Zulgad: Gophers' berth in Frozen 4 carries special meaning for seniors
Get the 1500 ESPN SportsWire delivered to your inbox daily, and keep up with all the news in Twin Cities Sports
ST. PAUL, Minn. - As his teammates celebrated all around him in a jubilant locker room Sunday evening inside the Xcel Energy Center, an emotional Nico Sacchetti sat in a corner reflecting on everything that had transpired.
Nine days after blowing a three-goal lead to North Dakota in the semifinals of the WCHA Final Five in the same building, the Minnesota Gophers put together a complete performance in a 5-2 victory over the same team.
The win gave the Gophers a berth in the semifinals of the Frozen Four at 7 p.m. on April 5 at the Tampa Bay Times Forum in Tampa, Fla. They will face Boston College, which beat Minnesota Duluth 4-0 on Sunday night.
Sacchetti was ecstatic about this fact, but it was clear this victory meant even more than getting revenge against the Sioux. The Gophers had managed to erase the painful memory of that 6-3 loss to their arch-rival, but the seven-member senior class also had accomplished something that had been eating at them for far longer than nine days.
Before this season, the seniors had never been to the NCAA tournament. This was no small feat at a school that is making its 33rd appearance in this tournament, has won five national titles and will be making its 20th appearance in the Frozen Four.
A three-year absence from the NCAAs when you're a hockey player at the University of Minnesota simply isn't seen as acceptable. Championships are expected and now one is possible.
"I can't really describe this," Sacchetti said. "It's unreal though, being a senior. It's not just me. It's our whole senior class has really come together. We set a goal last spring after we got knocked out earlier then we should have. Our goal was to go all the way and we've done a really good job as a class and as an entire team in coming together and just getting the job done. We've been finding a way all year."
The groundwork for the Gophers' run to their first Frozen Four since 2005 was laid last March, in the days after they were swept out of the first round of the WCHA playoffs by Alaska-Anchorage at Mariucci Arena.
It was shortly after those stunning defeats that the soon-to-be seniors decided enough was enough.
"As soon as we lost to Alaska, two weeks later we were at work at this time right now," senior winger Jake Hansen said. "We were lifting at 6:30 in the morning and we were running around with 45-pound plates."
It might not have been pleasant, but then again neither was the threat that this group could have been the first class at the school to miss the NCAA tournament since the late 1960s.
The fact this group won't be saddled with that label, and in fact will now have a shot at a national title, wasn't lost on coach Don Lucia.
Lucia said the best part of seeing his seniors have this success was the "joy" they will get out of it.
"When you've been able to do some of these things over the years and be in Frozen Fours and win at the end, you know how much fun it is," he said. "This is really enjoyable for our coaches, but the first time you do something that's when it's really enjoyable. For these guys that at times have been maligned, they just went to work this offseason. This just doesn't happen in a week.
"They worked so hard all spring, all summer with Cal (Dietz, the team's strength and conditioning coach) and they were pushing and then the year began and we got off to a great start and just stayed with it. Every team is going to go through some difficult times, but I don't think they wavered.
"Just keep trying to do the best job you can and keep representing the University of Minnesota program in the best fashion you can. To see the joy in their faces in that locker room, that's what makes it all worthwhile. That's what makes it special. To see that in their faces."
If there was one player who rallied the group, it would be senior captain and third-line winger Taylor Matson.
Matson, who is from Mound, Minn., is far from being the most talented player on the Gophers roster but it could be argued he is the hardest worker. And he knew that if he wanted to reach his goal of making the NCAA tournament, he needed to push everyone around him.
Matson did that all offseason, at times during the season and in Sunday's victory he contributed his eighth goal of the season as the revamped third line scored three of the Gophers' five goals.
"It still seems surreal for me right now," Matson said. "It hasn't really hit me too much. I have nothing but good things to say about this team. They have worked harder than any team I've been a part of. Especially for the senior class, we haven't been to the NCAA's in four years, so getting back here and to go to Tampa is nothing but an unbelievable feeling for the guys."
While Matson, Hansen, Sacchetti, Joe Miller, Nick Larson and goalies Kent Patterson and Jake Kremer will certainly enjoy the coming days, so will the rest of a roster that quickly realized last offseason how important it was that the Gophers' drought come to an end.
Sophomore Nick Bjugstad, the Gophers' top line center, said the seniors "have definitely redeemed themselves with this NCAA appearance."
Added freshmen winger Kyle Rau: "It's huge because everyone has been saying (they are) the senior class that hasn't done anything. You know what: They are going to the Frozen Four, so that's huge for them. It's nice to be a part of that and help them out because they have done a lot for hockey here."
Hansen figures that's thanks to a group of seven who stuck with it when others decided to jump ship.
"We have a senior class, we came here with I think it was 12 or 13 guys and now there's only like seven of us," he said. "So we do have a lot of guys that left early, just left the team because they didn't like how it was here. ... But the senior class, we've talked and no one wants to be the first class to go through Minnesota, such a huge program, and not get to an NCAA."
On Sunday, the Gophers accomplished something far better than simply getting to the tournament. After winning the WCHA regular-season title for the first time since 2006-07, the Gophers now will attempt to win the NCAA title for the first time since winning back-to-back titles under Lucia in 2002 and 2003.
With the prize being so big, perhaps that's why time seemed to stand still for Sacchetti in the third period Sunday at the X, even as the seconds ticked off the clock.
"There's not anything really that can be said that can describe this feeling right now," he said. "It was the longest 20 minutes of my life, that final period. I just wanted it so bad. The clock couldn't go fast enough. It's a feeling of relief and pride and excitement and everything kind of welled up into one thing right now. I'm just trying to sit here and take it all in."
Nate Sandell contributed