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Gophers hockey advances to national championship game

The team has not made it to the championship game since 2014.
Image by CJ Bonk
Minnesota’s win Thursday night was head coach Bob Motzko’s first Frozen Four win.

Boston dominated Minnesota in the middle, but they didn’t start or finish on top. 

The Gophers capitalized off of many power play opportunities with half of their goals coming from their top-scoring D unit in the country (30 goals and 116 assists on the season), taming the Terriers 6-2.

Minnesota’s Frozen Four experience began with one of the closest misses to a goal you’ll ever see in a hockey game. Jimmy Snuggerud’s shot from the point touched the bottom right goal post behind Terriers goalie Drew Commesso, with a near rebound score by Matthew Knies. Close … but no cigar.

Jimmy Snuggerud had a close miss to a goal early on in the game. (CJ Bonk)

“In the first period our line hit like three posts,” said Logan Cooley. “You start to get worried a little bit but I’m happy we soon buried some.” 

The Gophers jumped out to a 5-1 shots advantage in the first five minutes, they were rolling in all facets of the game.

Then things slowly started to unravel. After a couple of positive Boston offensive rushes, Sam Stevens broke the scoring open. The Terriers are 21-0 on the season when in front after the first twenty minutes. 

Mike Koster and Rhett Pitlick ruined Boston’s dreams of a first intermission lead. On the Gophers’ second powerplay of the game after an elbowing call on Jay O’Brien, Koster lifted one from the left circle to tie the game with 4:30 in the first. Aaron Huglen soon dimed a no-look pass between his legs to Pitlick who slotted the puck in the net from the right crease. Another powerplay goal. 

The Terriers totalled seven penalties this game. 

“The discipline cost us,” said Boston head coach Jay Pandolfo. “You can’t give Minnesota seven powerplays, that’s not winning hockey”

The Terriers exacted revenge by moving their feet and being the faster team. They evened the match at two apiece where they outshot Minnesota at one point in the second period 8-1.

The leader of this attack wasn’t the top-NCAA scoring defenseman. Freshman Lane Hutson failed to score a point on the night. Fellow defenseman Domenick Fensore was Boston’s best performer. 

After patiently aiming for an opening from the blue line, Fensore fired a snipe that was rebounded in by his teammates. This assist was off a power play, scored by O’Brien, redeeming himself for his earlier penalty that lost their only lead of the game. Fensore also was credited with an assist on Stevens’ goal to open the game. 

“We knew BU would bring some pressure to start the second…they started to whip it around and were able to start their cycle, going from low to high, getting pucks deep” said Gophers Goalie Justen Close, who saved 29/31 shots. “I thought we did a good job of weathering the storm and competing all night.”

Minnesota battled back thanks to more Boston penalties. Tampa Bay Lightning prospect Connor Kurth nearly chalked a goal in his future home arena with a swipe in front of a clustered Commesso in net. Ryan Johnson nearly had a goal from the right side of the blue line, hitting the crossbar. Another shot was barely glove saved by Commesso who the referees took to review after Bryce Brodzinski nearly tipped it in. 

“I couldn’t tell if it crossed the line or not,” said Brodzinski, the Most Outstanding Player of the Fargo NCAA regional. “It’s a tough situation for the ref to be in because you can’t really see the puck with his glove covering it.”

The Gophers had goals reviewed and sent back twice this contest. The first came with 44 seconds left in the opening frame, Knies was tagged for goalie interference with his stick holding Commesso’s glove down and boxing him out in the crease. 

Again, close … but no cigar. 

Yet, it was only a matter of time before the Gophers’ freshman class kept them in Tampa for a few more nights. Luke Mittelstadt brought the cigars and Cooley brought the daggers. 

A 5-on-3 advantage ensued for Minnesota off of a charging call on Cade Webber to close the second period. Boston killed off the 5-on-3 but didn’t stop the 5-on-4 man advantage. Mittelstadt rifled a shot past Commesso to regain the lead. 

“Mike (Koster) gave me that first one and Huglen set up a great screen,” said Mittelstadt. “I don’t think the goalie saw it for a second, all I had to do was put it in the right side.”

Less than two minutes later, Mittelstadt pressed copy and paste from an identical location around the left circle, the only difference was both teams were at full strength. 4-2 Gophers. 

“Chesley gave me a great pass and it was the same thing,” said Mittelstadt. “Screen out in front.”

Minnesota continued to control the puck with Motzko shortening his bench to three lines and five defenseman due to extra rest from TV timeouts. Kurth was replaced by Brody Lamb, after re-hampering his ankle and hobbling off the ice. Lamb, along with Pitlick and Mason Nevers, applied a pressurizing forecheck from their third to minimize Boston’s offensive attack.

Kurth said postgame he should be 100% for the final game of the NCAA season. 

Cooley, the Hobey Baker finalist, scored two empty-net goals. (CJ Bonk)

With three minutes remaining Pandolfo sent Commesso to the bench, needing a 6-on-5 man advantage to attempt to score two goals in three minutes. However, Cooley sent the Boston boys packing.

Two empty net goals were courtesy of the Hobey Baker finalist and the Gophers would take their first Frozen Four win since 2014, 6-2. 

“It was all business for us,” said Jackson LaCombe, who thought the Gophers did a better job of limiting distractions in a vacation-like environment compared to their disappointing series on Thanksgiving weekend at Arizona State. “Just try to limit the distractions, we’re here to play hockey.”

Minnesota will play Quinnipiac in the championship after the Bobcats defeated the 2023 Big Ten Tournament champion Michigan Wolverines 4-2 in the second Frozen Four matchup on Thursday. The Gophers are 11-2 all-time against the private Connecticut school, most recently blowing them out 11-2 in 2000.

“I liked us tonight,” said Motzko. “We had some unfortunate ones called back, but our guys stuck with it. Koster’s powerplay unit had three goals tonight, Mittelstadt is a heck of a player. We had our chances and we finished it.” 

The 2023 NCAA Men’s Hockey National Championship will air on ESPN2 Saturday, April 8 at 7 p.m. Central Standard Time. 

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