With atmosphere lacking, Minnesota-Duluth turns promising rivalry game into a rout

Justin Crandall and Minnesota-Duluth put Minnesota in the rear-view mirror quickly (photo: Melissa Wade).

MANCHESTER, N.H. — Beauty and the Beast came to the Northeast Regional.

The early game was a beauty. Boston University and Yale battled into overtime, neither team ever holding more than a one-goal lead. BU, the top seed, scored on a goal set up by Jack Eichel, college hockey’s most exciting player, to advance to Saturday’s regional final.

While the stands were anything but full — the announced attendance was 5,123 in a building seating 10,103, no doubt reflecting the weekday 2 p.m. starting time — there was still an energy level befitting two somewhat local teams.

Then came the late game.

It held the promise of two strong teams with proud traditions, Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth, in-state rivals, no less. Minnesota ranked as the fifth-best offense in the country, presumably a treat to watch even for locals who don’t know Eden Prairie from Ham Lake.

And for a while it lived up to that promise. The Minnesota Gophers came out flying in the first 10 minutes, but couldn’t capitalize on their chances.

Then, in the span of just six minutes, Minnesota-Duluth scored three goals, rocking the Big Ten champions. After Duluth pounded the final nail in the coffin midway through the second period to make it 4-0, not even Bela Lugosi could breathe life into the contest.

The game had become The Beast.

Fans from the early game who’d stuck around for a while to see the two teams from Minnesota left in droves, leaving behind what felt more like 512 fans than 5,123.

Playing a big rival in what felt like a mausoleum was something Minnesota-Duluth coach Scott Sandelin had anticipated.

“We talked about it a little bit,” he said. “We were hoping that some of the fans would stick around and not leave early, but some wore brown seats. It happens.”

The two rivals had kicked off the season at the Ice Breaker Tournament in an even more empty building in South Bend, Ind., and Minnesota had also endured a dead environment in the Big Ten tournament in Detroit.

“It is what is,” Sandelin said. “It was still fun. Once we got going, we got the energy from our bench.

“We didn’t need the crowd. Obviously, there wasn’t any.”

Sandelin quickly amended his words: “There were Bulldog fans, but not many of them. But we really didn’t need that.”

In truth, the Gophers were a no-show after the opening 10 minutes. Or perhaps more accurately, the Bulldogs turned them into a no-show. It was shocking even though Duluth had defeated the Gophers in all three matches since the Ice Breaker.

“We were emotionally flat at times tonight,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “We basically had zero time in the offensive zone in the back half of the first and the second.

“I felt bad for the kids that they didn’t play their A game tonight.”

To their credit, none of the Gophers players or coaches blamed the lack of atmosphere on their poor performance, even though they’ve become accustomed to playing before energetic, packed houses on most nights.

“We got our first test of that in Detroit [at the Big Ten tournament], and we were fine with it,” Vinni Lettieri said. “There were more fans here than in Detroit.

“It wasn’t much of an impact for us. We just didn’t step it up ourselves. The crowd shouldn’t be our momentum. We should be able to self-motivate.”

No doubt, the Minnesota-Duluth fans in attendance were delighted to see their Bulldogs advance in any fashion, no matter how sleep-inducing the second half might have been. For fans of a team, a win in the NCAA tournament is like the proverbial face that only a mother could love.

And to Bulldogs fans, this one was a cutie, deserving of magazine covers.

For everyone else, however, this became a game that as it dragged on, desperately needed to be put out of its misery, a game whose last-half pinnacle was the video replay of an empty-net goal (disallowed due to a hand pass).

Fortunately for Minnesota-Duluth players and fans, they won’t be playing in a mausoleum Saturday. They’ll be taking on Boston University, little more than an hour’s drive away, and the game will be played on a weekend so fan turnout should be strong.

The Bulldogs will be facing negative energy from the crowd, but that beats ennui any day.

And if, by chance, they can force a second straight no-show out of their opponent, they’ll happily march on to the Frozen Four.

“Tomorrow will be fun,” Sandelin said.