MANCHESTER, N.H. – Almost as soon as their tears dried following last season’s national championship defeat, the Gophers were anointed as the favorite to return to the final game this season and swap sorrow with ultimate success.
The proclamation was dependent on the return of several standouts considered ready for professional hockey. One by one each of them bought into the lofty predictions and a national championship began to feel more and more like a sure thing. The Gophers entered the new college hockey season ranked No. 1.
But they had to rally out of a deep hole in the final two months of the season to earn the chance to prove everyone right. Then all the expectations and goals came crashing down. Rival Minnesota Duluth spoiled the Gophers’ big plans with a 4-1 beating on Friday night in the first round of the NCAA tournament in the Northeast Regional.
“From the emotional standpoint,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said, “the emotional capital over the last six or seven weeks to put ourselves into the position to be in the NCAA, it just seemed like we were a little emotionally flat [on Friday] at times.”
The Gophers won 11 of 14 games and took the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championships after a midseason funk that stripped them of their top ranking and eventually pushed them out of the national polls for the first time since April 2011.
“I’m proud of our guys and what we accomplished over the course of this year. It wasn’t easy. We had our course of ups and downs, but for what they accomplished, there was only one thing left to accomplish and that’s to win the last game of the year,” Lucia said. “It was a good group of seniors. They were loyal to our program, they’re all graduating. They’ve been great kids, great students and I’m just really proud of this group.”
Whether the Gophers were emotionally spent or not, Minnesota Duluth has been the unyielding roadblock. They beat the Gophers four consecutive times this season, including a home-and-home sweep that arguably sent the Gophers into a downward spiral back in November. Two months later, they snubbed them in the North Star Cup consolation game, and on Friday the Bulldogs ended the Gophers’ season.
The NCHC’s fifth-place team found a way to make the Gophers’ stars look dim. Junior defenseman and the team’s top scorer Mike Reilly went without a point. Senior forward and top goal-scorer Kyle Rau was held scoreless. Junior goaltender Adam Wilcox gave up four goals. Junior defenseman Brady Skjei had little impact. Sophomore forward Hudson Fasching struggled to create space in front of the net.
Those five played prominent roles in the Gophers’ run to the national championship game a year ago. They all committed to return for the unified goal of winning the national title. After a strong first month of the season, it quickly became clear that this highly skilled team had flaws.
The decorated senior class, which played in four NCAA tournaments, will end its career with only one goal unachieved — winning a national championship.
Next year’s outlook won’t be as prolific. It’s likely Reilly, Wilcox, Skjei and Fasching all will leave school early for professional hockey. The team also loses its captain of the past two years, Rau, and six seasoned seniors. Senior forward Seth Ambroz signed an amateur tryout contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets’ AHL affiliate in Springfield, Mass., on Saturday.
So next year’s club will be young. That shouldn’t be a concern for fans, though. The same uncertainty surrounded the 2013-2014 underclassmen-heavy roster and that group defied all expectations by coming up one win short of the program’s first national championship since 2003. The biggest concern for Gophers, if Wilcox turns pro, is who will defend their net?
“To think, about the middle of the year we were having meetings twice a week discussing what was going on, and where we ended up from where we were is pretty amazing,” Gophers senior defenseman Ben Marshall said. “It was one of the better runs we had getting out of a funk.”