ST. PAUL, Minn. — In their first three seasons, the peak of their postseason experience was a losing effort at one conference championship tournament.
Members of Minnesota’s 2012 senior class entered their final season with the burden of potentially becoming the first such group since 1970 to never play in an NCAA tournament game.
But six months later, Minnesota players Jake Hansen, Taylor Matson, Nico Sacchetti, Kent Patterson, Nick Larson, Joey Miller and Jake Kremer are not only members of an NCAA tournament team, they’re on their way to a Frozen Four.
With a 5-2 win over North Dakota in their 154th game with the Gophers, the seniors and their teammates captured the West Regional championship and a trip to Tampa.
“We’ve been through so much,” Hansen said of himself and his senior classmates. “Freshman year, sophomore year, junior year, just brutal years for this program, and to come back to win a MacNaughton Cup and now to beat North Dakota to get to Tampa, I mean, I can’t begin to tell you how good it feels right now.”
“With all the battling and stuff that they’ve done to this point, it’s great that we can give them this opportunity,” said sophomore forward Nate Condon.
The Gophers were in position to get into the tournament last season before being unexpectedly swept by Alaska-Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. Work toward redemption began almost immediately after those devastating losses.
“As a senior class, we kind of established ourselves last spring when our season ended early about what we wanted to get done and what our goal was,” said Sacchetti. “We’ve just tried to lead by example and just expect nothing less than getting to where we are right now.”
A stringent offseason program had Gophers coach Don Lucia calling this the best-conditioned team he had ever coached at Minnesota, and it paid off.
“The first time you do something, that’s when it’s really enjoyable,” said Lucia. “And for these guys that, at times, have been maligned, they just went to work this offseason and this just doesn’t happen in a week.”
“Hats off to every single guy in here,” Matson said, wearing his regional championship hat with no pun intended. “These guys worked harder than any team I’ve been a part of.”
Minnesota got off to a 9-1 start but went through a 10-10-1 midseason lull before finishing with a flourish. It heads to the Frozen Four having won nine of its last 11 games.
“Every team’s going to go through some difficult times but I don’t think they wavered,” said Lucia. “To see the joy in their faces in that locker room, that’s what makes it all worthwhile.”
“Our seniors stepped up,” said sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt. “Guys like Taylor Matson and Jake Hansen and Nico Sacchetti, all of the guys, really just kind of took over and said, ‘We want to take our destiny into our own hands,’ and I think they did a fantastic job in taking a hold of this team.”
Expressing their joy was difficult for the seniors, who came into this season toting a 51-46-15 (.522) record.
“You just want it so bad and you just think about how much work we’ve put in since last spring and it all comes down to one moment,” said Sacchetti. “That last 20 minutes couldn’t have gone faster for me.”
“It really hasn’t hit me too much but, once we get on that flight to Tampa and start practicing next week, I’ll definitely feel it then,” said Matson. “To put these hats on and be hugging the guys on the ice, there’s nothing better than that.
“It’s all about the guys in this locker room and what they’ve done for the program.”