Zulgad: The Gophers didn't choke, they lost to a better team in Union
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PHILADELPHIA - After watching the Minnesota Gophers batter Robert Morris and St. Cloud State in the West Regional of the NCAA hockey tournament two weekends ago, the conclusion from this corner was that Don Lucia's team should be the clear favorite to win its first Frozen Four title since 2003.
The only doubt was whether Boston College would provide a speed bump the Gophers couldn't overcome.
That part of the equation became a non-factor on Thursday night when Union College dispatched the Eagles with a 5-4 win in the semifinals. The Gophers, meanwhile, snuck past North Dakota when Justin Holl scored with 0.6 seconds left in the third period.
It was a thrilling finish, but many agreed the Gophers hadn't come close to playing their best game. A wise hockey man also cautioned that Minnesota could leave the Wells Fargo Center on Saturday night a very disappointed team.
Union, a team few of us had seen since its last Frozen Four appearance in 2012, handled Boston College in much easier fashion than the Gophers had dealt with the former Sioux.
The Dutchmen combined speed, skill and grit to beat the Eagles and none of it appeared to be a fluke.
We received confirmation on Saturday it wasn't.
Union used the same combination of skills to hand the top-seeded Gophers a 7-4 loss in the championship game. The Dutchmen's final two goals came into an empty net after the Gophers pulled within 5-4 late in the third and yanked their goalie.
The Gophers were denied a sixth NCAA title and have not ended the season as the best team in college hockey since Lucia led Minnesota to back-to-back titles in 2002 and 2003.
Twitter was alive with opinions about Saturday's game throughout the evening. Someone offered up the opinion that the Gophers had choked.
This couldn't have been further from the truth.
The Vikings choked in the 2009 NFC title game at New Orleans, dominating on the stat sheet and yet finding a way to lose because of numerous miscues that had more to do with Minnesota than it did New Orleans.
The Gophers didn't choke because by the end of the first period it was plain to see that Union was simply a better team that had the ability to control the game and dictate play.
Union proved it during a 1-minute, 54-second sequence that saw the Dutchmen go from trailing 2-1 to commanding a 4-2 lead.
They initially tied the score at the 15:09 mark in the first period when Mike Vecchione beat Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox on his third attempt from in front. Wilcox appeared to make a great save on one shot, but the inability of the Gophers defense cost them dearly as Union had about five attempts on the shot.
It was the start of a trend.
Less than a minute later, Eli Lichtenwald also had multiple chances against Wilcox and finally buried one. That goal came at 16:04. Fifty-nine seconds later, Daniel Ciampini, who had a hat trick in the semifinal victory over the Eagles, scored into an empty net as Wilcox lay helpless on the ice after making a save.
Wilcox and the Gophers were stunned by this, but this was not the goalie's fault. He wasn't giving up juicy rebounds as much as the stronger Union forwards were physically dominating in front and oftentimes not even being touched.
The Dutchmen, who had an 8-0 shot advantage on the Gophers during that three-goal spurt, led 4-2 after the first period.
"It just got away from us," Gophers freshman center Justin Kloos said. "We hung our goalie out to dry. He's been our best player all year and for us to put him through that was kind of disappointing. I think we just made mental mistakes."
Lucia pointed to mental mistakes by his team and thought his players might have tried too hard. He also credited Union, saying: "Some of it is them forcing you into those mistakes."
Lucia told his team between the first and second period that he knew his players were working their rear ends off but they were "trying too hard."
"You can't chase and that's what we did," Lucia said.
The Gophers' Taylor Cammarata scored early in the second period and there were times it appeared Minnesota might be able to pull even.
The Gophers' best opportunity came with 4:33 left in the second period when Cammarata fed defenseman Mike Reilly as he got behind the Union defense in the Dutchmen zone.
Reilly sped in on Union goalie Colin Stevens on his backhand but failed on an attempt to lift the puck. Stevens made a nice pad save and an unflustered Union team raced down the ice and quickly tested Wilcox again.
Anyone who considers the Gophers the big bad bully on the block were likely delighted with what they saw Saturday.
The tiny school from Schenectady, N.Y., enrollment 2,200, was the superior team on this night.
Because of that a school that plays Division III in all sports but hockey now has its first national championship of any sort in a team sport.
The Gophers would have to agree it was well deserved.