Worcester, MA – This time of year, every team is going to face adversity.
For the Gophers, they got it out of the way early.
After UMass was credited with two goals that could have been waived off in the first period, Minnesota found itself in a 2-0 hole with under five minutes to play. Like they have all season, though, the Gophers (23W-10L-2OT3W-2OT3L) did not give up, rallying from down 3-1 in the second period to force overtime against a pesky UMass team (20-10-2-3). There, captain Ben Meyers showed why he is a Hobey Baker finalist, scoring off a feed from Aaron Huglen to send Minnesota on to the regional final against Western Michigan.
The opening 15 minutes of the first period were good quality, even-up hockey, with both teams playing stingy defense and generally allowing few chances. That changed with about five minutes left in the period, when UMass took advantage of a delayed Gopher penalty to score with the 6-on-5 advantage. The goal was reviewed extensively, and it seemed like UMass had a player in the crease, but the referees eventually ruled it was a good goal to put the Minutemen up 1-0. On the ensuing UMass power play, the Minutemen again scored under unusual circumstances, when a shot from the point deflected off of former Gopher Garrett Wait in front of the net before glancing off his skate and into the goal. The referees again reviewed the play and awarded UMass the goal, putting the Minutemen up 2-0 with the two quick goals.
Minnesota needed an answer, and they got one late in the first period when Ryan Johnson’s wrister deflected off the UMass goalie and then off of a UMass defenseman before going into the net to draw the Gophers within one at 2-1. Johnson’s third goal of the year was important to keep Minnesota in the game, especially since UMass scored just 1:24 into the second period to extend their lead to 3-1.
Minnesota slowly turned the tide throughout the second period, and by the end of the middle frame they had put together six or seven minutes of good hockey to start to look dangerous. Again the Gophers benefitted from a late-period goal to grab some momentum heading into the third when Tristan Broz deflected a Jaxon Nelson pass from the circle past UMass’s Matt Murray at 17:09. The goal pulled the Gophers within one again at 3-2 going into the intermission.
The third period was a big-boy hockey type of period, and the Gophers showed that they came to play. Both teams played well and each had quality chances, but it was Minnesota who generally had the better of the play and drew two power play opportunities in the third, capitalizing on their final man-advantage with just under seven minutes left in the game. Matthew Knies broke up a UMass clearing attempt before firing a quick wrist shot top corner past Murray to tie the game at 3-3.
In the overtime, for the first time all game, the Gophers looked like they were clearly the better team. Minnesota had several quality scoring chances, while UMass was mostly kept at bay by Minnesota’s talented defensive corps.
In the end, who else but Ben Meyers to score the game winner and send the Gophers on to the regional final? The junior center and Hobey Baker finalist raced off the bench as Aaron Huglen controlled the puck behind the UMass goal line. Huglen played for time as Meyers took the puck in the corner and gave it back to Huglen down low before heading to the net. Huglen found Meyers with a beautiful pass out front, and Meyers snapped a shot into the back of the net to win the game 4-3.
The Gophers next take on #3 overall seed Western Michigan Sunday, who won an overtime thriller of their own against the Northeastern Huskies earlier in the day. The Broncos have two of the top scorers in the country in Ethen Frank (who leads the nation with 26 goals) and Drew Worrad (whose 9G-36A-45PT is good for T-6th nationally).
The two teams square off at 3PM Central time Sunday on ESPNU, with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line. The winner of this regional will face the winner of the Minnesota State-Notre Dame game on Saturday, while the winner of Michigan-Quinnipiac will face the winner of Denver-UMD.