What it could have been.
That’s what the No.1-seeded University of Minnesota Gophers hockey team is left with to imagine after watching their 2-1 third period lead and chance of winning their first NCAA National Championship in 20 years slip through their fingers in their 3-2 overtime loss inside Amalie Arena in Tampa Bay.
Instead, the drought lives on. It took the Bobcats just 10 seconds into overtime to win their first NCAA National Championship in program history.
A pass from one blueline to the other and then a slick cross ice backhand saucer pass from Zach Metsa in the right circle to Jacob Quillan, who slid the puck past Justen Close on the backhand, ended the game.
“We practiced that play 100 times this year,” Quillan said postgame of the overtime winner — a set play.
You could see the heartbreak and devastation on Gophers captain and Minnesota Wild defensive prospect Brock Faber’s face as teammate Mason Nevers had his hand on Faber’s shoulder for several minutes following the handshakes. An emotional Faber exited the ice last.
“The worst feeling in the world,” Faber told the media.
It’s the second blow, while a more significant one, in a matter of weeks as the Gophers fell 4-3 to the Michigan Wolverines in the Big Ten Championship inside 3M Arena At Mariucci on March 18. The Gophers responded with a trio of NCAA Tournament wins over Canisius, St. Cloud State and Boston University.
“We had it,” head coach Bob Motzko said. “We had it. That one is going to sting. It’s a crusher.”
Minnesota did indeed have it. The Gophers did what they needed to do in the first. As Boston University head coach Jay Pandolfo said on the broadcast during the first period two nights ago, the Maroon and Gold are an “opportunistic” team.
Case in point: Connor Kurth capitalized on Quinnipiac’s failed breakout and ill-advised turnover and drove to and around the net before throwing the puck out front. John Mittelstadt swung his stick and hit the puck across the goal line five minutes and 35 seconds into the game for his fourth of the year to give the Gophers a 1-0 lead with Bobcats’ goaltender Yaniv Perets outside the blue paint.
Then Faber showcased his hockey intelligence when he purposely shot the puck wide. Jaxon Nelson put home the rebound off the end boards for a 2-0 Gophers lead with 15:36 remaining on the clock in the second period. What looked like the Maroon and Gold pulling away would prove to be premature. For the first and for some of the second, the Gophers were that opportunistic team they’ve been for so long this season.
But like times this season, mistakes creeped in. Three minutes and 17 seconds later, the Gophers failed to exit the zone and then didn’t cover a trailing Cristophe Tellier in front — which resulted in Quinnipiac cutting Minnesota’s lead in half. Luckily for the Gophers, they held a 2-1 lead going into the intermission despite getting outshot 11-6.
Gophers are 22-0 when leading after two periods this season— Joe Smith (@JoeSmithNHL) April 9, 2023
That lead didn’t matter, though, as the Gophers played one of their worst periods of hockey this year in the third. Quinnipiac outshot Minnesota 14-2, and had significant offensive zone time as they continued to put on the pressure.
That eventually led to a game-tying goal that you could see coming from a mile away. Just after Logan Cooley exited the penalty box, the Bobcats tied the game with an extra attacker. Collin Graf beat Close five hole clean from the left circle with 2:47 left in the game.
The Gophers — who sat back, didn’t execute with the lead and iced the puck several times in the third period — were bailed out time after time by Close in net, as well as Faber and Jackson LaCombe in the third. The latter two blocked several key shots and were highly effective with their stick, per usual, helping the Gophers recover after numerous errors nearly resulted in goals.
“We just kind of shut down and tried to save ourselves,” Matthew Knies said on the third period. “We needed to push back, and we just didn’t. They were more desperate.”
Give Quinnipiac credit, though, as they limited the Gophers to just 15 shots in the game and neutralized the top line of Knies, Cooley and Jimmy Snuggerud, who all failed to reach the scoresheet.
After winning the Big Ten regular season title with what Motzko says is the best defensive core he’s ever had, uncertainty looms ahead for the Gophers as the program is expected to see numerous top-of-the-lineup players depart to the NHL.