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Minnesota Gopher Hockey advances to Final Five with sweep of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves

We talked last week about how Gopher Hockey has set themselves up for a run to Tampa for the Frozen Four without having to leave the Twin Cities, and it was up to them to take care of business. Well mission accomplished in round 1. It certainly wasn't their best series of the season, but a sweep's a sweep, and their next date is a Friday night semi-final in the Final Five at The X. Opponent TBA, as there were some interesting developments in the conference playoffs, including a lone game three today between Denver and Wisconsin (which I fully expect to DU to win, but we shall see).

But first the sweep. Friday night's 2-1 win was, well, a Friday night win. We don't get many of those so I'm thankful they got it done, but it was a lot closer than it should have been. The first period was exactly what UAA wanted- slow and ugly, like they were trying to play pond hockey in July. Each team had nine shots and zero goals, and thankfully the Gophs' PK came to play as UAA had three power plays but couldn't score.

The U finally got on the board early in the second with an Erik Haula snipe, and he followed that up a few minutes later with his second. Haula had some assistance from Jake Hansen on the eventual gamewinner, who may have interfered with goalie Chris Kamal (wink-wink). Despite UAA's protests, the goal stood, but the game was far from over. Despite outshooting the Seawolves 16-4 in the second, the Gophers couldn't add to their lead, and instead it was UAA with a late power play goal to pull within one. But Minnesota would hold in the third, and escape with an all-important series opening win.

The Gophers have played much better on Saturday nights, and while the 7-3 final score may seem like they must have dominated from start to finish, that wasn't the case at all...

Minnesota led 1-0 after one on a Hansen goal, and then the unthinkable happened- UAA, with the worst offense and worst power play in the conference, came to life against the Gophers #1 penalty kill. Not once. Not twice. THREE times the Seawolves potted power play goals, and with not even nine minutes gone in the second, the Gophers were suddenly down 3-1.

Here's where we need to credit the players and the coaches. We've seen the Gophers fold here before. We've seen plenty of other teams do it too. The home crowd was stunned, UAA had their mojo working, and everything was going against Minnesota. But they didn't fold, they didn't wilt, they just somehow, someway regained their swagger and found some offense. A LOT of offense.

Zach Budish started it on a gorgeous tick-tack-toe passing play between he, Kyle Rau and Nick Bjugstad. 3-2 Seawolves. Right before the end of the period Bjugstad would tie it with his 24th goal of the year, this one on the power play. Minnesota could breathe a sigh of relief during the intermission, having avoided catastrophe by coming back to tie the game.

In the third, the flood gates opened as Haula banged one in just 5 minutes into the period, then decided he'd better do it again, potting another one just 18 seconds later. Then barely a minute later it was big Seth Helgeson scoring on a bomb from the point, and suddenly it was 6-3 Minnesota just six minutes into the third. UAA called their timeout but it was too late. The Seawolves had their chance up 3-1 midway through the second, but they were unable to contain Minnesota who had just scored four goals in less than 20 minutes to go from down two to up three and fully in control. Sam Warning would add a "just for good measure" goal three minutes later and Minnesota would skate away from there to win 7-3.

Yes, Alaska-Anchorage was the worst team in the WCHA. But the Gophers showed some poise, moxy and, if you will, some testicular fortitude by coming back from down 3-1 in the second period in their own barn to blow away an opponent. Everything after this is one-and-done hockey. You lose, you go home. I'm going to go out on a limb and say Minnesota is likely to be trailing at some point in a game in future weeks, and hopefully if/when that happens, they can look back to Saturday night's five straight goals to rally to victory to know they can do it again.

So now the team, and its fans, can take a deep breath and relax for a few days. With the win the Gophers have locked up at least a two seed in the NCAA tourney, and have a bye to the semi-finals of the Final Five this Friday at The X. It'll be very interesting to see who their opponent is in that one. I believe it'll be the winner of the 4 vs 5 game from Thursday night, right? They don't reseed after the quarters in the Final Five? They didn't last year under the new format where 6 seed Bemidji upset 3 seed UMD in the quarters, but Bemidji played #2 DU in the semis while #1 North Dakota played #4 CC. I'm guessing they don't reseed but if anything's changed this year, do let us know.

What we do know right now about this weekend's Final Five is that the top two seeds are locked in, as Minnesota is the #1 seed and UMD will be #2, as the Bulldogs also survived a tougher-than-it should have been sweep of Mankato, including a 3-2 double OT victory last night. The three seed depends upon the Denver-Sconnie rubber match tonight. The 10 seed Bucky stole Friday's game 1-0, and the Pioneers survived last night to even the series with a 3-1 win. I THINK DU wins tonight, but that's the thing- you just never know in an elimination game.

If DU loses, then Wisconsin would be the six seed as the lowest ranking team to advance and North Dakota would bump to third, as the Sioux swept out Bemidji State. Next behind UND is St Cloud State, who drubbed UNO 4-0 and 3-1. Look out for the Huskies, who are 7-2-1 since getting swept by the Gophers back in late January. The other team to advance are the Michigan Tech Huskies, who shocked Colorado College with a sweep out in Colorado Springs.

So if DU wins, they grab the three seed and play Michigan Tech, the winner facing UMD, while the Gophs would get the winner of- gulp- UND and St Cloud State. We told you SCSU has been on fire of late, but so have the Sioux, who are 10-2-1 coming into the Final Five. That would make for an incredibly intense semi-final for the Gophers, but also a REALLY tough one with the way both schools are playing- and with how much they both hate Minnesota. Or at least their fans do.

If Sconnie pulls the upset tonight then they play UND with the winner playing UMD, meaning the Gophs would get the Michigan Tech/SCSU winner. Think the WCHA would be ok with a final four of Minnesota, Duluth, North Dakota and St Cloud? Wouldn't have any worry about ticket sales at The X for those ones.

As of now, no clue if FSN+ will carry the Denver/Sconnie game, but I really hope they do. FSN Wisconsin, which we here in Minnesota can watch on occasion too, may carry it after the Bucks/Raptors snoozefest, but we'll see.

Bottom line, the Gophers have taken care of business, and hopefully their offense has woken up after the explosion in the second and third from last night. We can be glad of the sweep and knowing they're back in the NCAA tourney for the first time in three LONG years (and right here in the backyard at the X), and we can look forward to what should be an awesome weekend of hockey at The X starting Thursday.