Don Lucia noticed the mood right away. After Saturday's pregame ceremony to honor his team's six seniors, the Gophers coach thought his players seemed drained of emotion, with little chatter or energy on the bench at Mariucci Arena.
One night after winning their fourth consecutive Big Ten championship, the fifth-ranked Gophers finally hit their stride in the third period against Michigan State. Though they pushed the regular-season finale to overtime, they weren't able to break the Spartans, settling for a 1-1 tie and losing the shootout 2-1. Michigan State scored first, on Mason Appleton's goal at 12 minutes, 27 seconds of the first period, and the Gophers tied it on a backdoor beauty by Jake Bischoff at 3:51 of the third.
It wasn't how the seniors envisioned leaving Mariucci Arena, which hosted its 500th game Saturday. Still, the Gophers (23-10-3, 14-5-1 Big Ten) finished the regular season with the championship banner they wanted, if not the storybook ending. The title gave them the top seed for next week's Big Ten tournament and a bye into Friday's semifinals at Detroit's Joe Louis Arena.
"We're going to have a lot of good memories in this building,'' said senior Justin Kloos, whose four shots on goal included some superb chances that did not find the net. "We're not going to be too concerned we tied Michigan State on senior night, because we've had a lot of other good nights.
"[Friday's 4-0 victory] was what we came into this weekend for, to make sure we came out as the Big Ten Conference champs. We've accomplished what we wanted to accomplish thus far. And hopefully, we've got bigger things ahead of us.''
The Gophers suffered a potentially damaging loss late in the second period, when defenseman Ryan Lindgren appeared to seriously injure his right leg. Lindgren and the Spartans' Taro Hirose were chasing down a puck when Lindgren fell and slid feet-first into the end boards at high speed.
Lindgren was in severe pain and was unable to put weight on the leg when he was helped off the ice. Lucia did not know the extent of the injury after the game, but he said "it's not looking good.'' He added that junior Jack Glover, who has played sparingly this season after having surgery on both shoulders last summer, is ready to step in.
With the championship secured, Lucia said Saturday was "all about the seniors.'' Three of them have established career highs in various offensive categories: Vinni Lettieri (18 goals, 35 points), Kloos (17 goals) and Bischoff (27 assists, 32 points). Lucia also gave senior Mitch Rogge, who had played only exhibition games in his three seasons with the program, his first turn in the lineup.
The Spartans played much tighter defense than they did in Friday's 4-0 loss. The Gophers attempted only seven shots in the first period.
Bischoff tied it when Rem Pitlick got the puck in the right circle and got Spartans goalie Ed Minney to commit, then sent the puck to his wide-open teammate on the backdoor. The Gophers outshot Michigan State 13-5 in the third period and created some superb chances but could not score again.
Bischoff and Kloos said the Gophers "just need to move on'' from a disappointing game and focus on what lies ahead. In Friday's Big Ten tournament semifinals, they will play the winner of Thursday's quarterfinal between Penn State and Michigan.
"We're a confident group,'' Kloos said. "We know what we can do when we play well. But like we saw this weekend, if we don't play well, things can end really quickly.''