Don Lucia and his players weren't the only ones who didn't see Yale's Jesse Root score the winning goal nine seconds into overtime of Friday's NCAA West Regional. No one in the press box did, either. Everyone was just getting settled for the overtime, and suddenly, it was over.
It was a shocking end. The Gophers had grabbed hold of the game in the third period, outshooting Yale 12-6. They attempted 32 shots in the third period alone, on their way to 81 for the game. It felt like the Gophers had just hit their stride. But one bad play ruined things for them.
After Nick Bjugstad won a faceoff, Ben Marshall got the puck and carried it behind the Gophers' net. Yale coach Keith Allain said he could sense what was going to happen. "I thought to myself, 'Kenny is going to force a turnover here,''' he said of forward Kenny Agostino, who did just that. "He put such great pressure on (Marshall). He had him at an angle where I knew the guy was in trouble. He not only forced the turnover, but he was able to get the puck on a nice play to Root across the front of the net.''
Agostino got the puck and passed to Root, who had a wide-open net to shoot at. Bjugstad said he tried to lie down in front of the net to block Agostino's pass. "It was in the back of the net before I could even see anything,'' said Bjugstad, who appeared shellshocked 30 minutes after the game. "The season was over, just like that. It's just unbelievable. I can't even explain it.
"It's tough. We obviously dug ourselves a hole with two goals. We came back, and I felt we were going to win the game. It just didn't happen. We can't do anything about it now. It's a tough way to go out.''
Goalie Adam Wilcox said he didn't see much, either. "It all happened so fast,'' he said. "I turned my head when they were behind the net and lost it for a second. That's when he passed, right out to a guy in front. That was the end of it. Not much you can do there.''
The players, understandably, were heartbroken. Erik Haula, Nate Schmidt and Zach Budish were the ones chosen to speak at the postgame press conference; all had red, teary eyes, and Budish's voice broke as he was speaking. "There's not much you can do when there's a guy in the slot from 10 feet away,'' he said. "It's a tough loss. It stings. It just sucks to go out this way.''
Budish did say he plans to return to the Gophers for his senior season. He was a second-round draft pick by Nashville in the 2009 NHL draft. "I'm planning on coming back,'' he said. "I'll take this as a learning experience. We've got a great group of guys coming back. I can't wait to play again in six months.''
Haula and Schmidt said they haven't thought about whether they will return. Bjugstad--a first-round pick by Florida in 2010--is expected to go, but he wasn't ready to let go after the game. "This was one of the best years of my life,'' he said. "I don't even want to think about (leaving) right now.''
Lucia bristled when he was asked if the loss compared to the Gophers' first-round NCAA loss to Holy Cross in 2006, which remains a symbol of a classic upset in college hockey. Holy Cross won that game 4-3 in overtime.
"Everyone says 'Holy Cross,''' he said. "That's disrespectful to people who follow college hockey. Whether it's Bemidji State or RIT, they're good teams. When you get to this point of the season, you play teams that have won a lot of games. It's single-elimination. You have to play well to move on.
"I thought we played OK. Did we play our best game this year? Probably not. It wasn't because we weren't trying. We were trying to play well. I feel bad for our players.''
Lucia said it was hard to look at his players in the locker room and see how terrible they felt. Many of them still were in their gear a half-hour after the game.
Several players said they were not worried between the second and third periods, despite trailing Yale 2-0. They discussed their first-round WCHA playoff game against Bemidji State, when they fell behind 2-0.The Gophers scored twice in the third period to win 4-3, scoring the winning goal with 53 seconds left.
"This time of year, it's hard to play from behind,'' Lucia said. "It's a lot easier when you can dictate the play. The effort was there. We just missed too many. We do a great job on the (last) faceoff, then we win the draw and it ends up in our net.''
The Gophers did do a great job on faceoffs, winning 47 and losing 21. That is an area that Allain wants to clean up for Saturday's West Regional final against North Dakota. But it was about the only thing he didn't like.
"From our perspective, this was a tremendous team win,'' he said. "To a man, our guys played as well as they can play.
"Our guys checked pretty tenaciously. We kept the play in front of us. We hounded the puck and tried to take away their time and space. We were able to do it as a unit of five, rather than as individuals.''
Allain also liked his team's determination after the Gophers tied the score 2-2. Yet he didn't look at the game as a monumental accomplishment in itself.
"We understand at this level of hockey, the other team is going to score goals and apply pressure,'' he said. "That's part of it. You've got to get your nose bloodied a couple of times and see how you respond. We saw a pretty good response from our group.
"We came here to win the regional, not to beat Minnesota.Although we're thrilled right now that we beat Minnesota, we've got work to do (Saturday).''