Tired legs fail Minnesota in WCHA playoffs

by Josh Linehan

The Minnesota men’s hockey team couldn’t really have asked for more — the Gophers had one last shot.
Minnesota was playing in its fifth game in eight days, third in three days, and second in 16 hours.
Still, the entire season came down to one game and one common result. The Gophers played hard, stayed close but came up short. They lost 6-4 to St. Cloud in the Final Five third-place game Saturday.
“For all that’s happened this season, it comes down to one game,” sophomore John Pohl said after Friday’s loss to Wisconsin. “But we’ve still got a shot. It’s in our hands, and you can’t ask for more than that.”
As the Gophers trickled out of their locker room one by one for the last time Saturday, most looked like they could barely carry their own sticks, let alone their destiny, in their tired hands.
“We came out really well,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said after the final loss. “Then the legs started to go. It’s hard when you get tired. You can’t win a draw; you make a lot of mental mistakes.”
After losing to the top-ranked Badgers on Friday, the Gophers still had an outside chance at making the NCAA tournament when they faced St. Cloud on Saturday. A win over the Huskies, their 31st game against a team in the running for an NCAA berth, and Minnesota could make quite a convincing pitch to the selection committee.
The Gophers laid it all on the line in the first period against St. Cloud. They buzzed the Huskies’ net and fired shot after shot toward netminder Scott Meyer. But all the jump left in Minnesota’s legs was only good for a 1-0 lead after 10 minutes. St. Cloud took over in the second half of the period and held a 3-1 lead at intermission.
That was all the Huskies needed. St. Cloud — fresh off a 7-3 pasting at the hands of eventual Final Five champion North Dakota the previous evening — played well enough to win down the stretch. The Huskies earned a berth in the NCAA East Regional next week in Albany, N.Y.
With St. Cloud in Albany, the WCHA will have three representatives in the 12-team field. Wisconsin won an automatic bid as league champions, while the Sioux exacted revenge and earned their own bid by beating the Badgers 5-3 in the title game. Both teams received first-round byes and will play Saturday at Mariucci Arena.
Minnesota will host the regional, but the players will have to watch the action from the stands. And that will be especially difficult for the seniors.
An exhausted Nate Miller stood in the tunnel and fielded questions after the final game of his career Saturday. He still wore the maroon number 13 jersey he couldn’t bear to take off for the last time.
“I’m proud of my team. We were certainly lacking a little jump in our legs, but we battled hard, and we battled to the end. You hate to lose, but the effort was there,” Miller said.
“You realize your senior year won’t be a fairy tale, as much as you want it to be. But I’m proud to say I’m a leader of this team.”
The season did represent a positive plateau for the Gopher men’s hockey program. Minnesota had a winning record after two consecutive losing seasons, finishing 20-19-2. But the Gophers still have a big step to take next season.
Minnesota’s record against Wisconsin, North Dakota and St. Cloud –the three NCAA tournament teams — was an embarrassing 1-10-2.
“We beat up on the lower half of the league,” Lucia said. “We also relied way too much on our key guys, especially on the power play. We need some other guys to emerge next year if we’re going to take that next step as a team.”
All three Minnesota goals Saturday were on the power play, led by Miller, Pohl and junior Erik Westrum — the tournament’s leading scorer with three goals and four assists in three games.
“When you play three games in three days it’s tough, but that’s the position we put ourselves in,” Westrum said. “They capitalized and we didn’t. It was fun while it lasted.”
Westrum and Pohl should be back to try and push Minnesota over the top next year. Miller, however, has played his last game as a Gopher. The senior was overcome by emotion after the loss.
“I haven’t even thought about playing pro hockey,” Miller said, as tears welled in his eyes. “Growing up, all I ever wanted to do was be a Gopher. It’s been a dream come true.”

Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]