The late-season surge for Gophers men’s hockey came to a screeching halt Saturday night in South Bend with a 2-1 overtime loss to Notre Dame. The Fighting Irish, who were seeded No. 2 in the Big Ten Tournament held the No. 3 Gophers in check throughout the night until they were finally able to capitalize on a power play goal to send the Maroon and Gold into the offseason.
Senior captain Tyler Sheehy was called for a hooking penalty at neutral ice on a play that looked to be nothing more than a heads-up stick lift. Just 22 seconds later, Eden Prairie native Michael Graham buried the winning goal, sealing the Gophers’ fate. Coach Bob Motzko didn’t mince words after in his post-game presser, calling the ending to the well-fought game an “absolute travesty.” Motzko was also reported to have had a heated exchange with the Big Ten Coordinator of Officials.
With the game in the rear-view mirror, here are five observations from the final game of the Gophers’ season.
Robson solid again
Junior goaltender Mat Robson showed up to play as he has all year in the low-scoring affair, stopping 33 of 35 shots. The only puck to beat Robson in regulation came on a deflection off the upper-body of a crashing Fighting Irish forward in the first period. Outside of that bad bounce, Robson was perfect in over 60 minutes of play before Graham’s overtime winner. Rumors are that NHL teams will look to entice Robson to forego his senior season and sign a contract as a rookie free-agent after another strong season between the pipes for Minnesota. This semifinal matchup featured great goalie play overall, a luxury both teams enjoyed much of the year, with Robson and Notre Dame’s Cale Morris both up for Big Ten Goaltender of the Year.
Overtime woes continue
Overtime sessions were not friendly to Minnesota this season as opponents held a 5-1 scoring advantage in bonus hockey. While three of those goals against came in double overtime conference games that officially registered as ties (played out for conference seeding points), the trend caught up with the Gophers again Saturday night. Minnesota had beaten the Irish in three of four regular season games, but the extra session again caught up with them in the playoffs. Minnesota’s only overtime tally this season came in the quarterfinal series in a 3-2 win over Michigan.
One of the keys to a postseason push that I mentioned in my article heading into the Michigan series was for the strong special teams play to continue for the Gophers. That included playing a disciplined game and not taking unnecessary penalties that would require the Gophers to play shorthanded at bad times. There were only four penalties in the game, three for Minnesota and one for Notre Dame, totaling only 6:22 of special teams play between the two teams. In a game that saw both teams play an incredibly disciplined style, it was unfortunate to see a senior captain watching his college career come to an end from the penalty box for an infraction that was questionable at best.
Lack of star production
All excuses aside, the veteran stars for the Golden Gophers weren’t able to produce any points and power an offense that was tied for 15th in the NCAA. The top line of Sheehy, Rem Pitlick and Brent Gates Jr. generated eight shots (five from Pitlick) but couldn’t push a puck past Morris who stood up to the task all night. It is hard to point out any one player or line for lack of scoring in a game that only saw the lamp light three times total, but Minnesota needed this line to lead them deep into the playoffs after tallying 117 points coming into the game. Give Notre Dame, who only allowed 2.24 goals against per game this season, credit for locking down the Gophers high-quality chances and moving on to the Big Ten Final.
Underclassmen continued to make a difference
In a night where goals were hard to find, the Minnesota freshmen continued to provide a bright spot for the team. While the class standouts Sammy Walker and Blake McLaughlin were held to zero shots, it was an all-freshman goal that tied the game at one in the first period. Sampo Ranta recorded the lone goal for the Gophers with a pair of first-year Edina natives, Walker and fellow freshman Ben Brinkman, notching assists on the play. If there is one thing to pull out of this late season run and be excited about looking forward to next season, it is the play of the freshman class, who only trailed the seniors in scoring this season for the Gophers.