Minnesota rallies, advances to Regional Final in overtime thriller

By James Garrison

The UMass Amherst Minutemen (22-12-2) faced off against the University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (24-12-0) Friday night at the DCU Center in Worcester, Massachusetts in the NCAA Regional Semifinal. The Gophers rallied to take the contest in overtime, advancing to the Regional Final.

The two sides played down to the wire, as more than 60 minutes was required to decide a winner. It wasn’t until 11:29 when captain Ben Meyers finished off a give-and-go to complete the comeback for Minnesota. 

“I’m really proud of our group because we battled, we battled tonight,” Minnesota Head Coach Bob Motzko said post-game. “The only way you beat UMass is you’ve got to match that grit.”

The energy throughout the contest was palpable between both teams as well as the crowd, which had a heavy lean towards UMass with the game being in Worcester, just over an hour from Amherst. 

“There was a lot of adrenaline to it, getting booed coming on the ice,” Minnesota captain Ben Meyers said in the post-game press conference. “We stuck to it (…) we were very vocal and we had success.”

After just under 15 minutes of solid attack, the Minutemen finally broke through on a long delayed penalty. Junior forward Reed Lebster one-timed a pass in the slot past Minnesota goaltender Justin Close to put UMass up 1-0 at 14:09 of the first period. 

After UMass scored their first goal, Minnesota junior defenseman Ryan Johnson had to sit for two minutes for a cross-checking minor, sending the Minutemen to the power-play immediately after their opening goal. 

It did not take long for UMass to double their lead, as senior forward Garrett Wait put home his own rebound to put the Minutemen up 2-0 just 56 seconds after their first goal. Wait transferred to UMass from Minnesota after his sophomore season (19-20). 

After a few solid minutes of possession and physicality by Minnesota, the Golden Gophers would get on the board. Junior defenseman Ryan Johnson got a lucky bounce when the rebound off of his one-timer went off of UMass defenseman Colin Felix. 

“I think the message was, you know, that there’s a lot of game left,” Meyers said. “We felt like we could do some damage five on five and we stuck to that.”

After a late push in the first period by Minnesota, UMass responded early in the first. Reed Lebster put it home right at the front of the net for his second of the game just 1:24 into the second period to pad the lead for UMass and make it 3-1. 

It wasn’t until late in the second after a fairly even period when the Gophers would once again regain some life. With just 2:51 to go in the second, Minnesota freshman forward Tristan Broz put home a loose puck in front of the net to cut UMass’ lead in half. 

Late in the third, UMass defenseman Ryan Ufko would be sent off for a questionable interference call, which Minnesota took advantage of. After a quiet game, Gopher forward Matthew Knies ripped a shot past Murray to tie the game up at three with just under six minutes to go. 

“That goal by Knies, it’s ridiculous. He looked like Auston Matthews. What are you going to do?” UMass Head Coach Greg Carvel said post-game. 

The two sides would battle out the rest of the third period evenly, and head to sudden death overtime with a chance to advance to the NCAA Regional Final against Western Michigan. 

“To set-up that play at the end was just a great play by him,” Meyers said of the overtime winner. “I thought the line played well tonight.”

Meyers fed freshman Aaron Huglen in the corner, who got it right back to Meyers in front of Murray, and Meyers made no mistake to close out the contest and give Minnesota the hard-fought victory.

This marks the end of an era for UMass, as this was the final game in the collegiate careers of captain Bobby Trivigno and Anthony Del Gaizo, foundational pieces in the meteoric rise of the program. 

“I’m gonna miss playing with them. I don’t know if I’ll ever play with my best friends again,” Trivigno said.

Minnesota will return to where their season ended last year, with a loss in the Regional Finals to Minnesota State. The Golden Gophers will take on Western Michigan with a chance to the Frozen Four. 

“That’s the key to our season, we’ve stayed steady (…) our guys have such faith.” 

Puck drop is set for 4:00 p.m. on Sunday at the DCU Center, where both sides will fight for a bid in the Frozen Four to be played at the TD Garden on April 7 and 9. Coverage for Sunday’s game can be found here on the blog, as well as on Twitter @BOShockeyblog and Instagram @boston.hockey.blog.