GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. – It happened so fast that Nate Schmidt didn’t even see the goal. “I was still sitting down on the bench, getting my first drink of water,” the Gophers defenseman said. “Then I looked up, and one of their guys was jumping in the air.”
That might have been Yale center Jesse Root, who had just scored the goal that defeated the Gophers 3-2 in Friday’s NCAA West Regional opener. Or perhaps it was Kenny Agostino, the winger who set it up only nine seconds into overtime at Van Andel Arena. All Schmidt knew for sure was that a furious Gophers rally had been cut short in shocking fashion, as Yale — the 15th overall seed — knocked off a team expected to contend for the national championship.
The No. 2 Gophers (26-9-5) spotted 15th-ranked Yale a 2-0 lead after two periods. Schmidt’s power-play goal at 8 minutes, 12 seconds of the third jump-started an offense that had been shut down for more than 100 minutes, and Zach Budish knotted the score at 13:40. But a season of bright promise came to an abrupt end when Agostino stole the puck behind the Gophers’ net and found a wide-open Root before many in the sparse crowd had returned to their seats.
Schmidt and forward Erik Haula came to the news conference with red, tear-filled eyes, and Budish’s voice broke as he tried to explain what happened. The Gophers, who had been ranked first or second in national polls for all but six weeks of the season, attempted 81 shots to Yale’s 48. But only 28 of those shots made it to the net, as Yale’s stout defense blocked 25 and the Gophers sprayed 27 others high and wide.
Afterward, Gophers coach Don Lucia slumped in a chair in the locker room, while several players sat silently in their sweat-soaked gear. Yale (19-12-3) will play North Dakota, which beat Niagara 2-1, in Saturday’s West Regional championship, with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four. The Gophers will be left to lament a season that came to a sudden, stunning halt.
“I thought we got better as the game went on,” said Lucia, who also did not see the winning goal. “When we tied it, I thought we were in great shape.
“I felt good going into overtime. It was so quick. I guess that’s why they call it sudden death.”
Yale entered the tournament with eight losses in its past 14 games and had been shut out in its previous two. Its aggressive penalty killers stopped the Gophers — who have the nation’s best power play — on four of five attempts. Its team defense limited the Gophers’ quality scoring chances, while the offense outshot the Gophers 19-16 in the first 40 minutes.
Agostino scored the game’s first goal at 7:08 of the second period, skating alone to the slot to snap a wrist shot past Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox. Gus Young made it 2-0 with a power-play goal from the center point at 15:28 of the second.
The Gophers, shut out 2-0 by Colorado College in the semifinals of the WCHA Final Five one week earlier, attemped 49 shots in the first two periods Friday but had nothing to show for it. Though they boasted the nation’s highest-scoring offense, averaging 3.51 goals per game, Schmidt’s goal was their first in a span of 109 minutes, 5 seconds.
Lucia noted that with so few of the Gophers’ shots getting to the net, they had scant chances to score on rebounds or scrambles — and after many of those wide shots, the puck quickly was going the other direction. Schmidt said none of the lines was fully in sync.
“We didn’t have everyone on all cylinders,” Schmidt said. “[Yale] did a good job of keeping us out of the front of the net the entire game. Our ‘D’ didn’t get pucks to the net, and [Yale] won some of the little battles that often change the game.”
One of those became the biggest. After Nick Bjugstad won a faceoff, Agostino took the puck away from Ben Marshall behind the Gophers’ net, lured Wilcox to the right post and spotted a wide-open Root on the opposite side. “I turned my head behind the net and lost it for a second,” Wilcox said. “That’s when he passed, right to a guy in front. And that was the end of it.”