Sweep in first week turns to struggle in finals

Chris Lempesis

Less than 16 hours after suffering a surprising and heartbreaking defeat, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team was forced to try to muster the energy to step back on the ice and battle one of its arch rivals.

What the Gophers ultimately mustered, however, did not amount to much of anything.

Minnesota looked completely lifeless in suffering a 4-0 pounding at the hands of Wisconsin in the third place game of the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s Final Five tournament at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.

It was clear Saturday that the top-ranked Gophers (27-8-5 overall) had not yet recovered from its 8-7 overtime loss to St. Cloud State in Friday night’s semifinal.

“We just weren’t emotionally there,” senior forward and team captain Gino Guyer said after Saturday’s game. “I guess you could kind of see it going into the game. Right from the beginning of the game today, we really didn’t get much and we weren’t really hitting or anything like that and that’s a tell-tale sign right away that we weren’t into it.”

All facets of Minnesota’s game struggled as a result. The Badgers (26-10-3 overall), however, clearly were into the game in all facets from the start and were able to turn that energy into early results.

Wisconsin got on the board 3:30 into the game when forward Andrew Joudrey got a breakaway on Minnesota goalie Kellen Briggs and was able to beat Briggs, who struggled throughout the weekend, with a backhand shot five-hole to make it 1-0.

Save for freshman forward Phil Kessel – basically the only Minnesota player who showed any intensity in the contest – the early deficit failed to spark the Gophers at all. They registered just seven shots in the first period, a very low total for a high-powered offensive team.

But Wisconsin forward Ross Carlson said it wasn’t obvious to him that Minnesota didn’t have the jump in its step.

“I just think that every line of ours was going,” Carlson said. “We got the puck in, we went right at their ‘D’ right away and we made their ‘D’ make plays.”

The Badgers – Carlson’s line in particular – were able to take advantage of the continuing subpar Minnesota effort in the second period. They doubled their lead on a goal by forward Jack Skille midway through the frame.

The weak Gophers’ effort did not go away in the third. Goals from Carlson and Robbie Earl combined with solid goaltending from junior Brian Elliott solidified the final score – a final score that was probably the biggest reason why it was Wisconsin, not Minnesota, on Sunday that earned the No. 1 overall seed for the NCAA Tournament.

“(Friday) night, the energy was there,” junior forward Danny Irmen said after Saturday’s game. “Today … everyone was looking around the locker room, almost looking for someone else to do it and you can’t have that if you want to win a hockey game.”

Coach Don Lucia said he wasn’t really surprised by his team’s Saturday showing.

“I think the reality of the game today was what happened (Friday) night,” he said. “You play a game like was played last night; it was such an emotional game.”

What happened Friday night in the Gophers’ contest with the Huskies was emotional. It was also an upset and just maybe, as St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko, a former Gophers’ assistant, said “a game for the ages.”

Down by three goals on two separate occasions, at 5-2 and 6-3, in the second period, the Gophers got a pair of late second period tallies from junior forward Ryan Potulny – his second and third of the game, giving him his fourth hat trick of the season – to make the score 6-5 going into the third.

It appeared as though the comeback would be all for naught, though, as St. Cloud State’s Brock Hooton beat Minnesota goalie Jeff Frazee – who relieved Briggs after he allowed five goals on just 22 shots – on a breakaway to make it 7-5 with just 3:39 to play.

Lucia said he was furious with his team’s performance at that point in the game.

“When they went ahead two late in the game, I was so mad at our guys, I didn’t want to pull the goalie (to get the extra attacker),” he said. “You know, it’s like, ‘Hey, you’re getting what you deserve,’ and then we scored to make it (a one-goal game) and now I had to.”

Indeed he did, as Irmen kicked off a second Gophers comeback by burying a shot past St. Cloud State goalie Bobbie Goepfert with 2:01 to play.

And it was none other than Potulny, who resembled a one-man army as much as a Hobey Baker candidate Friday, finally drawing Minnesota even.

With the extra attacker on for the Gophers with 14.6 seconds remaining, Potulny took a pass from Irmen in the circle to Goepfert’s left and ripped a shot by the goalie for his fourth goal of the night. The goal was also his nation-leading 38th of the season.

The late goals and a strong start to the overtime session seemed to give Minnesota all the momentum. But, just as fast as the Gophers had the edge, the Huskies stole it back. They took the game in the process, as well.

Forward Matt Hartman, who scored St. Cloud State’s first goal of the game, netted the game-winner 9:14 into the overtime when he pulled up in the lower circle to Frazee’s right and fired a shot by the freshman. The bad-angled shot got by Frazee as he appeared to take a bad angle on the goal.

“He wasn’t square to the puck, bottom line,” Lucia said of Frazee on the game-winner. “I don’t know if he thought the pass was coming or what.”

Lucia’s inability to explain what happened is fitting because Motzko didn’t really seem to know what had just happened either.

“The first thing I said to our guys (after the game) was, ‘I don’t know what to say,’ ” Motzko said.

After a lost weekend like the one experienced by Minnesota, answers on how to correct what went wrong this weekend will have to be found.

Because next weekend, in the NCAA regionals, there is no third-place game. But, according to Irmen, the team does not have to go back to square one.

“This is just a bump in the road for us,” Irmen said. “We’re going to forget about it the minute we walk out of here and look forward to next weekend.”