As Gophers men’s hockey coach Bob Motzko and assistant Garrett Raboin walked into the locker room at the DCU Center on Sunday, they were serenaded with an off-key version of “Happy Birthday” from a collection of players who minutes earlier had delivered them quite now:
The Gophers’ first trip to the NCAA Frozen Four since 2014.
Behind goals by Matthew Knies, Aaron Huglen and Blake McLaughlin and a 24-save shutout from goalie Justen Close, the second-seeded Gophers beat top-seeded Western Michigan 3-0 in the Worcester (Mass.) Regional final on Motzko’s 61st birthday and Raboin’s 37th.
“It’s a perfect birthday present,” Gophers forward Blake McLaughlin said. “Going to Boston, I don’t know if you could ask for much more.”
The Gophers (26-12) will play Minnesota State Mankato in the Frozen Four semifinals at 7:30 pm (Central) on April 7 in Boston. Denver will face Michigan in the other semifinal at 4 pm The national championship game is at 7 pm April 9, and a team from Minnesota is guaranteed to be playing in it.
“We’re not done yet,” Gophers blueliner Brock Faber, who led an outstanding defensive effort with five blocked shots along with an assist, said in an ESPN postgame interview.
Ben Meyers had two assists as the Gophers reached the national semifinals for the 22nd time. Their last Frozen Four appearance was in 2014 in Philadelphia, when they beat North Dakota on Justin Holl’s goal with 0.6 seconds left in the third period before falling 7-4 to Union in the title game.
The Gophers will also try to end a 19-year national championship drought. Motzko was a Minnesota assistant when the team won back-to-back titles in 2002 and ’03.
“This was a really strong weekend for our team,” Motzko said. “We played as tight together in two games as you need to do and you want to do. I couldn’t be more proud of our group.”
Grit and perseverance were themes for the Gophers this weekend, and they followed up their rally from a pair of two-goal deficits to beat defending national champion Massachusetts 4-3 in overtime in the first round by shutting out Western Michigan. The Broncos were averaging 3.63 goals per game, fourth most in the nation.
Knies, named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player, got the scoring started in the first period a couple of minutes after he limped off the ice after blocking a shot with his right foot. At 10:11, Faber drove down the left wing boards, skated below the goal line and fed a backhanded pass to Knies. The freshman, parked in front of the net, one-timed the puck over goalie Brandon Bussi for a 1-0 Gophers lead.
“He’s a big-time player,” Motzko said of Knies, “and he’s going to keep getting better, too.”
The Gophers dominated territorially in the first period, not allowing a shot on goal for a stretch of 12:23 and outshooting the Broncos 9-4.
“They really made it hard on us to create anything clean offensively,” Broncos coach Pat Ferschweiler said. “That’s a credit to them and how hard they compete.”
Western Michigan (26-12-1) came out with much more energy in the second period and appeared to tie it 1-1 at 11:16 on defenseman Ronnie Attard’s rebound goal. An offsides call on video review, however, wiped out the goal, showing that Broncos forward Max Sasson entered the zone before the puck cleared the blue line.
Only 10 seconds into the third period, Western Michigan forward Ethen Frank slashed Faber, and the Gophers made the Broncos pay on the power play. Twenty-three seconds later, Meyers sent a cross-ice pass to Huglen, who one-timed the puck into the open net for a 2-0 lead before Bussi could slide over.
BOXSCORE: Gophers 3, Western Michigan 0
Western Michigan got a power play with 3:32 left in the third when defenseman Matt Staudacher was whistled for hooking. Ferschweiler pulled Bussi for an extra attacker with 2:25 left, but McLaughlin intercepted a pass and pushed a slow-rolling puck into the empty net with 1:57 left for a 3-0 lead.
McLaughlin’s short-handed dagger started the celebration for the Gophers, who impressed their coach with how they’ve handled playoff hockey.
“Our grit and determination — blocking shots and getting back on defense. … Look at the scores yesterday: 1-0 and 2-1,” Motzko said. “You have to earn your way through, and you’re not going to do it by being cute all the time. Our program’s growing in that, for sure.”
All tournament team
Joining Knies on the all-tournament team were Meyers and Western Michigan’s Luke Grainger at forward, the Gophers’ Jackson LaCombe and Attard on defense, and Close in goal.
The Star Tribune did not travel for this event. This article was written using the television broadcast and video interviews before and/or after the event.