Minnesota Left To Wonder, What If?
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MANCHESTER, N.H. Minnesota played for a national championship in 2014, losing to Union in the championship game in Philadelphia.
Since then, the Golden Gophers haven’t won an NCAA Tournament game.
Winning at this time of year is a difficult thing to do. If it were so easy, a lot more teams would be doing it.
Minnesota fell to Notre Dame in Saturday’s Northeast Regional semifinal, 3-2, blowing a 2-0 lead. After looking like the Gophers were en route to rolling past the Fighting Irish, suddenly their season was over and especially the group of seniors were left to face the reality that their college careers were done. Through. Finished.
Why? What could they have done differently. Individual players no doubt asking themselves what they could have done differently.
This senior class was Minnesota’s first to play exclusively in the Big Ten. They came on board in 2014 and played for that national championship, coming just one win short.
Their time with the Gophers include four Big Ten regular-season championships — no one else has ever won the regular-season title — and a Big Ten tournament title to go with three NCAA appearances.
Every one of those appearances ended in heartbreak. Saturday’s pain was just as sharp, just as stinging as that warm April night in Philadelphia three years ago.
“We did play for a national title so that’s hard to do, I’ll leave it at that,” said Minnesota head coach Don Lucia, reflecting on these last four years. “You’re playing good teams. A couple years ago we were here and lost to a higher seed (Minnesota Duluth). We didn’t play great but we lost to a good team and today we lost to a good team, too. It came down right to the end and it’s a single game.
“Notre Dame’s a good example, they haven’t won a tournament game since 2011, you lose a couple overtime games over that course of time and you hope it all evens itself out. It’s disappointing today not to win but I’m still proud of this group because it’s hard to do over the long term what they’ve done, it really is.”
The Gophers scored early. Connor Reilly scored his first goal of the season just 2:07 into the game. After outshooting Notre Dame 14-9 in the first period, Vinni Lettieri scored just 30 seconds into the second period to double that lead.
Minnesota was in total control.
Notre Dame turned the momentum later in the period on a huge penalty kill, including a wicked shift from Jake Evans, who blocked a pair of shots and saved a goal on a stick lift in the slot.
A few minutes after that, Andrew Oglevie cut the deficit in half. Anders Bjork scored less than a minute later to tie the score.
That was the turning point. The Gophers had the chance, on the power play, to extend their lead and failed to do so. Minutes later, the Irish were charging back.
“It was just one of those where we get hemmed in for the one shift and were looking to make a change and they caught us on the change,” Lucia said. “And then, you know, they scored right after that. On that goal, one of our best players went with the guy and didn’t lift up the stick, but that’s gonna happen.”
Bjork scored again midway through the third period to send the Gophers back to home.
“They scored two quick goals and the momentum shifted a little to their favor,” said sophomore forward Tyler Sheehy, a Hobey Baker finalist. “It was a tie game going into the third period and ultimately you have to win a period to win a game. They ended up getting one in the back of the net. We had a few chances that we couldn’t capitalize on. It’s a tough break for us but I don’t think too much changed after we had the lead.”
As most teams do after season-ending losses, the attention soon turned to the senior class. Perhaps it was too emotional, but Minnesota players were represented by a pair of sophomores in the postgame press conference — Sheehy and goaltender Eric Schierhorn.
You’ve heard the stories about players not wanting to take that jersey off for the last time. You can imagine the emotion pouring through the Minnesota locker room, especially after a loss like that. They had the Irish dead in the water, but they couldn’t close it out.
Perhaps memories of the 2014 Frozen Four came flooding back. The season, and the seniors’ careers, ended with a big “what if” going through their heads.
What if the Gophers scored on that second-period power play? What if Union hadn’t run off three goals in a 1:54 stretch of the first period three years ago?
“We talked a little bit about how all of our seniors have made such an impact with leading and just kind of the standard that they set here,” Sheehy said.
That standard is now on Sheehy’s shoulders. He led the Gophers in scoring this season and his teammates will be looking at him this summer and next fall to lead them. He knows that, and he’s taking lessons from this senior class. Guys like Jake Bischoff, Taylor Cammarata, Justin Kloos and Reilly. They set the bar.
“They’re professional guys, they made it very clear what you have to do here to be winners,” Sheehy said. “I think this year we were successful because we had the right mindset and I think going into next year, we have to start out with the right mindset. We have a good group of guys coming in, I think. And it’s going to be really competitive next year as well, so I think we are looking forward to that.”
Schierhorn was emotional when talking about his teammates whose careers ended on the SHNU Arena ice. When asked what he learned this season, his voice softened and he the emotion was palpable.
“We learned everything from this group of seniors; we are going to miss them so much,” he said. “I’m not kidding when I say we love those guys, every single one of them. We learned how to be great people, great leaders, all from them.”