LOVELAND, COLO. – Minnesota State Mankato players poured off the bench and began a raucous celebration, with Van Halen's "Top of the World" pounding from the sound system. At the other blue line, the Gophers slowly skated up to Jack LaFontaine and consoled the senior goaltender.
Two contrasting scenes played out at the end of the NCAA West Regional final, and it was the Mavericks, not the Gophers, moving on to the Frozen Four, after Minnesota State's dominant 4-0 victory.
“We needed to survive that first period and didn't happen.”
The tried-and-true formula that the Gophers used frequently this season to win — get an early lead, keep the puck away from your opponent and get timely saves when needed — played out Sunday night at the Budweiser Events Center, but it was second-seeded Minnesota State running it to perfection for the program's first trip to the Frozen Four.
"It's pretty special, it really is," coach Mike Hastings said. "… We weren't feeling too good when we lost to Northern Michigan [in the WCHA tournament semifinals], and a lot of people doubted us. We really stepped up."
On the other side was Bob Motzko, whose turnaround season with the Gophers came up short of the goal. "It hurts," he said. "We wanted to a be a part of that. This tournament can do that. … I'm very happy for Mike and his program."
Tournament MVP Ryan Sandelin had a goal and an assist in the first period, and the Mavericks (22-4-1) used tenacious, suffocating defense to deny the top-seeded Gophers (24-7) their first Frozen Four since 2014. Sam Morton, Nathan Smith and Dallas Gerads also scored, and Dryden McKay made 22 saves for his 10th shutout of the season and 24th of his career.
A day after their first Division I NCAA tournament victory, the Mavericks are bound for the Frozen Four in Pittsburgh. They will be joined by two of their state brethren. Minnesota Duluth beat North Dakota 3-2 in five overtimes Saturday, and St. Cloud State beat Boston College 4-1 Sunday.
Minnesota State plays St. Cloud State in the first semifinal at 4 p.m. April 8; UMD meets Massachusetts at 8 p.m. Whatever happens, at least one Minnesota team will be playing for the national title.
Many believed the Gophers, who began the season 10-0 and won the Big Ten tournament, would be the West representative, especially after Saturday's 7-2 thrashing of Nebraska Omaha. Instead, the Mavericks — who beat Quinnipiac 4-3 in overtime Saturday on Sandelin's goal — took away the time and space that the Gophers exploited so well vs. UNO.
Minnesota State constantly beat the Gophers to pucks, dominated in the faceoff circle early and pushed the action to the perimeter. And the Mavericks blocked 23 shots, one more than McKay's save total.
The first period couldn't have gone much worse for the Gophers, who had trouble clearing their zone and took two penalties. All the while, the Mavericks dictated play, taking a 2-0 lead while outshooting the Gophers 14-5 and winning 16 of 23 faceoffs.
"We didn't have it in the first period, and we knew that was going to be their game plan," Motzko said. "… They wanted to get on us early, and they did a tremendous job."
After an offensive zone faceoff win, Minnesota State struck first when Morton beat LaFontaine on a wraparound at 10:23. Sandelin quickly made it 2-0 at 12:30 when he tipped in Jack McNeely's shot from the point. Suddenly, the Gophers were in a big hole.
"We needed to survive that first period," Motzko said, "and didn't happen."
By the midpoint of the game, Minnesota had only six shots on goal.
In the third period, the Gophers went on the power play at 7:12. Minnesota had a great chance when Mike Koster skated in alone and unleashed a shot, but McKay flashed the glove for the save. Time was ticking away.
Minnesota State scored the dagger with 9:50 left in the third when Smith one-timed the puck past LaFontaine. Gerads added an empty-netter with 2:19 to play.
"I tip my hat to them," Gophers captain Sammy Walker said. "They shut us down."
Forwards: Ryan Sandelin, Minnesota State; Brendan Furry, Minnesota State; Cade Borchardt, Minnesota State.
Defensemen: Brock Faber, Gophers; Jake Livingstone, Minnesota State
Goalie: Dryden McKay, Minnesota State