ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Minnesota advanced to the Frozen Four in St. Paul after defeating Colorado College, 4-2, in NCAA West Regional play, but Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said his team’s victory was bittersweet.
“I know for me, personally, it was a very difficult game,” he said. “I’m the coach of Minnesota, but you recruit a couple of those classes that are still there, I feel bad for them.”
Of course, winning softens that blow.
The Tigers took an early 1-0 lead on a fluky goal, but the Gophers came back to tie it after one and simply took control from the middle of the second period on. Jeff Taffe netted the game-winner at 9:24 in the second, and John Pohl added insurance, shorthanded, early in the third.
Adam Hauser had 33 saves in the win, while Jeff Sanger stopped 37 in CC’s loss. Alex Kim and Peter Sejna accounted for the two Tiger goals.
“We had great energy in the first few minutes, then the rest of the period CC outplayed us,” said Lucia. “I think some of that was nervous from us. They played the game last night and came out very confident. I thought going in they’d have the better part earlier, then hopefully fatigue would set in [for CC] in the second half of the game.
“I thought Adam Hauser was outstanding tonight, especially in the first half of the game when he made some big saves. He really kept us in there.”
Colorado College head coach Scott Owens agreed with Lucia’s assessment.
“I thought we came out and played a really intelligent first period,” Owens said. “I was really pleased with the way we started the game. We outshot them 13-6 [in the first] — but it got away from us a little bit in the second period, and it got a little bit more open than we wanted it to get playing this team.”
The Tigers took the 1-0 lead when Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard made a great move to the net — his own net, that is.
Kim was attempting to make something happen, passing the puck across the Gophers’ slot from the right circle. Ballard, in an attempt to intercept the pass, redirected the puck right to Minnesota’s net. The deflection beat Adam Hauser five-hole, and Kim was credited with an unassisted goal at 7:52 in the first.
“It’s not really a mistake,” said Minnesota’s Jordan Leopold of the deflected shot. “It’s just a reaction. The puck ended up hitting his stick. I think he was actually going for the other player’s stick and then it ricocheted off his stick. There’s nothing you can really do about that. The only thing you can do is go out there and forget about it.”
Three minutes later, Grant Potulny helped the Gophers forget about the unlucky bounce when he tied the game, shuffling home Pohl’s feed from behind the net at 10:30.
The first period ended knotted 1-1.
Minnesota took the lead for good at 8:26 in the second on Nick Angell’s power-play goal, and Taffe’s game-winner came just 58 seconds later.
From the top of the slot, Angell hit the inside of the cage’s left pipe so hard with his slapshot that the puck made a thud to signal its arrival before the lamp was lit.
Taffe brought the puck into the CC zone at the blue line near the right boards and snaked his way in toward the net, maneuvering around Sanger, who was tangled up with his own defenseman, Jason Jozsa, at the top of the crease. After deking both netminder and defender, Taffe put the puck into the empty left side of the net with a flick of the wrist.
The Tigers brought it within one at 13:26, just after their own power play had expired. Jesse Heerema passed across the crease from the right to Sejna, who was waiting left on the doorstep. Sejna put it by Hauser clean, and the second period ended with a 3-2 Minnesota advantage.
Pohl’s goal at 5:56 in the third came shorthanded and unassisted. When Mark Cullen attempted to pass from the right point to Tom Preissing at the left, Pohl intercepted in between, and broke up the ice like a locomotive.
“I’ve never scored a big goal in my entire life,” said Pohl, “so that felt really good. In terms of the play, I think Cullen just didn’t get enough of the puck. I think there was maybe snow or something, but he just didn’t get enough on it. [Preissing's] momentum was not going toward the puck. I just went to it, and fortunately I scored. I don’t know how it went in or why, but it felt so good.”
The Tigers pressed hard late in the third, but back-to-back penalties against Kim, at 16:16 and 18:39, undermined CC’s effort.
“It’s disappointing,” said Owens. “I’m very proud of our club and the way we competed. We were as fresh as you can be for playing five games in 10 days and traveling twice. You could start to see it a little bit in the third period, but I don’t think it was a factor. Our demise was untimely penalties.”
The Gophers were 1-for-7 on the power play, plus Pohl’s shorthander. Colorado College went 0-for-6 on the man-advantage.
“Five on five, and we needed to get a second goal sooner,” Owens said. “You just can’t win games when you get into special teams battles with Minnesota.”
Lucia, who brought Colorado College to the Frozen Four twice himself, said that he’s happy for his players, especially his seniors.
“When you’re a freshman or sophomore, you think you’re going to have other opportunities, but you’re not,” he said. “You don’t know when you’re going to have this kind of opportunity again.
“I inherited some great players, and they had been through a lot. The building from being one game over .500, the next year we did go to the NCAA tournament, and I thought we played a terrific game even though we lost to Maine.”
Pohl tried to sum up the feeling the Gophers have on returning to the Twin Cities as participants in this year’s Frozen Four, rather than spectators.
“I’ve played in some state tournaments, but this is like the happiest day of my life,” said Pohl. “Jordan got engaged, so this is probably his second. There’s nothing better. I almost started crying out there, it felt so good. We have been through a lot, and I think it’s made us stronger. This is the greatest day. Gopher hockey is a final four program for sure.
“Playing in the final four — I think you could play in Egypt and it would be fun to do, but playing in St. Paul, that’s hockey fans. Playing in the Final Five was unbelievable. Now just magnify that. I think some of the guys on our team … will play in the NHL and maybe the Stanley Cup finals, but for probably over half the guys on our team, this is going to be the pinnacle of our career.”