Top seed marred by pair of losses

The Gophers lost a pair of games and some composure, but they are a No. 1 seed.

by Ben Goessling

As buzz kills go, this one played out right on schedule.

The WCHA Final Five wound up being just another perfectly timed slap upside the head that Colorado College has become so good at delivering to Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.

A split in Colorado Springs, Colo., in December began Minnesota’s stay at the top of the national polls on a sour note. And the Tigers’ sweep in Minneapolis in January ended Minnesota’s school record 20-game home win streak and sent the team into a six-week swoon – one the Gophers thought they had ended going into the Final Five.

But in a tournament the Gophers won the last two years and in a building that became their home away from home, all it took was one date with the Tigers at the Xcel Energy Center to send Minnesota back into a tailspin.

The Gophers lost 3-0 to Colorado College in the Final Five semifinals Friday and 4-2 to North Dakota in the third-place game Saturday, draining most of the momentum gained during a six-game winning streak.

“Both losses are tough to take,” forward Danny Irmen said Saturday. “I don’t think we competed as hard as we could (Saturday). We didn’t play desperate that much at all.”

As it turns out, the Gophers’ lack of desperation didn’t matter. They will open the NCAA Tournament as the No. 1 seed in the West Regional against Maine (20-12-7) on Saturday at Mariucci Arena.

Nonetheless, Minnesota (26-4-1) is dealing with a host of issues before the NCAA Tournament – not the least of which was forward Tyler Hirsch’s bizarre display after Friday’s loss.

After the postgame handshake, Hirsch asked a rink official for a puck and skated from the red line to the slot, where he uncorked a slap shot that bounced off the crossbar.

Hirsch then barreled into the net at full speed, hitting the crossbar with his forearms and knocking the net through the doors at the end of the arena before getting up, leaving his stick at center ice and skating off the rink.

Coach Don Lucia said Hirsch, the team’s leading scorer, went home with his parents Friday night. Hirsch was not in the arena for Saturday’s loss.

But if Hirsch dealt with Friday’s loss at top speed, the rest of the Gophers got over it by sleepwalking through Saturday’s.

In a contest that meant little to Minnesota’s NCAA Tournament prospects, the Gophers failed to hold a 2-1 lead and gave up two goals in North Dakota’s first 10 shots.

Goaltender Kellen Briggs, back after missing six games with a broken bone in his left pinky, looked shaky during much of the game, and Minnesota also lost defenseman Alex Goligoski to a hand injury after he was slashed late in the first period.

Lucia said he wasn’t terribly concerned after Saturday’s loss.

“There’s a difference between wanting to win and needing to win,” he said. “This had very little bearing on the NCAA Tournament.”

But Friday’s loss left a decidedly sharper sting.

It was the first time the Gophers had been shut out since Oct. 10, 2003.

Minnesota controlled play early and appeared to have broken through at 1:43 of the second period when Mike Howe connected on a wrist shot from the slot.

But referee Derek Shepherd waived the goal off, saying Irmen’s skate was in the crease at the time of the goal.

Replays were inconclusive, but Colorado College left little to chance after that.

The Tigers’ Brett Sterling scored just 14 seconds later, completing a stunning reversal that deflated the Gophers.

“I didn’t see the guy, to be honest,” Tigers’ goaltender Curtis McElhinney said. “It was a bit of a surprise on our bench. But it was a fortunate break and something we fed off of.”

The Gophers host the NCAA West Regional next weekend, and a decent chance remains they could end up in Columbus, Ohio, for the NCAA Frozen Four in two weeks.

That won’t come, however, without yet another period of Tigers-induced soul searching.