MINNEAPOLIS – Earlier this season, Minnesota Golden Gophers head coach Bob Motzko talked about how much his young team has grown up during this second-half run.
With everything the Gophers had to overcome in the Big Ten quarterfinals, it’s safe to say they’re an even more mature group after moving within two victories of an improbable NCAA tournament berth.
Two power-play goals by Ben Meyers helped fuel a second-period onslaught by #19 Minnesota, and the Gophers held off the Notre Dame Fighting Irish 3-2 on Sunday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci to take the best-of-three Big Ten quarterfinal series. Motzko sensed they were ready to go on Sunday by the way their early-morning meeting went.
“Our guys were ready to play at [11:00],” Motzko said. “We knew we were gonna be good tonight.”
With their backs to the wall after a bad loss Friday and after the first Irish goal on Sunday, Minnesota never quit. They haven’t quit all year, and a hard-fought series like this will give them extra motivation as they advance to face a Nittany Lions team that had a total of 99 shots on goal in their last series three weeks ago.
“A lot,” Motzko said when asked about how much his team has matured during what has been a crazy weekend and season. “You go down 0-1, and they battled back to true form, which this team always has. [Notre Dame is] a big, strong team.”
Jack LaFontaine, who made 23 saves Sunday and was in net for both games in that series to make 93 saves, was fired up during the postgame celebration. You can bet he’s looking forward to the rematch.
“It’s just starting to click at the right time,” LaFontaine said. “We left points on the ice last time we were there. I know they’re coming off a three-week break. We got our rhythm down, so we gotta pounce on them early and often.”
The power-play unit and the offense came through at the perfect time for Minnesota in a three-goal second period, and as a result they will live to fight on in the conference tournament. Needless to say, this Gophers group has some unfinished business ahead of them next weekend in State College after a pair of disappointing games there in February.
Alex Steeves and Cam Morrison scored for the Irish, but they did themselves in by taking five second-period penalties to allow the Gophers to take control. Some of the penalties were questionable, and head coach Jeff Jackson wasn’t pleased at how they were called.
“Just disappointed that the officials had to get involved. Calls that they made last night were different than the calls they made tonight,” an indignant Jackson said after the game. “It’s an embarrassment, actually.”
After a scoreless first period, momentum threatened to swing the way of Notre Dame after Minnesota blew a zone entry and the Irish came back with a 2-on-1 before Steeves finished. The sparse crowd of 2,039 was silenced, but after Colin Theisen was sent off for hooking a few minutes later, the Gophers tied it on a beautiful goal by Meyers on the backdoor. Meyers, one of nine freshmen dressed for the game, was spotted by Blake McLaughlin and put it in up high over Cale Morris to make quick work of the man advantage.
Things simply got worse for the Irish after that. Sampo Ranta scored 48 seconds later from the high slot after picking up a beautiful drop pass from Scott Reedy to give Minnesota the lead, and three minutes later Pierce Crawford was caught hooking Ryan Zuhlsdorf. During the ensuing media timeout, the refs reviewed the play and saw Cam Burke check Tyler Nanne into the boards right after the Crawford penalty. Burke received a major and a game misconduct, and the Gophers had a 5-on-3 for two minutes.
With seven seconds left in the two-man advantage, Meyers scored after an offensive-zone faceoff win. Just like that, Minnesota was up 3-1 and Notre Dame was shellshocked after the stunning turn of events.
Morrison brought Notre Dame back within a goal by deflecting a puck off Matt Staudacher before it floated in. The Irish, who had problems scoring goals for much of the season, forechecked aggressively and had 15 of the game’s final 16 shots on goal after the Gophers started to play conservatively and rely on a defensive approach. But they couldn’t push across the equalizer and saw their season come to an end at the hands of the team they finished off on their home ice a year ago. The two-time-defending tournament champions suffered their first two losses in conference tournament play since joining the Big Ten and finished the season with a 15-15-7 record.
Morris, one of five seniors on the Irish roster, made 18 saves in his final game.
With third-seeded Michigan set to face second-seeded Ohio State next Sunday afternoon, fourth-seeded Minnesota will face regular-season champion Penn State in the other Big Ten semifinal. Puck drop is scheduled for 6:00 CT on Saturday night as the Gophers, who ended the night in a three-way tie for #16 in the Pairwise rankings, will need to win the tournament in order to qualify for the NCAA’s.
ND goal at 5:25: Alex Steeves (11). Assisted by Tory Dello (10).
MINN power-play goal at 10:18: Ben Meyers (9). Assisted by Blake McLaughlin (16) and Robbie Stucker (6).
MINN goal at 11:06: Sampo Ranta (12). Assisted by Scott Reedy (7) and Brannon McManus (18).
MINN power-play goal at 16:03: Meyers (10). Assisted by Sammy Walker (19) and Reedy (8).
ND power-play goal at 10:36: Cam Morrison (13). Assisted by Alex Steeves (17) and Spencer Stastney (17).
Power plays: ND 1-3, MINN 2-3.
Shots on goal: ND 25, MINN 21.