ophers get a quiet ending to an emotional season

by Michael Rand

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Ryan Trebil, a seldom-used freshman defenseman on the Gophers hockey team, haphazardly wrapped black tape around a box holding the team’s portable stereo March 23 after Minnesota’s season-ending 7-4 loss to Michigan at the NCAA West Regional tournament.
Trebil, standing just outside the locker room, sealed the box with enough tape to make a person think the stereo would not be used for quite a while. Loud music is the symbol of a Gophers victory, but the team will have to wait until October for a chance to hear the noise again.
Music had no place in the silent hallways of Van Andel Arena. Players, coaches and team staff members walked wordlessly. Some held back tears; others simply couldn’t.
It was a difficult end to an emotional year for the Gophers, who finished the season 28-13-1. Despite drawing Michigan in the quarterfinals of the NCAA tourney, many players said they liked their chances of advancing to the final four and beyond.
“I really thought this was going to be the year we won (the national title),” forward Wyatt Smith said, “just because of all the ups and downs we’ve gone through to get here.”
The season saw the Gophers play poorly in stretches (2-3 to start the season, and a 1-5 run against teams with winning records from mid-January to mid-February). But a 7-1 win on Feb. 15 against Minnesota-Duluth started the Gophers on a 7-0-1 stretch that bolstered the team’s national ranking and confidence.
A 4-3 overtime loss to North Dakota in the WCHA Final Five title game, however, stopped Minnesota’s unbeaten streak. A day later, the team found out it had received a No. 4 seed in the West Regional — setting up a potential matchup with Michigan.
The Gophers disposed of Michigan State 6-3 in the first round, but things didn’t go according to plan against the Wolverines.
Minnesota trailed 3-0 at the end of the first period and 5-0 after one minute had elapsed in the second period.
“We all felt very comfortable and very confident,” Gophers goalie Steve DeBus said. “That first goal they scored was a key. We were already at a disadvantage then.”
The Gophers tried to make the game interesting, and though they rallied to cut the deficit to three goals, the outcome was never really in doubt.
“That’s a very good team we played,” Gophers coach Doug Woog said. “They give you so many different things to worry about.”
For example: Michigan’s top two lines consist of six players with at least 21 goals each, and third line left winger Matt Herr had 28 goals. Wolverines’ goalie Marty Turco had a minuscule 2.2 goals-against average. Entering the game against Minnesota, Michigan had scored 90 power play goals — one fewer than the number of total goals scored by its opponents.
Even though Michigan lost a 3-2 shocker to Boston University in the semifinals, the Wolverines were clearly the dominant team in college hockey this season, losing just four games all season by a total of five goals. All of those factors added up to end Minnesota’s season. It was the second consecutive year the Gophers lost to Michigan in the quarterfinals.
Whether Minnesota makes it further in the tournament next year depends a lot upon the decision of three underclassmen. The Gophers lose only four seniors: Nick Checco, Dan Hendrickson, Brian LaFleur and Dan Woog. But juniors Mike Crowley and DeBus and sophomore Erik Rasmussen could leave early.
The loss of Crowley (9 goals, 47 assists) and/or DeBus (25-12-1, 3.15 goals-against average) would be particularly damaging. Crowley is a two-time Hobey Baker award finalist and the anchor of Minnesota’s defense. DeBus is the only Gophers goalie that has significant college experience.
Still, the continued improvement of other returning players and a strong incoming freshman class should make the Gophers a contender again next season.
“We had a lot of guys step up this year and carry on the winning tradition,” DeBus said.
Smith (16 goals, 14 assists) and Ryan Kraft (25 goals, 21 assists) had breakout seasons, and freshman Dave Spehar (20 goals, 17 assists) gave a glimpse of what’s to come. Minnesota can also expect Casey Hankinson (17 goals, 24 assists) and Reggie Berg (11 goals, 26 assists) to produce similar or better numbers next season.
These projections will mean more to the Gophers in a couple of weeks, or at least in a couple of months when the end of this season has sunk in. As of last Sunday, however, the loss to Michigan dominated their thoughts.
After Trebil was finished with his erratic tape job, he surveyed his work, thought for a minute, and then said with a sigh, “Good enough.”
The Gophers will find out next year if Trebil is right.