Gophers lose game, chance at three-peat

Lou Raguse

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. – Heading into the third period trailing Minnesota-Duluth in the NCAA Midwest Regional final, players on Minnesota’s men’s hockey team weren’t too worried.

After all, a week earlier in the WCHA Final Five semifinals, the Gophers trailed the Bulldogs twice before coming back to win 7-4.

And when Grant Potulny ññ Minnesota’s Mr. Postseason ññ scored a goal to cut the lead to 2-1, it seemed as if the Gophers had the jump on Minnesota-Duluth.

But Bulldogs goaltender Isaac Reichmuth was impenetrable for the remainder of the game, and Minnesota-Duluth earned a trip to the NCAA Frozen Four by beating the Gophers 3-1.

It was the first time in 17 postseason games that Minnesota was on the losing end in the playoffs, and its hopes of winning a third consecutive national title ended Sunday at Van Andel Arena.

“The way it’s gone in the past, it’s somehow happened for us in the third period,” senior Troy Riddle said. “Someone’s always stepped up and scored a big goal the way Grant did in the third. We had our chances to bury it, and we didn’t.”

The game was the sixth meeting between the two teams this season, and it was much different than the offensive showcase in the WCHA Final Five on March 19.

About 16,000 fewer fans attended the NCAA matchup, and the game’s cautious pace coincided with the arena’s sedated atmosphere.

The Bulldogs scored with 1:50 remaining in the first period when Evan Schwabe intercepted a Minnesota pass and found net unassisted on the breakaway. That would be the only score until early in the third.

Both defenses tightened up even more, and at the second intermission the shot count stood at 12-11 in favor of the Gophers and the score 1-0 in favor of the Bulldogs.

In the third period, Minnesota-Duluth scored another breakaway goal, which was disallowed, but attacked the net and made the game 2-0 exactly one minute later.

“I thought we were in trouble when we got down two, because you could see how the game was going and how Reichmuth was playing,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said.

But Potulny gave the Gophers a renewed hope 5:25 into the period when he slapped the puck home from the right circle.

“I don’t know if it’s the mentality we’ve gotten from the last couple of years, but we expected to win,” Potulny said. “We kind of figured once we got that first one that we were going to break them.”

That hope started to fade when Jesse Unklesbay reclaimed a two-goal lead for the Bulldogs, and Reichmuth continued to make big saves.

“We beat a very good hockey team today,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “This is a very exciting time for our program and our players.”

Minnesota reached the regional championship by beating Notre Dame 5-2 on Saturday.

Notre Dame struck first, scoring on its first shot of the game 54 seconds in. Forward Cory McLean found himself skating toward Gophers goaltender Kellen Briggs undefended and found the net.

The rest of the period dragged on through penalties and television timeouts before Notre Dame scored again with 42 seconds remaining.

But then Minnesota scored five unanswered goals to claim the win.

“We’re the experienced team, and we were a little uptight in the first period,” Lucia said. “When I talked to them after the first period, I said, ‘Hey guys, just relax.’ “

The Gophers came out of the first intermission, and Matt Koalska scored in the first minute of the period. Freshman Danny Irmen tied the game when Chris Harrington’s slap shot bounced off his shoulder.

Thomas Vanek scored the winning goal with 3:36 remaining in the second, and he and Riddle added insurance goals in the third.

“The big guys scored some goals,” Lucia said. “Thomas, Koalska and Riddle all scored, and that’s what you have to have this time of year. Your top players have to be your top players, and they were (Saturday).”