Men’s hockey seniors shine in home finale

Michael Rand

It was supposed to be the blueprint for an entire season, not just one series.
Instead of winning its first road game in more than four months on the last weekend of the regular season, the Gophers men’s hockey team was expected to consistently excel on any ice sheet.
Rather than scrapping for a sixth-place finish with a home-and-away sweep of St. Cloud State, Minnesota was scheduled to assume its place in the upper division of the WCHA, just as it had done every year since the 1976-77 season.
And in place of a brief farewell tour after the final home game of the regular season Saturday — one that gave the sense of a glimmer of hope — five Gophers seniors had every reason to believe they would be enshrined in the school’s hockey annals with a strong sense of impending playoff glory.
The difference between expectation and reality was not lost on Minnesota’s players, particularly the seniors. Casey Hankinson, Ryan Kraft, Steve DeBus, Brett Abrahamson and Jason Godbout were seemingly trapped Saturday night between the joy of the moment and thoughts of the season as a whole.
The only consensus was this: At least the final home game, in and of itself, went according to plan.
“It’s been a tough year — no one’s going to deny that,” Hankinson said. “But to have the guys play the way they did, and for us to go out and get a victory like this is pretty special.”
In a way, the weekend was the antithesis of Minnesota’s year-long reality of bad luck and injuries.
In the first series between Minnesota and St. Cloud State in mid-December, the Gophers outshot the Huskies by more than a two-to-one margin and still lost both games.
On Saturday, Dave Spehar banked in a shot off goalie Brian Leitza’s stick from behind the net, and Hankinson’s game-winner caromed inadvertently off his leg and trickled slowly into the net.
“How many chances did we have that didn’t go in?” asked bewildered St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl.
Perhaps several members of the Gophers, accustomed to counting chances of their own gone by the wayside, could give Dahl a quick answer.
Still, Kraft refused to blame the Gophers’ disappointing season and their contrasting success this weekend on luck.
“There were a lot of losses this year when we could have done things differently and worked harder,” said Kraft, who fittingly scored the game-clinching empty-net goal in Saturday’s 5-3 win.
Coach Doug Woog backed up Kraft’s statement, pointing out that it was his team’s performance against the bottom three WCHA teams that did the Gophers in. Minnesota finished 9-11 against the top five teams in the league, and only 3-5 against the lower teams.
That fact created a sentiment of “What if?” but at the same time it gave Minnesota’s seniors hope that maybe they can extend their season and careers further.
Although Minnesota’s record (16-20, 12-16 in the WCHA) means it will have to win the league playoff title as a No. 6 seed to qualify for the NCAA tournament, nothing else has made sense this year.
“This is pretty much the same team that started the year. We had high hopes at the beginning of the year,” Hankinson said. “For whatever reason, we finished in sixth place, and we’re obviously not proud about that. But these are the same guys, and we’re gaining confidence. We’re in the playoffs — that’s all that matters.”
Whether the Gophers use this weekend as a springboard or a last hurrah remains to be seen.
Regardless, the image of all five seniors skating together in the final minute Saturday; of Kraft pumping his fist into the air at the final horn Saturday; and of the seniors taking one last lap around their home rink is at least something for them to remember in a forgettable season.
“Maybe destiny did say, This is how it was supposed to be,'” Kraft said.