Fargo, ND – For about 30 minutes of game time Thursday night, the #16-seed Canisius Golden Griffins were the cinderella story of the NCAA hockey tournament. Canisius jumped out to a 2-1 lead early in the second period, and was looking to play spoiler.
Then the Gophers showed up.
The #1 overall seed Minnesota Golden Gophers (27-9-1) took a while to heat up, but once they did there was no stopping them, scoring eight unanswered goals in the final 31:45 of play to eliminate Canisius (20-19-3) by a 9-2 final score. The Gophers move on to the regional final Saturday evening, where they’ll square off against #6 overall seed St. Cloud State with a spot in the Frozen Four on the line.
The Gophers looked rusty to open play in the first period, not asserting their dominance over the #41 Pairwise Griffins and generally playing even-up throughout. Minnesota got on the board first on the power play at 6:08 of the opening frame, when Luke Mittelstadt’s shot from the goal line deflected off Canisius goalie Jacob Barczewski into the net to put the Gophers up 1-0.
The Griffins quickly answered back, scoring just after a power play of their own expired at 8:41 to tie the game at 1-1.
Canisius took their first (and only) lead of the game at 3:23 of the second period, when Nick Bowman took advantage of a long Minnesota fourth-line shift and dangled through Collin Schmidt’s legs, finding a shooting lane on the other side of the lanky Gopher and firing a beautiful wrister past Justen Close to give Canisius the 2-1 lead.
Shades of Holy Cross were creeping their way into the minds of the Gopher faithful at this point, but this Minnesota team is different, and like they’ve done all year, they found a way. The fourth line did not see another shift until deep into the third period.
The Golden Griffins looked good after the second goal, generally appearing the faster team and frustrating Minnesota’s defense with an aggressive forecheck, similar to what Michigan was able to to to the Gophers in last Saturday’s Big Ten championship game. Against the run of play, Aaron Huglen scored his seventh goal of the year (and biggest of the season) at 8:15 to bring Minnesota back to all-square at 2-2.
Huglen took a tripping penalty at 10:04 of the second, putting the Griffins right back on the powerplay with a chance to retake the lead and the momentum, but as he has all season long Justen Close stood strong, shutting the door and making some quality saves to keep Canisius at bay.
Minnesota retook the lead for good late in the second period, when the third line again came up huge for this Gopher team. Connor Kurth and Rhett Pitlick worked hard down low to keep possession of the puck behind the Canisius net, with Pitlick switching spots with a pinching Mike Koster along the right wing wall. Koster took the puck below the goal line before finding Kurth out front, whose shoveled shot slid past Barczewski and into the back of the net at 18:04 of the second. Minnesota entered the second intermission up 3-2.
In the third period, one bad mistake cost Canisius. Stefano Bottini earned a 5-minute major and game misconduct for contact to the head just 27 seconds ino the final period, sending the Gophers to an all-important major power play. Minnesota scored twice on the advantage, with Jimmy Snuggerud and Brody Lamb providing the goals to put the Gophers up 5-2.
From there, the rout was on.
Minnesota added four more goals in the last 10:03 of the third, three from Bryce Brodzinski and one from Mason Nevers, to put the game away for good. Logan Cooley had three third-period assists, and was generally a menace out on the ice, making play after play and looking as dangerous as we’ve come to expect. The Gophers ended up winning 9-2, a scoreline which belied how nervous this writer felt throughout much of the first 40 minutes of action.
Up next for Minnesota is a date with St. Cloud State. The Huskies took care of MSU-Mankato 4-0 earlier Thursday to earn a rematch with the #1 Gophers Saturday afternoon. The regional final starts at 5:30 central time, and can be seen on ESPN-U. The winner of that game will face the winner of BU and Cornell in the Frozen Four.
For this Gopher fan, the thing that mattered the most is that this team started playing like we’ve seen them play all year long in the second half of the game. Coach Motzko has lamented the “three games in 23 days” that Minnesota has played here recently, and it took them a full 40 minutes of play to shake the rust off and start looking like the juggernaut that we’ve come to expect. St. Cloud is a tough opponent, but there’s no reason to think Minnesota won’t handle them on their way to Tampa Bay.
Minnesota Multiple-Point Scorers:
Bryce Brodzinski 3G-1A
Logan Cooley 0G-3A
Connor Kurth 1G-1A
Brody Lamb 1G-1A
Rhett Pitlick 0G-2A
Brock Faber 0G-2A
Mike Koster 0G-2A