Sioux put Gophers’ title hopes on ice ’til next year

Minnesota fell behind 4-0 before coming to life in the final 15 minutes of a 4-2 loss.

Ben Goessling

COLUMBUS, Ohio – For the final 15 minutes, they magically snapped into the same players they were when they blindsided the country in November.

Minnesota’s men’s hockey team backchecked relentlessly, stopped turning the puck over and came out of corner battles time and again with loose pucks.

But for the first 45 minutes of the Gophers’ national semifinal with North Dakota on Thursday, they showed why another championship is at least a year away.

And Minnesota will now have six months to think about why it took so long to pour it on after a 4-2 loss to the Sioux in the Frozen Four semifinals at Value City Arena in Columbus.

“I don’t know if it was nerves or what, but we were a little tentative at first,” coach Don Lucia said. “We had a lot of young guys in a difficult situation.”

The Gophers’ furious third-period comeback was too little, too late to erase two periods of domination and a 4-0 North Dakota lead.

In the end, it was a perfect way for an ultimately imperfect team to end its season.

Minnesota (28-15-1) absorbed the physical beating most figured the Sioux would administer. But the Gophers forwards never matched North Dakota’s aggression.

“We got off to the start we wanted,” Sioux coach Dave Hakstol said. “We established our game and played physically.”

The Sioux (25-14-5) took the lead at 5:34 in the first period when Erik Fabian snatched the puck from Judd Stevens behind Minnesota’s net, wheeled around and whipped a wrist shot past Briggs before he could react.

“I don’t think Stevens knew I was behind him. I was surprised how easy the puck came out when I hit his stick,” Fabian said. “I looked over and saw Briggs wasn’t looking, so I just threw a shot at the net.”

North Dakota missed on several other golden chances in the first period – most notably when Rastislav Spirko rang a shot off the crossbar after faking Briggs to his knees. But the Gophers killed two consecutive power-play chances with penalties of their own.

The Sioux stretched their lead to 2-0 in the second period when Fabian posted his second score of the game, grabbing a loose puck behind Minnesota’s net, waiting for Briggs to drop to his knees and flipping the puck high.

From there, things turned nightmarish for the Gophers.

Just 45 seconds into the third period, North Dakota took a 3-0 lead when Drew Stafford put back a rebound off Travis Zajac’s power-play shot.

Minnesota got a four-minute power play off a slashing penalty on Brian Canady with 16:51 left in the third period, only to give up a shorthanded goal to Zajac after Briggs lost his stick in front of the net.

The Gophers’ power play stretched to five-on-three 1:34 later, and Minnesota scratched out a pair of goals from Mike Howe and Gino Guyer to make it 4-2 with 12:20 left.

Minnesota would get no closer, however, as Sioux goaltender Jordan Parise turned away several tough shots and North Dakota continued to pound away at the Gophers forwards.

“This is definitely a tough loss,” senior Barry Tallackson said. “I think with about three seconds to go in the game it really hit us that our season was over. After a couple of weeks, I am sure we will look back on this team and realize that we really had something special. But right now this loss is pretty tough to take.”

With only one of its top nine forwards and one of its top six defenseman graduating, Minnesota figures to be a trendy pick to win the 2005-06 national title – especially after top prospect Phil Kessel signs his national letter of intent next week.

But a new season is half a year away.

And this Gophers team, despite its belated return to fall form, showed it didn’t quite have enough to push through.

“Our seniors are crushed, and it’s always hard to go in the locker room after that last game,” Lucia said. “But I think we got as much as we could out of this group. You don’t have to be the best all year, and they are the better team.”