Saturday, March 25, 2017

Minnesota sees two goal lead, season disappear against Notre Dame

Three years ago in the visiting locker room of Wells Fargo Center, Minnesota's freshman class experienced the highest of highs and lowest of lows.

Their team had defeated its biggest rival with a final second buzzer-beater win. Then two days later they fell short to Union in the 2014 national championship game.

They - Jake Bischoff, Taylor Cammarata, Justin Kloos, Vinni Lettieri and Connor Reilly (Mitch Rogge joined later) - spent three years trying to get that feeling back.

Several came back this season for an opportunity to change the past. They turned down NHL offers in order to be the one team of 60 who doesn't conclude their year with a loss. In the process they earned a #1 seed and fourth straight regular season title.

Nearly tasting ultimate success as freshmen, that's the closest they'll get.

Manchester, NH marks the end for the second time in three years. They leave SNHU Center short of the Frozen Four with Minnesota's season and, for the seniors, their college careers over, losing 3-2 to Notre Dame at the NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal.

Leading 2-0 early in the second period thanks to goals by Reilly and Lettieri, the Gophers (23-21-3, 14-5-1-0 Big Ten) were unable to hold on against the Fighting Irish. Anders Bjork scored twice for Notre Dame (22-11-5, 12-6-4 Hockey East), including the game-winner on the power play 8:42 into the third period.

Notre Dame extends a NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament streak where at least one #4 seed upsets a #1 seed to 12 years dating back to the Gophers being upset by Holy Cross.

Minnesota sophomore goaltender Eric Schierhorn made 26 saves. His Fighting Irish counterpart Cal Petersen finished with 31.

However, Petersen's biggest contribution Saturday came with just over 5 minutes remaining in the second period. The junior caught Minnesota making a line change and sent the puck from one end of the ice down to teammate Andrew Ogelvie. The sophomore forward did the rest, beating Schierhorn with a wrist shot that went over the Gopher goaltender's shoulder.

After that moment the Fighting Irish took control, tying the game 44 seconds later.

The Gophers started off on the right foot with help from its senior class. Two years ago in Manchester, the team gave up 3 goals in the opening 18:48 en route to a 4-1 loss to UMD. This time around Reilly, who hadn't scored all season, got the team on the board 2:07 into Saturday's game by following up on his own shot to give the team a 1-0 lead.

Minnesota out-shot Notre Dame 14-9 in the first period. The Gophers continued to sustain pressure, getting second and third chances on Petersen. Lettieri tapped in a pass for fellow senior Taylor Cammarata 30 seconds into the second period for his 19th goal of the season.

As much as the seniors found success early, they struggled late. Minnesota went 1-5 on the power play and were unable to take advantage of three separate chances in the final 22 minutes. Petersen stood tall, shutting down late chances by Kloos, who finishes with 150 career points and two years captaining the maroon and gold.

The Gophers pulled Schierhorn with 1:20 left, but did not find the late period magic they have shown throughout this season and their careers and ending with a collapse and heartbreak.

Minnesota's quest for its sixth national championship, one that continues to elude the Gophers since 2003, carries on next season.

Several sophomore and juniors stepped up throughout the year, led by Hobey Baker top-ten nominee Tyler Sheehy scoring the most points by a Minnesota player in over a decade. The team will get back Tommy Novak and Ryan Lindgren, each lost to a season-ending injury. Head coach Don Lucia brings in a freshman class led by potential top-10 NHL Draft pick Casey Mittelstadt to a program that won its NCAA record sixth-straight regular season title.

Players only get four chances in college to be the one in sixty. Those left will get another opportunity to finish their own quest. Unfortunately, for the six seniors it comes to a premature end.

"I've been here four years, but it feels like I've been here for two weekends. It went by so quickly. When I was a freshman, being in that national championship it flew by," said Lettieri prior to senior weekend earlier this month, summing up the experience. "All the other guys were more disappointed than I was just because it was my first year. I hadn't been there that long.

"They told me, 'it's going to go quick. You don't get here every year.' Since that moment we haven't been back and it's so hard to get there. We have a great team this year and I'm confident in our group."

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