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2016 Big Ten Tournament: Minnesota's season ends one period and one game short

Michigan went 3 for 4 on the power play, going on to win 5-3 and end Big Ten regular season champion Minnesota's chances for a 5th straight national tournament appearance.

Matt Christians/SBN College Hockey

ST. PAUL, MN- With a roar of an Xcel Energy Center crowd being the lone acknowledgement something different was happening from a season ago, Justin Kloos scored a power play goal to give Minnesota a 3-2 lead in the Big Ten championship game.

Kloos had done the exact same thing, down to the score, in last year's championship game in Detroit, giving his team the go-ahead goal with the man advantage.

In a different building, his bow and arrow celebration and enthusiasm helped lead Minnesota. Not this season. This season was not a replica. This season the only duplicated aspect was a trophy hoisted by the visiting victors, where the disappointed silence kills the calm of the night.

Saturday night, Minnesota's season came to an end in a 5-3 loss at the hands of Michigan.

Goodnight Gophers.

"Is there frustration because we're not playing next week, disappointment? Yes," said head coach Don Lucia. "There's no question that we're disappointed and frustrated, but when I look in the locker room tonight they gave us everything they had. They held a Michigan team that scores a boatload of goals, to one five-on-five goal."

Wolverines sophomore defenseman Zach Werenski scored the go-ahead goal on the power play with 4:33 remaining in regulation, erasing the hard work Minnesota (20-17-0) put in coming back from a 2-0 deficit with 3 second period goals. Tyler Motte added an empty netter for Michigan to leave the Gopher players with their heads down on the bench. Their last gasp came up short.

Starting the season five months ago with one goal in three games  - seemingly a lifetime ago - gave way to a regular season championship. Highs. Lows. Heartbreak. A 5-10 non-conference record. Two game-changing offsides calls. Seven overtime games ending with a winner one way or another.

"Some of the times throughout the season when we kind of, you know, gave up a game or had a slip-up, it was probably a little bit of like mental errors or physical mistake. Just not being a little hard or hard enough. I think for 60 minutes we were pretty hard today," said Kloos. "And we lost to a good team."

Close third period blown lead losses to Minnesota State and Harvard in hindsight put a fifth consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance out of reach despite the regular season banner.

It was also those experiences which helped forge the identity of this year's team, one which carried ten freshmen and had several more players learning new roles.  Lucia noted he lost more players from last season's championship game than had on the ice the first time his squad faced Michigan (24-7-5).

"There were some early games in October where I'm going, ‘oh boy.  We could be in for a long year.' But the kids, the leadership and the resolve and that they really worked to get better each and every day," said Lucia. "And, you know, you're having disappointment.  And, you know, sometimes after a game they used the word embarrassed.

"I was never embarrassed by this team."

Motte and JT Compher opened the game with power play goals on Michigan's first two chances.

With the roles reversed from a year ago, a Wolverines team already having clinched an at-large bid led 2-0 in the second period before three unanswered goals gave Minnesota hope.

Leon Bristedt scored his 20th goal of the season on a pass from Vinni Lettieri. Jake Bischoff beat Steve Racine, making 30 saves, on a wraparound, followed by Kloos' 16th goal.

As it has at times, the lead slipped away. Kyle Connor added his 35th goal to three assists by deking Gopher goaltender Eric Schierhorn and Minnesota could not get it back.

"I think we played hard. I think they played hard and just at the end we just didn't have enough," Bischoff said.

A year unlike any other ends before the Gophers would like. Michigan takes over the mantle as the only Big Ten team in the NCAA Tournament, erasing a three year hiatus.

Instead, Minnesota joins a host of regular season champions sitting on the outside where they rest with disappointment and regret, with the lasting memory of winning the title over a 20 game schedule without an opportunity to play up to four more for the national title.

"Obviously, we're a very prideful program and all of us know what our expectations exceed the community and the growth we showed from the first game against Vermont until now," said Kloos. "I don't think anyone could argue, we're capable of still playing next week, and it's obviously frustrating right now and it really stinks."


Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation mostly covering both the University of Minnesota and Big Ten. You can also follow him on Twitter --