With the WCHA breaking up after this season, Don Lucia knew every fan of the Gophers and North Dakota was counting on one last matchup between the longtime rivals at the WCHA Final Five. Yet the Gophers coach wasn’t shocked to see unranked Colorado College — which finished eighth in the 12-team league — knock off North Dakota in the quarterfinals.
Lucia knew even before the tournament began that the Tigers were gaining steam behind senior goaltender Joe Howe of Plymouth. The top-ranked Gophers discovered that for themselves in Friday’s Final Five semifinals, as Howe stopped all 35 shots he faced to lead the Tigers to a 2-0 upset at Xcel Energy Center. While he put the brakes on the nation’s highest-scoring team, Rylan Schwartz and Edina native Charlie Taft scored early in the second period to vault the Tigers (18-18-5) into Saturday’s championship game against No. 14 Wisconsin, which upset top-seeded St. Cloud State in an earlier semifinal.
The Gophers (26-8-5) got an opportunity to rally with a five-minute power play early in the third period after Joe Marciano cross-checked Tom Serratore head-first into the boards. But the Gophers’ power play — the nation’s most efficient — fizzled in front of an announced sellout crowd of 18,949.
Lucia is an expert in the mathematics of the PairWise Rankings, which mirror the formula used to select the 16-team NCAA tournament field. He said before the Final Five that the Gophers are locked into the No. 2 seed overall, and he expects they will be assigned to the West Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich. The Tigers need to win the Final Five championship, and the automatic NCAA bid that comes with it, to keep playing.
“Give [Howe] credit,’’ Gophers captain Zach Budish said. “He’s playing well right now. But we had  shots, and a lot of them came from the perimeter. We didn’t get a lot of second-chance opportunities in front of the net.
“It’s disappointing. We didn’t take care of business tonight.’’
Lucia said before the Final Five that no team wants to face a senior goalie whose college career will end with his next loss. They have a tendency to rise to the occasion, Lucia explained. Howe demonstrated that Friday.
The Tigers’ other six seniors played a part, too. The Gophers got second-line winger Sam Warning back into the lineup after he missed two games because of an unspecified injury, and they generated some good scoring chances in the first period. But Howe stopped them all, quieting the large Gophers contingent of fans in the arena.
Schwartz put the Tigers ahead 59 seconds into the second period, racing to the top of the right circle to fire a wrist shot past Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox. At 4:24 of the second, the Tigers scored again after the Gophers lost control of the puck just inside their blue line. Alexander Krushelnyski poked it ahead to Taft, who spun around, took two strides toward the net and beat Wilcox.
The Gophers outshot the Tigers 35-20, but Howe stopped a shorthanded breakaway by Nick Bjugstad, and he dived onto the puck to stop Nate Condon at the doorstep. On the five-minute major, the Gophers got only one shot and spent much of the power play chasing the puck.
“We couldn’t find the rhythm to our game,’’ Lucia said. “We had a few chances, but every time Joe was in position to make the save. And we weren’t on the net enough to be in position to score on the rebound.’’
As pleased as Howe was, he is not satisfied yet. The Tigers have never won a Final Five title — they have lost in the finals three times in 13 previous appearances — and they would love to take the Broadmoor Troph home to end their tenure in the WCHA.
“The only thing that mattered was leaving it all out there against Minnesota,’’ Howe said. “Now we’ll forget about this one, and it’s on to Wisconsin [Saturday].’’