LOVELAND, COLO. – Minnesota has three teams heading to the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time in history.
The hockey party will be in Pittsburgh, and Mike Hastings will be there. Ditto for Scott Sandelin. And Brett Larson, too.
Those three friends of Gophers coach Bob Motzko will take their Minnesota State Mankato, Minnesota Duluth and St. Cloud State teams, respectively, to the Frozen Four on April 8 and 10, giving the Steel City a decidedly Land of 10,000 Lakes feel.
It's only the second time one state has sent three teams — Lake Superior State of Sault Ste. Marie, Mich., won the title in 1992, with Michigan and Michigan State making the semifinals.
But Motzko and his Gophers will be mere spectators after Hastings' Mavericks grabbed the West Regional's invitation to Pittsburgh with a dominant display of forechecking and shot-blocking in a 4-0 victory on Sunday night at the Budweiser Events Center.
While happy for his colleagues, Motzko wore the look of disappointment after the game.
"I think it's awesome; I'm just mad we're not one of them," Motzko said of the three Minnesota teams reaching the Frozen Four. "Two of the best teams in the country aren't moving forward, us and North Dakota. And it hurts. We wanted to be a part of that."
In a one-and-done tournament, one bad night can torpedo a team's title aspirations, and that's what happened to the Gophers. As good as they were in Saturday's 7-2 semifinal thrashing of Nebraska Omaha, the Gophers did a 180-degree turn against a deep, veteran Minnesota State team. And that happened because the Mavericks were forcing them to play below their usual standards.
The Mavericks dictated play from the start, getting the game's first five shots on goal and winning eight of the first nine faceoffs. Minnesota didn't register a shot on goal until 7 minutes, 13 seconds elapsed.
When Sam Morton and regional MVP Ryan Sandelin scored 2:07 apart just past the midpoint of the first period, Minnesota State had the lead it needed to go into boa constrictor mode and choke the life out of the opponent.
"We needed to survive that first period, and it didn't happen," Motzko said.
Midway through the game, the Gophers had only six shots on goal as the Mavericks hounded them with their forecheck and frustrated them with their shot-blocking. Minnesota State finished with 23 blocked shots, one more than goalie Dryden McKay had saves.
"They made it easy for me," said McKay, the All-America who posted his 10th shutout of the season and 24th of his career.
The Gophers made a push in the late stages of the second period and through part of the third, but they couldn't get anything past McKay.
"They were blocking shots and sacrificing," Motzko said of the Mavericks. "We couldn't make a break. If we could have turned one, we could have made it interesting."
Instead, it's the Mavericks who get to continue the most riveting part of the season, while Motzko and the Gophers regroup and reassess. The 100th season of Gophers hockey had several highlights — a 10-0 start, a breakthrough season by goalie Jack LaFontaine, a Big Ten tournament championship and a return to the NCAA tournament after a four-year hiatus. However, a chance to return to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2014 disappeared on a Sunday night on the Front Range of the Rockies.
There will be offseason turnover, of course. LaFontaine, Scott Reedy and Brannon McManus are among five seniors who won't be back — unless they take advantage of the NCAA's waiver using a year of eligibility this season. Junior Sampo Ranta, the team's leading scorer, had a breakout season and could be attractive to the Colorado Avalanche, who selected him in the third round of the 2018 NHL draft. Standout defensemen Brock Faber, Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson are high draft picks, and their rights-holders could come calling.
After Sunday's game, Motzko reflected on the season.
"It's awful hard to go in with a message [to his players] now because it will actually come better in a day or two," he said. "We're so darn proud of every guy in there, the seniors, and how we believe we've turned things in a great direction. They were all-in, and it was a true team. We'll take this one game to our grave, but our entire season, there were so many positives to it. It's hard to look at it right now.''