Gophers gear up to face MSU-Mankato in NCAA Frozen 4

Ben Meyers and teammates celebrate after Meyers scored the game-winning goal in overtime of the Gophers' 4-3 win over UMass in the NCAA Tournament Friday night in Worcester, Mass. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

It’s been too long since the University of Minnesota men’s hockey team has been at the NCAA Frozen Four.

That’s the sentiment for head coach Bob Motzko, his current players and many around college hockey. The last time the Gophers were in the Frozen Four? It was 2014, and Minnesota got a goal at the buzzer to beat North Dakota and advance to the national championship game. That season ended in a 7-4 loss to Union.

The team that Motzko and the Gophers face in the Frozen Four Thursday night, Minnesota State University-Mankato, knocked them out of the NCAA Tournament last year. Minnesota was one win away from reaching the Frozen Four.

"There were three Minnesota teams last year and we weren’t one of them. Of course they were going to enjoy that with us not being there. If you’re going to pick on one team, they’re going to pick on the Gophers, I can tell you that," Motzko said. "We got our shot this year and we’re back in it with them."

The Gophers are back in the Frozen Four after coming back twice from down two goals to beat defending champion UMass in the Worcester Regional. Two nights later, they shut out Western Michigan 3-0.

They’re riding Hobey Baker Award finalist Ben Meyers, and goalie Justen Close, who took over after Jack LaFontaine left in-season for the NHL. They’re also relying on young skill, with freshmen scoring four of the seven goals in Worcester.

The season has been anything but smooth sailing for the Gophers. Despite Motzko feeling like his group was playing well, Minnesota split five straight weekends early in the season. Since the calendar turned to 2022, the Gophers are 16-4 and have won 11 of their last 12 games.

"We heard about that, we’re not supposed to split. But we were playing awfully good hockey and the greatest thing is we had a ton of faith in this group. We just stayed steady," Motzko said. "You can’t push the panic button in November."

The only problem? The Mavericks and Motzko’s good friend, Mike Hastings, enter the Frozen Four on a 17-game win streak. Mankato hasn’t lost since the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Now, the Gophers and Mavericks face each other Thursday night for the right to play for a national title. The winner faces the Denver/Michigan winner on Saturday. Minnesota and Mankato did not meet this season, so the Gophers draw back to last year’s regional final loss.

Motzko said he watched about 10 minutes of that game before turning it off. He had seen enough.

"We were so close a year ago. That leaves a burning hole in all of us. You draw on that, how it felt, what happened in that game. I think there’s some things that we can draw off that," Motzko said. "The only thing is Mankato can draw off it too, that’s why it sets up for one heck of a battle."