MINNEAPOLIS- It was the type of effort Minnesota wanted Friday to begin the 24th annual Mariucci Classic and second half of the season. Just not the result, one which continues to haunt the Gophers.
Merrimack goaltender Rasmus Tirronen made a season-high 40 saves and Hampus Gustafsson, Jace Henning and Brett Seney scored as the #18 Warriors defeated #8 Minnesota 3-2 in front of 9,866 fans at Mariucci Arena.
It's the fifth time in six years Minnesota (9-5-1, 1-0-1-0 Big Ten) will fail to win its own tournament.
"It was a gutsy performance by our guys. I told the guys in the locker room that it probably wasn't a Picasso," said Merrimack head coach Mark Dennehy about his team's victory. "Then I thought about the Picassos I've seen with the ears and eyes all over the place and maybe it was a Picasso."
The Warriors (11-5-2, 4-4-1 Hockey East) will face UMass-Lowell, which defeated RIT earlier today 7-3, in an-all Hockey East Mariucci Classic championship.
While the Gophers, who finished with a 42-17 shot advantage, showed no ill effects from being off a month early, the team was facing a Merrimack team which would be in the NCAA Tournament if the season ended today and doing so missing four key players. Michael Brodzinski (San Jose Sharks) made it 1-0 Minnesota 5:02 into the game when his shot from the top of the circle beat a screened Tirronen. The Gophers controlled the opening 10 minutes, out-shooting Merrimack 6-2 and moving the puck at will in the Warriors zone.
"We could have done a little better job capitalizing our opportunities," Minnesota junior forward A.J. Michaelson said. "The chances were there. We just need to start making the best of it."
That changed when Gustafsson was able to get around Justin Kloos to score his fifth goal of the season. The 6'4", 205 lbs Gustafsson, split from Brian Christie for the first time this season as Dennehy wanted to get bigger up the middle, showed his size and strength advantage on the 5'8", 178 lbs sophomore as he got by despite being held. (A penalty Kloos had to then go serve.)
Kloos almost got his revenge when he had a wide open net late in the first. It wasn't to be, however, as Tirronen was able, in a sign of things to come, get low and dive out his glove hand to catch the puck. The senior goalie entered Friday's game with a .929 save percentage and left that play fooling most of those in attendance, who thought it was a goal.
"We were sitting on the bench just celebrating and then all of a sudden we heard the 'oh....oh crap," said Connor Reilly, who continues to be hot with four goals in his last three games. "That's a big time save. Give the guy credit. Kloos came off pissed, as he should be."
Out-shot, Merrimack was able to make the most of the chances it had whether they were giveaways, opportunities at the end of long shifts by the Gopher defense or even a tip off a defenseman's stick. The latter happened on Henning's goal, which was the result of a Minnesota turnover 5:03 into the second period. The freshman from Port Moody, BC had his shot partially go off Ben Marshall's (Detroit Red Wings) stick and fool Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning).
Senley made it 3-1 eight minutes later by going around Wilcox to get the eventual game-winner.
"They were opportunistic like we thought they would," Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said.
Gophers senior forward Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers) fed Connor Reilly for a one-timer with 11:10 left to make it a one-goal game yet the equalizer was out of reach in spite of the home team's attempts to crash the net and get a rebound. Tirronen continued to stand tall and the Warriors lived up to that, blocking shot after shot.
In the end, the difference may have been special teams. Four times Minnesota had a power play opportunity in the second period and four times Merrimack's 3rd nationally ranked penalty kill was able to keep the Gophers top PP at bay to the point where cries to "shoot" were heard. They had chances in spite of the Warriors doing a good job getting in lanes, but weren't able to execute, Connor Reilly said.
"We just tried to take (Mike) Reilly away," Dennehy said about what he had his penalty kill do. " We tried to seal as much as we could. He's dynamic. You just try to take him away and get in lanes and when the puck gets to the net you have bodies in position."
With the loss, Minnesota falls from 5th to 11th in the Pairwise rankings.
"It's not easy to win if you only get two on a night," Lucia said. "I thought the guys had good energy. I thought the effort was good. We made a lot plays good to the very end, but just couldn't get another one by them."
Minnesota next plays RIT in the Mariucci Classic consolation game Saturday at 7:00 p.m. CT. It will be preceded by Merrimack vs. UMass-Lowell at 4:00 p.m. Neither game is televised although the championship will be streamed at Gophersports.com
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate