LOVELAND, COLO. – In the Big Ten tournament championship game in mid-March, Brock Faber's defensive skills were on display, with the freshman doing yeoman's work in helping hold Wisconsin superstar Cole Caufield largely in check as Minnesota won the title.
On Saturday night, Faber, an 18-year-old defenseman playing well beyond his years, showed off his offensive flair, dishing out five assists as the Gophers defeated Nebraska Omaha 7-2 in the semifinals of the NCAA West Regional at the Budweiser Events Center.
The victory moved the Gophers into Sunday's 7 p.m. Central time regional final against Minnesota State Mankato, a 4-3 overtime victor over Quinnipiac. Sunday's winner earns a spot in the NCAA Frozen Four on April 8 and 10 in Pittsburgh.
Mason Nevers scored the first two goals of his career, and Jack Perbix, Scott Reedy, Ryan Johnson, Ben Meyers and Sampo Ranta also scored for the Gophers (24-6). Minnesota was playing in its first NCAA tournament since 2017 and won its first NCAA game since making the final in 2014. It also was coach Bob Motzko's first NCAA win for the Gophers and a record 56th for the program. Goalie Jack LaFontaine made 26 saves.
"It feels awfully good, I can tell you that," said Motzko, who turned 60 on Saturday. "Most important, I was really pleased how we played tonight. … I give our guys an enormous amount of credit."
Faber originally had the goal that put the Gophers up 2-0, but statisticians later ruled Perbix had tipped Faber's shot. No matter, Faber still had his hands all over this one, assisting on both goals by Nevers and setting up Johnson's second-period tally. All along, he was stellar defensively, leading the Gophers' efforts against the physical Mavericks (14-11-1). He and Johnson both had plus-4 ratings.
"He was a beast," Motzko said of Faber. "He found some points, and he hadn't had many points. If you take that away, he [still] was probably one of the best players on the ice defending."
Nevers gave the Gophers a 1-0 lead at 5:48 of the first by scoring his first goal of the season. After Faber sped into the Mavericks zone and dished the puck to Cullen Munson, Nevers slammed home a rebound past goalie Isaiah Saville.
"No better time to score than that," Nevers said.
Minnesota continued dictating play in the first, and Perbix made it 2-0 tipping Faber's shot past Saville at 15:35.
The lead grew to 3-0 at 17:36 of the first on a beautiful play. Sammy Walker fed a streaking Blake McLaughlin with a stretch pass near the Mavericks blue line. McLaughlin entered the zone, waited patiently and found Reedy, who snapped a shot past Saville.
Nebraska Omaha quickly answered to make it 3-1 with 1:56 left in the first on Taylor Ward's goal.
The Gophers boosted the lead to 4-1 in the second. After Faber helped Johnson, his defensive partner, recover from a turnover at the Minnesota blue line, Faber fed Johnson at the point, and the sophomore hammered a shot past Saville only 39 seconds into the period.
Ben Meyers increased to lead to 5-1 at 7:43, and that prompted Mavericks coach Mike Gabinet to replace Saville with Austin Roden. Nevers made it 6-1 at 16:17 when he pounced on a rebound of a Ranta shot.
There was one negative for the Gophers. Senior forward Brannon McManus left the game because of injury, and Motzko said he won't be available for Sunday's final.
"They're the winningest team in college hockey over the last four years," Motzko said. "I told our players, 'It's going to be one of the toughest games we ever play tomorrow.'"