Dynasty Denied

For Gopher fans, it had started to seem like a foregone conclusion.

After an unthinkable 2-7-1 start, Minnesota recovered midseason, finishing in a tie for fourth in the WCHA before hitting its stride in the postseason.

The Gophers wrapped up home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs with a sweep of St. Cloud State, then beat the Huskies twice more — both in impressive fashion — to reach the Final Five, where they dispatched Minnesota-Duluth and then North Dakota to claim the Broadmoor Trophy.

And that, it seemed, was just about that.

When the brackets for the NCAA tournament were announced, Minnesota drew the No. 1 seed in the Midwest Regional, and a semifinal contest against Notre Dame, a team making its first-ever national appearance.

Gopher fans may have seen the last of Austrian phenom Thomas Vanek (photo: Christopher Brian Dudek).

Gopher fans may have seen the last of Austrian phenom Thomas Vanek (photo: Christopher Brian Dudek).

There, an early scare in the form of two quick scores for the Irish merely strengthened the Gophers’ aura. The two-time defending champions scored five unanswered goals to take a 5-2 win and roll into the regional final against the Bulldogs, whom the Gophers had just beaten a week earlier.

Ay, there’s the rub. Although that Final Five win over UMD secured the top seed for the Gophers — to the consternation of those still not familiar with the selection process — the Bulldogs had won all four regular-season meetings between the teams, including a decisive sweep, 6-1 and 4-1, on Feb. 13 and 14 in Duluth.

So perhaps the Gophers just went to the well once too often.

In the regional showdown, Minnesota-Duluth got sterling play from netminder Isaac Reichmuth, who was in top form in outdueling Gopher freshman Kellen Briggs.

Minnesota’s star forwards — including 2003 playoff hero Thomas Vanek and red-hot Troy Riddle — were shut down by the Duluth defense, although postseason stalwart Grant Potulny did score the Gophers’ lone goal.

That proved lethal to the Gophers’ three-peat hopes, which had seemed very real during their late-season charge. Head coach Don Lucia, though, was in no mood to mope.

“We won 27 games, we won our playoff title and made it to the NCAA quarterfinal,” Lucia told the Minnesota Daily. “I think we had a great year.”

Two weeks earlier, Lucia had bristled — as much as the even-keeled bench boss can — at the suggestion that the Gophers’ season was one of underperformance.

“You’ve got to allow a team to grow,” said Lucia after the Gophers’ sweep of SCSU. “We’ve won, what, 24 games [at the time] and we’re fifth in the PairWise, and you get criticized because it’s not enough.”

In fact, the Gophers put together a 25-6-2 run between the near-disastrous start — which came while contending with the defection and injury of two top blueliners, and the loss of their championship goalie — and the season-ending loss, but still finished three wins short of their goal.

So the college hockey world will have to wait a few more years to see Michigan’s 1951-53 streak of championships equaled. And for Minnesota, the loss begins an offseason of uncertainty.

Apart from the graduation of seniors Potulny, Riddle and playmaking center Matt Koalska, Vanek — the fifth overall pick, by Buffalo, in the 2003 NHL draft — is a candidate to depart the program for the pros. And Hobey Baker finalist Keith Ballard — whose NHL rights were acquired last month by Phoenix — may leave as well.

Should those things come to pass, Minnesota would enter 2004-05 without its top four scorers from a year ago, and with junior-to-be Gino Guyer (11-21–32) as its most productive returning forward.

Of course, both Vanek and Ballard’s departures would be semi-expected, unlike that of netminder Travis Weber, who left the team a month before the start of this season for personal reasons. That left backup Justin Johnson and Briggs, a rookie not expected to carry the load, as the goaltenders for a team that needed a veteran presence between the pipes.

Briggs, the number-one goaltender down the stretch, will have that year of experience to start next season. Also on board will be Guyer, steady blueliner Chris Harrington, high-upside Barry Tallackson, rapidly-developing Danny Irmen and another Potulny — Ryan, who showed great promise after returning from injury, giving up a medical redshirt to play with big brother Grant.

Those players, and the rest of the Gophers, will be expected to take up the chase for the NCAA title anew, no matter how much talent has been lost.

This is the State of Hockey, after all, where championships are expected, even after a 23-year hiatus between legendary coach Herb Brooks’ 1979 title-winners (Brooks’ third, all with Minnesota) and Lucia’s 2002 team.

(The state, of course, may still get its championship courtesy of the Bulldogs, who play Denver in the first national semifinal Thursday.)

So what derailed this year’s chances? Minnesota was picked — inappropriately, perhaps — as the No. 1 team in the nation in the preseason USCHO.com poll, before falling almost out of the national picture by mid-November. But by the end of the season, no one wanted to play the Gophers.

No one, that is, except for the Bulldogs, who were itching for redemption after their Final Five loss. And history will likely record that Minnesota was simply beaten by a better team.

But for the Gophers, it’s hardly a time to hang their heads.

“These seniors have been a part getting two playoff titles, two national titles — you see how difficult it is to get to a Frozen Four once, to be able to win back-to-back national titles is a tremendous accomplishment,” said Lucia after the loss.

“They’ve had the weight of that on their shoulders all year. I couldn’t be more proud of our guys and what they’ve accomplished.”

Paula C. Weston contributed to this report.