine and the game-tying tally Sunday.
And senior Barry Tallackson, perhaps the most maligned member of the Gophers’ senior class, crashed the net and scored the game-winning goal in overtime Sunday.
“Coach (Don Lucia) was getting on me a little bit, telling me to go to the net,” Tallackson said. “Mike Howe got the first shot off, and the rebound went right to my stick.”
Smaagaard, who came to Minnesota straight from Eden Prairie High School in fall 2001, battled injuries throughout his career and spent much of the season on the fourth line with fellow seniors Jake Fleming and Jerrid Reinholz.
But when forward Tyler Hirsch was forced out of action for personal reasons this weekend, Smaagaard moved up to the third line, and his newly formed pairing with Evan Kaufmann and Andy Sertich was probably the Gophers’ best line of the regional.
“With a program like this, they bring in the best players. That’s why it’s so successful,” Smaagaard said. “If they bring in somebody better than you, you have to accept it. I’ve just tried to do my part when I’m on the ice, and it’s worked out.”
Of the Gophers’ seniors, only Tallackson was drafted by an NHL team. Most of them will be playing their last games at the Frozen Four.
But even though they won’t leave Minnesota as the most decorated individuals, the Gophers’ class of 2005 has the chance to graduate as the first ever to win three national titles.
“We’ve got a lot of guys like me and Jerrid that probably aren’t going to play anymore,” Smaagaard said. “But we’ve played in a lot of big games. Jake and Barry played in both of the national championship games, and all of us have been in the NCAA Tournament. That’s what a team is about. When somebody’s not producing, somebody else steps up.”