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Minnesota Hockey: Gophers Defeat Western Michigan 3-0 to Advance to the Frozen Four

Shipping Up to Boston!

Brad Rempel—

Four years ago Sunday Bob Motzko was named the head coach of the Minnesota Gophers hockey team. It was his birthday. Sunday four years later he received an all expenses paid trip to Boston for his birthday as his Gophers team defeated Western Michigan 3-0 to win the Worcester Region, and advance back to the NCAA Frozen Four for the first time since 2014. The Gophers reward? A rematch against the team that knocked them out of last season’s tournament in Minnesota State in an All-North Star State semifinal.

Both teams came out a bit tentative to start the first period as they tried to feel one another out. No one team seemed to take all of the momentum until the Gophers owuld strike first with 10:10 remaining in the first period. Freshman Mathew Knies continued his hot postseason as he took a gorgeous pass from Brock Faber in front of the net and put it top shelf over Western Michigan goalie Brandon Bussi. Faber made a great play taking the puck in deep and it paid off in a huge way.

Both teams traded chances the remainder of the period, but both goalies made some great saves and the Gophers would take that 1-0 lead into the intermission.

The second period was one that has unfortunately been typical of this Gopher team of late. Minnesota didn’t quite have the same jump in their step that they had in the first period and Western Michigan seemed to take control of the game. They put much more pressure on the Gophers in the defensive end and tested Gopher goalie Justen Close repeatedly in the period. The tides seemed to be turning, and then what seemed inevitable happened. After a faceoff in the Minnesota offensive zone, the Broncos took the puck and broke out quickly. A few passes later Close made the initial save, but it was defenseman Ronnie Attard who found the puck loose and knuckled it past Close to tie the game at 1. Or so we initially thought.

The goal was reviewed immediately and the referees invited a lineman into the booth which means they were reviewing for a potential offsides on the play. The reviews would show that Western Michigan’s Max Sasson was offsides moments before the goal on a close play at the blue line. He beat the puck in the zone by about half of the width of the rubber disk and the goal was called back. Minnesota was back up 1-0 and the game seemed to turn back towards the maroon and gold.

Minnesota would withstand the rest of the period with Close making some big saves and they headed to the second intermission still up a goal.

The Gophers have played much better in the third period in the post season, and that trend continued once again. Just ten seconds into the period Western Michigan’s Ethen Frank—the nation’s leading goal scorer got called for slashing. Minnesota went on their first power play of the game and then just 23 seconds later Ben Meyers fed a gorgeous pass across the slot to Aaron Hugelin at the left circle who unleashed a one-timer past Bussi and Minnesota took a 2-0 lead.

Minnesota continued to control the play in the third period playing smart taking changes when they were provided but making sure that the Broncos never really got a good look at the net. Western Michigan got a bit of momentum back when Matt Staudacher was called for holding with 3:32 left in the game—a penalty that on replay appeared to be a very weak call. Minnesota limited the chanced the Broncos got on 6x5 and then with just over 2:30 to play they pulled their goalie and tried to score with a 6x4 advantage. Minnesota stood tall and with 1:58 left in the game Blake McLaughlin put the final nail in the coffin as he slid slowly a shot down the ice that just trickled into the net for an empty net shorthanded goal that put Minnesota up 3-0 for good.

Western Michigan did not even try to pull their goalie again and the team played the final 1:58 out before the final horn sounded and the team jumped off the bench to mob Justen Close. Close made 24 saves in his third shutout in his last 6 games and in the first Minnesota NCAA Tournament shutout since Adam Wilcox send the Gophers to the 2014 Frozen Four with one over St. Cloud State.

Ben Meyers finished the weekend with four points on three assists and the game-winning goal over UMass. Knies would earn the Region Most Valuable Player Award after scoring a pair of goals—one in each game. He would be joined on the All-Region team by Meyers, Jackson LaCombe, and Close.

Minnesota’s 58th NCAA Tournament win—the most of any program now sends them to their 22nd Frozen Four, but the first since 2014 where they fell in the Championship game to Union. The Gophers will face in-state rival Minnesota State in the late semifinal game on Thursday April 7th. Minnesota State advanced by defeating Notre Dame 1-0 in their region final on Saturday. The Mavericks ended the Gophers season in the Loveland Region final in 2021 with a 4-0 shutout win and you know that the Gophers would love to return the favor and get back to the title game.

The other Frozen Four semifinal will pit #1 overall seed Michigan against Denver. The winners will face off Saturday April 9th for the NCAA Championship in TD Garden in Boston.

It was a happy birthday indeed for Bob Motzko.