Myers: Motzko and Gophers 'crushed' after national title slips from their grasp
A late penalty, a tying goal and a brief overtime ruined the ending of what — up until then — seemed like a dream season for the Minnesota Gophers, leaving their coach and players devastated.
TAMPA, Fla. – While he admits to enjoying the Florida sunshine from time to time, Minnesota Gophers coach Bob Motzko has a dream of retiring to a ranch on the edge of the mountains somewhere – maybe Montana, maybe Utah – someday. In the nearer future, one can imagine that his travels in the southeastern United States are unlikely to include a return to Tampa Bay anytime soon.
After a season filled with so much promise and so many accolades right up until about three minutes remained in the third period of the national title game, it ended in gut-wrenching heartbreak for Motzko and his team on Saturday.
Quinnipiac, a team that thrives on hockey that’s as free-flowing as rush hour traffic, did what it does best, and was crowned with its first NCAA hockey title when Jacob Quillan scored just 10 seconds into overtime. The 3-2 Bobcats victory came after they were the overwhelming obstructors for the final 30 minutes of regulation, rallying from two goals down and erasing the fun vibe that thousands of sunburned Gophers fans had been riding.
“Tip your cap to Quinnipiac,” Motzko said. “For us, we had it. We had it. That’s going to sting. That’s a crusher.”
With a 2-0 lead in the second period, and a massive throng among the 19,444 in attendance on their side, this seemed to be an exact fulfillment of the expectations first fueled five years ago. That is when Don Lucia – the last Gophers coach to win a NCAA title – passed the torch to his former assistant coach to run the Gophers.
The most ardent of fans, and perhaps the least realistic of them, could envision a straight line to this moment in Florida, involving increasing attendance in Minneapolis, more top-level recruits from Minnesota and beyond choosing the Gophers, capturing conference titles, returning to the NCAA tournament and eventually adding another national title banner to their home rink’s rafters.
But hockey, at its best, is never played in straight lines. And even when it seems everything is in alignment, the sometimes cruel gods that govern this sport have other ideas.
After falling in that two-goal hole, Quinnipiac made Minnesota fight for every inch of open ice and time and again thwarted the best efforts of the Gophers’ powerful top two lines. Each time the Gophers tried to create offense, the Bobcats proved how rarely those lines are straight and direct.
“They’re a very systemized team,” Gophers forward Rhett Pitlick said, admitting that they were effectively shut down by Quinnipiac’s defense at times. “We stuck to our game plan, but that was just a tough game.”
The Gophers had survived tough games all season. They had stayed mostly healthy. Their biggest enemy had been rust, coming off breaks, while winning at home and on the road, and cruising to their second consecutive Big Ten title. They had taken a lead into the third period 22 times, and won all 22 of those games. Until Saturday’s hard-to-swallow result.
With the cameras rolling and the microphones on, Motzko said all of the right things, crediting the Bobcats and saying how close his team was to finishing the game, leading with less than three minutes to play. Of course, that’s about the time that Logan Cooley was whistled for high sticking while tangled up with a Bobcat player. And Quinnipiac’s tying goal came just seconds after Cooley left the penalty box, in one of those odd stretches of hockey where you are back to full strength but do not quite have your groove back.
Motzko picked his words carefully, but was obviously still incensed about the call.
“The second one never should’ve went in,” Motzko said. “That was an unfortunate…”
And then he paused to choose the most diplomatic word he could muster.
“Situation, right there,” he offered. “So we had a chance. And we’re crushed. We just had a wonderful group.”
When the formal questions were done, the coach retreated to the team locker room, which was open to the press at the time. He went right to one Gophers veteran who was overcome with emotion and offered a long hug. Then he found another distraught player and did the same. Then another, and another.
It was hard to watch, and also extremely real for a coach that has poured his heart into this job for five years, and had his ultimate goal so close, only to see it slip from his grasp.
Next year’s roster will become much more clear in the coming days, as players with options make decisions. A Frozen Four that will be played in St. Paul – less than 10 miles from the U of M campus – is a year away. Excitement for those possibilities will likely grow as the pain of this loss fades over time.
When Motzko ponders his own future, one can only think that those dreams of a ranch in a valley somewhere in the Mountain Time Zone will stay on hold for a bit longer. And the Motzko family will cross Tampa Bay off their list of sunny places they’d like to return.