Gophers hockey opens NCAA Tournament Friday against defending champs

The University of Minnesota men's hockey team hosts Michigan Saturday night for the Big Ten Tournament title. ((credit: University of Minnesota Athletics))

The University of Minnesota men’s hockey team probably knew it would be hitting the road for the NCAA Tournament after losing the Big Ten title game to Michigan.

When it was all said and done, the Gophers (24-12) had to like the draw they got while watching the NCAA Selection Show at Tavern 23, owned by Minnesota hockey legend Lou Nanne. The No. 2-seeded Gophers are on the east coast in the Worcester Regional, and will face defending national champion UMass on Friday.

On the other side of the bracket, No. 1 Western Michigan takes on No. 4 Northeastern. Friday’s winners meet Sunday for a trip to the Frozen Four. The Gophers are making their 39th appearance in the NCAA Tournament, and are looking for the first trip to the Frozen Four since 2014.

"It never gets old, this is a great time of year. They call it March Madness for a reason. You take out the COVID year, our freshman are 1-for-1, our sophomores are 2-for-2 and our juniors are 2-for-2. Relish the moment, enjoy this and let’s get ready to play," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said.

The Gophers are essentially playing a road game Friday at the DCU Center in Worcester, Mass., and they’re just fine with that. Minnesota was 11-5 away from 3M at Mariucci Arena this season, and the fans in attendance will largely be in favor of the Minutemen.

They’ve battled through injuries, some COVID-19 issues early on and losing top goaltender Jack LaFontaine to the NHL mid-season. The Gophers are 14-4 since the 2022 portion of the season started.

"I think we’re ready for anything at this point," defenseman Ben Brinkman said.

The Gophers had a nine-game win streak snapped in losing the Big Ten title game to the Wolverines, but Motzko feels that might have been a blessing in disguise. A win over Michigan, and Minnesota would’ve needed 14 straight wins to end the season with its first national title since 2003.

Their consistency, and patience for that matter, were tested having to play just two games over a 28-day span.

"We’re a good road team and we need to get on the road right now. We’ve been home too long," Motzko joked. "We’re going to be a fired up group to get out of here."

There’s a standard and an expectation when it comes to hockey at Minnesota, and it starts with getting to the Frozen Four. The last time it happened in 2014, the Gophers got a buzzer-beat goal to beat North Dakota before losing to Union 7-4 in the national title game.

The Gophers have the talent to get there, led by Big Ten Player of the Year and Hobey Baker Award finalist Ben Meyers. Add in the top defensive player in the league in Brock Faber, and goalie Justen Close, who has stood tall since LaFontaine’s departure.

"Playing at this stage is what you dream of as a kid. Playing for the Gophers in a NCAA Tournament, it’s super exciting and we’re really excited to get out there and represent this team as best we can," Faber said.

After winning the Big Ten regular season title, it’s now about being the better team for four more games. UMass enters the NCAA Tournament 22-12-2, and on a three-game win streak after beating UConn for the Hockey East title.

"You get to this time of year and it’s a pick ‘em. You saw the games that are lining up, tell me an easy game in this bracket, in this whole tournament, there isn’t one," Motzko said.