2014 Frozen Four: Minnesota's national title run ends one game short

Minnesota freshman Taylor Cammarata (13) had a goal and an assist in Saturday's loss. - Matt Dewkett

For five Minnesota seniors, Union's 7-4 victory stops a complete turnaround. The Gophers finish second for an NCAA-leading 7th time.

PHILADELPHIA -- University of Minnesota sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning) most of the time displays no emotion on the ice. Nothing fazes him. A blank slate, the South St. Paul, Minnesota native reacts to giving up a goal like a person who is asked to take out the trash.

That was the case for Wilcox early when, after teammate Justin Kloos scored his 16th goal of the season 2:37 into the game, Union defenseman Shayne Gostisbehere (Philadelphia Flyers) sniped a wrist shot past him to tie the game. Wilcox shook it off and went back to work.

By the sixth goal, however, even Wilcox showed emotions. Each additional one built on the last. When Kevin Sullivan began to celebrate a moment that all but dashed Minnesota's national championship title hopes the 6'1" sophomore dropped to the ground and put his hands over his head as if he was momentarily hiding from 18,742 fans in Wells Fargo Center.

Two days after the emotional high of a last second (literally) win over North Dakota, the Gophers were on the other side of high stakes; falling 7-4 Saturday in Philadelphia to Union.

"North Dakota's not a scoring team like they are," said Wilcox about the difference Saturday. "(Union is) a high scoring team, they got a good defense, good forwards and they have good net presence."

Minnesota's emotions were put to the test early. Sam Warning, who had not been on the losing end of a game that he scored this season, put the Gophers back ahead 2-1 37 seconds after Gostisbehere's goal, but the Dutchmen responded with 3 more in a 1:54 span that featured the most goals of any period in a final since 1997.

"We let guys go, made mental mistakes and got switched up. When they get a wide open guy 2-3 shots in a row, you can't expect Adam to save that," said senior co-captain Nate Condon (Colorado Avalanche).

It was the last time the Gophers led against Union, which had also trailed in the opening minutes against Boston College in the Frozen Four semifinal. The Dutchmen matched Minnesota with a gameplan that mirrored its opponent. Both teams were strong skaters, used its depth up and down the lineup, able to counter-attack and crash the net and test the other. (The style also made for an exciting national championship in the City of Brotherly Love.)

On Saturday,that suited a Union program that had never played in a national championship game. Despite going 0-7 on the power play, the team shined at even strength. Gostisbehere, showing a national audience why he is one of the most highly coveted defensemen in college hockey, finishing with an astonishing +7 as Union completed a 17 game unbeaten streak to close the season.

Junior Colin Stevens settled down after the first ten minutes and finished with 36 saves Saturday. By the end of the first period, it was his opposition that were on the defensive.

"We kind of were praying for the period to end there, but once we got in the locker room we knew there was a lot of time and a lot of game left," Taylor Cammarata (New York Rangers) said. "So we weren't too worried at that point.

"It's tough. There's a lot of great players and great guys in here. It's a long season, but it's pretty tough right now."

Although Minnesota was able to twice make it a one goal game, the urgency and emotion of playing in a national championship game ended short. Penalties after the whistle, Stevens, the "mental mistakes" as Kloos and head coach Don Lucia said after the game or anything that made Lucia pace up and down the Gopher bench. All were there.

By the end of Saturday Rick Bennett's team, not Lucia's, were the ones celebrating by cutting down the net and posing while confetti poured out from the Wells Fargo Center ceiling. Minnesota's postgame locker room was full of drained players. Twenty seven players left everything in Philadelphia only to come up sixty minutes short of the program's sixth NCAA national championship in men's ice hockey.

For Condon - the last Gopher to leave the ice - and the other four seniors see their time wearing the "M" come to an end finishing second for an NCAA-leading 7th time (the first since 1989). Minnesota's senior class entered as freshmen during a stretch where the team missed three NCAA Tournament appearances.

Several others left before their eligibility expired, but they stayed. Now the five leave with three regular season conference titles, two Frozen Four appearances and a program that - in spite of getting another maroon banner at Mariucci instead of gold - looks to once again be one of the elite in college hockey.

It's something he's proud of most.

"I'm proud of our senior class. They've been great since they got here, been the backbone to get us back where we wanted to be," Condon said. So a lot of selfless guys, a lot of guys that really did their best playing for Minnesota."

The seniors' influence will remain with a team that is expected to bring back several top players for Lucia and assistant coaches Mike Guentzel and Grant Potulny. That includes Big Ten player of the year Wilcox, defenseman of the year Mike Reilly (Columbus Blue Jackets) and junior co-captain Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers).

Their leadership remains even more with freshmen like Cammarata, who along with Kloos was on a line with Condon for most of the year.

"It's been an honor to play with him this season," he said. "Whenever you get a great captain like him on your line, it's made it a lot easier for me. It's been a real pleasure."

Right now, finishing second for an NCAA may be an emotional experience that can't be hidden yet what lies underneath the pain remains for 2014-15.


"I'm gone, but I want nothing but success for these guys. I think the next year they will do a really good job," Condon said. "We got a lot of young guys, guys that I know can go far if they put their minds to it next year.

"Hopefully they can get it done."

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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