The University of Minnesota Golden Gophers (26-12-0) and the Western Michigan University Broncos (26-12-1) met today in the Worcester regional finals to battle for a spot in the Frozen Four. With a 3-0 showing, the Gophers are now headed to TD Garden.
“This was a really strong weekend for our team,” Minnesota Head Coach Bob Motzko said in the postgame press conference. “We played as tight and together for two games as you need to do and want to do –– couldn’t be more proud of our group.”
Both groups ousted Hockey East teams on Friday in two overtime victories. The Gophers beat the UMass Amherst reigning champions by a score of 4-3 while the Broncos sent Northeastern packing back to Matthews Arena with a 2-1 win.
Western Michigan and Minnesota sat right beside each other in the pre-tournament rankings with the Broncos at No. 4 and the Gophers at No. 5. But, as holds true in all sports postseasons, seeding goes out the window once the puck is dropped. With games like these, it’s simply who wants it more.
With his second goal of the weekend, freshman forward Matthew Knies opened scoring for his squad at 9:50 in the first period. The left winger positioned himself in the slot to receive a behind-the-net pass from sophomore defenseman Brock Faber. Collecting the puck and releasing it a few feet out from Bronco junior goaltender Brandon Bussi, Knies secured the 1-0 lead.
The Broncos were unable to find the equalizer in the opening frame, but both sides were tested throughout the 20 minutes and Western Michigan kept their compete level high while trailing. Minnesota skated off for intermission up 9-4 in SOG and a bit of momentum on their sides.
“You can’t fault the way they worked, the way they cared, the way they tried right to the end,” Western Michigan Head Coach Pat Ferschweiler said in the postgame press conference. “In that way, I was really proud of their effort.”
The two teams came into the second period more settled –– it showed in the quality of the shots in the opening minutes. Western Michigan was awarded the first man-advantage of the evening at 6:09 when sophomore defenseman Mike Koster was sent to the box for tripping.
Junior netminder Justen Close stood tall on the penalty kill for the Gophers, making some dynamic saves to keep the score 1-0. The Broncos put on the pressure but couldn’t capitalize on the power play despite some promising chances.
Five minutes later, an offsides call prevented the game from getting all tied up. Junior defenseman Ronnie Attard’s bar-down snipe was reviewed and soon called back, putting the Broncos back on the hunt for their first of the competition.
Putting themselves behind to start the third, Western Michigan fifth year forward Ethen Frank was dealt two minutes for slashing just ten seconds in. Minnesota wasted no time on the powerplay and doubled their lead at 19:27.
Captain and junior center Ben Meyers connected with an all alone Aaron Huglen across the crease with a hard pass that the freshman forward then slapped into the back of the net to secure the 2-0 score.
“Our grit and determination, blocking shots, getting back on defense (…) you have to earn your way through and you’re not going to do it by being cute all the time and our program has grown in that for sure,” Motzko said.
The Broncos had one last chance to get back in the game late when junior defenseman Matt Staudacher got called for hooking at 16:28. Pulling Bussi for the extra attacker on the power play, Western Michigan desperately tried to put a scoring sequence together.
Senior forward Blake McLaughlin had other plans for his Gophers, dumping the puck into the other end for an empty netter to make it 3-0 with just under two minutes left on the clock. The buzzer at the end of the third punched Minnesota’s ticket to Boston for the Frozen Four and heartbreak for the Broncos as their historic season came to a close.
Winning their first NCAA tournament game in program history, Western Michigan was heartbroken to see their run cut short in Worcester. Both coach and players spoke to the unity of the group this season.
“This team is, it’s hard to put into words what it means to us and every guy in that room,” graduate student forward Josh Passolt said in the postgame. “I’m going to miss everybody on the team. We’re such a tight knit group and that’s why we had the success we did.”
On the other side of things, the Gophers will face the Minnesota State University Mavericks at TD Garden on Thursday, April 7 in the NCAA semifinals –– getting past them, a tall task at hand. In a very Western Frozen Four, Motzko said his team is excited to stay in Massachusetts.
“We’ve talked about the fact that we really like Massachusetts and we have no choice but to stay in the state now for the next three weeks,” he said. “I hope people in Massachusetts like people from Minnesota.”
We’ll have coverage of the Frozen Four tournament so make sure to follow along on the blog, on Twitter @BOShockeyblog and on Instagram @boston.hockey.blog.