At times, they looked the part, the role of title contender looking about as fitting as the patchy goatees they sported this week.
No, this edition of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team doesn’t do things without a little drama.
And no, they’re not full of can’t-miss stars like last year’s Gophers team was purported to be.
But this group is going to the Frozen Four.
After a week of off-the-ice distractions and fluctuating lineups, Minnesota survived two equally cathartic games with Maine and Cornell to win the NCAA West Regional at Mariucci Arena and advance to its third Frozen Four in four years.
The Gophers will play North Dakota on April 7 in an all-WCHA affair in Columbus, Ohio.
“I’ve been around enough to know that three Frozen Fours in four years is pretty tough to do,” coach Don Lucia said. “You can have a great team and not get there. I’m so proud of these guys.”
They topped Maine 1-0 on Saturday, getting a goal from Evan Kaufmann at 1:46 of overtime. Then they survived a pounding from Cornell in the third period Sunday, getting an overtime goal at 4:32 when Barry Tallackson put his last shot at Mariucci Arena past Red goaltender David McKee.
“I take a lot of pride in that, being a senior,” Tallackson said. “This team has taken a lot of criticism, but we swallowed it, went out and bore down.”
Despite firing 14 first-period shots at McKee, the Gophers couldn’t score in the opening frame. Chris Harrington hit the crossbar on a power-play slap shot from the point with 5:25 left.
Those missed opportunities finally stung the Gophers in the second period.
After Cornell blocked a shot from the point on Minnesota’s fifth power play, the Red steamrolled down the ice on an odd-man rush. Daniel Pegoraro found Mitch Carefoot with a pass through the slot and past Gophers defenseman Derek Peltier, and Carefoot put the puck past Gophers goalie Kellen Briggs for his fourth goal of the season.
But Minnesota found an answer just 1:43 later.
Garrett Smaagaard set up his second goal of the weekend by winning a loose-puck battle behind the net and sliding a pass to Andy Sertich, whose backhand beat McKee.
The teams remained deadlocked throughout a physical third period that saw Cornell lug the puck into Minnesota’s zone time and again.
The Red spent much of the frame attacking Briggs but couldn’t pop the winning goal past him in regulation.
The script was about equal in plot Saturday.
Minnesota battled through 60 scoreless – and often frustrating – minutes with Maine. Without forward Tyler Hirsch and defenseman Alex Goligoski, the Gophers squandered nine power-play chances and failed to crack Black Bears goalie Jimmy Howard.
The junior stopped 37 shots in a stirring performance, making his best saves in the game’s closing moments, including a flashy glove save to stop Peltier on a 2-on-1 with less than three minutes left.
“I think they were just shooting and praying they could get one by me,” Howard said.
But just 1:46 into overtime, Smaagaard found Kaufmann with a centering pass from behind the net, which the freshman drilled to the far post for his seventh goal of the season and the biggest tally of his life.
“I think their defense got a little confused,” Kaufmann said. “That left me open, and I yelled to (Smaagaard), and he found a way to get me the puck.”
They probably won’t be favorites in Columbus with Colorado College and Denver in the other semifinal. And they might not be the greatest team ever to skate at Mariucci Arena.
But one more time, the Gophers found a way.