GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. – His emotions still raw, Nick Bjugstad sat glumly at his locker Friday after the Gophers’ 3-2 overtime loss to Yale in the NCAA West Regional. He hadn’t taken off his uniform, even though the game had ended half an hour earlier.
The upset loss could mark the final Gophers game for three juniors: Bjugstad, center Erik Haula and defenseman Nate Schmidt. All said after the game that they have not decided whether to return for their senior seasons or sign pro contracts. Another junior, winger and team captain Zach Budish, said he will be back.
It has been widely speculated that Bjugstad, chosen 19th overall by Florida in the 2010 NHL draft, would turn pro after this season. Friday, all he could think about was his disappointment at the Gophers’ hasty exit from the NCAA tournament.
“This was one of the best years of my life,’’ said Bjugstad, who finished the season with a team-high 21 goals and was the Gophers’ third-leading scorer with 36 points. “This is the best group of guys I’ve ever been with.
“I don’t even want to think about [leaving the team] right now. I get choked up just thinking about it. I love these guys. I don’t know. We’ll see what happens.’’
Haula, a seventh-round pick by the Wild in the 2009 draft, and Schmidt also were emotional after the game. Haula assisted on both of the Gophers’ goals Friday, giving him a career-high and team-best 51 points. “I haven’t really had time to think about anything except this week,’’ he said.
Schmidt, considered one of the top undrafted college prospects this year, said the same. “I haven’t thought much about it,’’ he said. “Right now, I’m part of the Gophers.’’
While many Gophers said they did not see Yale’s winning goal, Bulldogs coach Keith Allain got a great view. In fact, he predicted what would happen nine seconds into overtime.
Allain said that when Kenny Agostino tracked the Gophers’ Ben Marshall, he knew Agostino was going to force a turnover behind the Gophers’ net. “He put such great pressure on the D,’’ Allain said of Agostino. “He had him at an angle where I knew the guy was in trouble. He not only forced the turnover, he made a nice play to get the puck to [Jesse] Root across the front of the net.’’
The Gophers repeatedly said they were stunned by how quickly Root scored. Yale’s Andrew Miller was not surprised. “We have a pretty potent offense,’’ he said. “That’s hockey. Everything happens quick. You’ve got to be on your game, especially in overtime.’’
Not quite a crowd
Attendance for Friday’s games was announced at 2,289, with large swaths of empty seats in an arena that seats 12,000. Gophers coach Don Lucia expected low attendance and had even cautioned his players not to be distracted by the minuscule crowd.
Attendance clearly was hampered by the lack of a local team. Michigan, the host school, did not make the NCAA tournament for the first time after 22 consecutive appearances. Western Michigan, located 50 miles away in Kalamazoo, barely missed the field. The Broncos finished No. 16 in the PairWise Rankings; the top 15 got automatic or at-large bids.
This was the first time since 1979 that no team from Michigan made the NCAA tournament.