The Gophers season didn’t end with a whimper or a bang. It ended in silence.
There was no loud rejoicing by Minnesota-Duluth or its assembled fans. No outward despair for the Minnesota contingent.
The game had already been long decided. Minnesota-Duluth never trailed in a 4-1 victory in the NCAA regional, ending the Gophers season at 23-13-2. It was the Bulldogs fourth straight victory over Minnesota this season.
“They had our number this year and that’s good for them,” senior forward Seth Ambroz said.
The loss ends the Gophers season on a dark note just as their outlook looked the brightest.
Entering the tournament, the Gophers were one of the country’s hottest teams fresh off their victories in the Big Ten. A midseason slump was erased as the Gophers fought back to win their Big Ten regular season and tournament titles. But the slump came back Saturday night, with defensive miscues dooming the team to an early tournament exit.
“I don’t know, the emotional standpoint, the emotional capital of the last six, seven weeks to try to get ourselves in a position to be in the NCAA,” head coach Don Lucia said. “It just seemed like we were a little bit emotionally flat at times.”
The Gophers had high expectations at the beginning of the year, entering the season ranked No. 1 in the country after returning most of the nucleus from a run to the national title game.
The team started strong before losing themselves in a slump in the middle of the year. The team rebounded towards the end of the year, but their midseason form seemed to rear its head again when the stakes were the highest.
“I’m not going to say [we had] the same miscues,” Lucia said. “You come out in the game and you want to play well, you want to play hard and some nights you don’t play the way you hoped to play.”
The Gophers didn’t look outmatched from the puck drop. For half of the first period, they skated with Duluth and created plenty of opportunities.
“Throughout out whole years and years in the past we’ve had the 10 minute game [as] our mark,” sophomore forward Vinni Lettieri said. “We wanted to start off every game, we want to dominate the first 10 minutes and you could see the first few shift we brought it out to them, we thought we were going to dominate that first 10 and then it just went a little downhill from there.”
The team made a big mistake when it left Bulldog forward Tony Cameranesi unchecked by the corner of the crease for an easy one-time goal.
After the goal, more crucial mistakes followed. The Gophers began cheating in their defensive zone and the Bulldogs were able to get tips and screens past junior goaltender Adam Wilcox.
The Bulldogs began to dominate possession and followed their first goal with two more in the next six minutes.
“They got a lot more shots than us and that was the difference, I thought, in this game,” Lettieri said. “They just kicked…us and we didn’t get up and fight back as well as we should have.”
The Gophers were never able to crawl back thanks to Duluth’s defense, which held the team to three goals in their last four meetings.
“We haven’t been getting as many shots as we should’ve, like we do against other teams,” Lettieri said. “It’s a big factor. When we don’t shoot the puck, we’re easy to beat but when we shoot the puck we have a lot of great shooters on our team that can really put the puck away.”
Ambroz scored with under five minutes remaining in the game to ensure the Gophers avoided a shutout, but it was too late to provide his team with any hope.
The loss ended Ambroz’s four year career, as well as the careers of five more seniors that formed the team’s backbone by the end of the season.
“It was special,” Ambroz said, fighting his emotions at the podium. “Just being able to be part of this tradition and have the success that we have, it’s something definitely special to be a part of. I won’t forget it.”
In four years, the seniors won four regular season titles, made four trips to the NCCA tournament and advanced to two Frozen Fours, but their careers ended in crushing fashion.
“They had a great four year run,” Lucia said. “I’m just really proud of this group. They were a really fun group, this senior class.”
The Gophers managed to win their conference regular season crown for the fourth straight season, a program record for the team’s seniors. They won their conference tournament for the first time since 2007.
But ultimately, they couldn’t reach the last game of the year again, and could not get past another team from their state.
“We’ve had our ups and downs throughout the course of the season but what they accomplished, there’s only one more thing they could’ve accomplished and that was winning the last game of the year,” Lucia said. “It just wasn’t going to be our night tonight.”