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Gophers rally late to opening round victory over Omaha

The high-end graduated experience for Minnesota paid off as they advance to the Regional Final to play BU after a narrow 3-2 victory.



As three-seeded teams out of the middle of America go, Omaha sure packed the biggest punch they could. In the end, the Gophers’ fifth-year trio of Jaxon Nelson, Bryce Brodzinski and Justen Close didn’t want to go home early from the NCAA Tournament to end their illustrious careers donning maroon and gold sweaters.

For the least-penalized team in the nation, it started ugly. A slashing call on Brodzinski was the first domino, then a major contact to the head penalty dished to Ryan Chesley was the big one. Chesley’s penalty was questionable due to the Omaha skater he made contact with ducking very late making it almost impossible for the Gopher defenseman to switch positions. That was critical to how the game played out as Omaha jumped out to their first lead with a goal by Joaquim Lemay and the Mavericks continued to control the lead and tempo for most of the 60 minutes. Key word, most.

The Mavericks at one point led in shots on goal by a whopping 20-5 margin from having a man advantage for nearly a third of the first 24 minutes. But the Gophers clawed back valiantly in the second period, which only featured one goal, but had the most opportunities. The lone goal came from someone who nearly wasn’t on the Minnesota roster to begin the season.

“Right after the penalty kill we started to play,” said Gophers Head Coach Bob Motzko. “All our guys got going in the second period, we needed a spark in the second period and Connor (Kurth) made a great play to Jimmy Clark coming off the bench.”

Jimmy Clark was all set to head back to Green Bay after being the American with the most scored points on the Gamblers last season with 19 goals and 28 assists in 62 USHL games. Yet, with the departure of Logan Cooley, the Gophers had an open spot and he filled it and it turned out to be a great move. The 2023 seventh-round Minnesota Wild draft pick scored his fifth goal of the season from a Connor Kurth forecheck interception in Minnesota’s attacking zone. Clark definitely wanted to be more familiar with Xcel Energy Center before heading to the pros with the Frozen Four in St. Paul this April.

“I think we got a lot of momentum from those big penalty kills,” said Kurth. “We got some absolutely great killers up front to log up those minutes and every time they do their job it creates a big spark and that led to our success going forward.”

Suddenly, the Gophers’ shots on goal disadvantage were dwarfed with Connor Kurth and Brody Lamb’s forecheck efforts paying off. In transition, Rhett Pitlick and Jimmy Snuggerud regularly outraced the Mavs who had wide-open chances to give Minnesota their first lead. Still, the lamp never lit red and the second-period comeback effort concluded.

“I sat on our bench the rest of the night because we were playing our tails off,” said Motzko who is usually up and at ‘em. “So was Omaha…50 percent of these games go into overtime, so our goal was just to find a way to not go there.”

Omaha probably discussed how to limit Minnesota’s transition because they came back to their aggressive first-period style, even without the man advantage at the beginning of the final frame. Plus, they bottled up the Gophers’ transition game which stifled the Mavericks in the previous period.

Sooner or later the revamped Maverick strategy paid off as future Vancouver Canuck Ty Mueller snuck behind Mike Koster as the Gopher defense zigged to the left. Mueller zagged to the right crease and netted Omaha’s second score of the contest with 15 minutes left.

Yet the Gophers kept their heads up, slowly but steadily they kept the game at a one-score game even though the Mavericks constantly surveyed in their defensive zone. Just after the nine-minute mark, Minnesota finally got into a rare offensive set and Bryce Brodzinski sent a behind-the-net saucer to fellow fifth-year Jaxon Nelson to tie the game at two apiece. UMN from that point on kept successfully entering the Omaha defensive zone, going back to their second-period play but not just with odd-man rushes, set plays as well.

Four minutes remaining, the duo came through again, this time on an Omaha slip up, figuratively and literally. Brodzinski picked up a turnover from a fallen Maverick and sent it right to Jaxon Nelson’s extended stick to give Minnesota their first lead of the game.

“He’s just a good player,” Nelson said about Brodzinski. “He knows when to make the right plays and he made a few of those tonight.”

Two minutes to go, Omaha with an empty net 6-5 man advantage put Justen Close through the spin zone and he wasn’t dizzy in the slightest.13 total shots were peppered at the fifth-year Canadien netminder and he held strong in between the pipes.

Minnesota would come out victorious with a gritty comeback 3-2 win (led in shots on goal 39-36) with a Frozen Four rematch with top-seeded Boston at 5:30 PM CT on Saturday, March 30, televised on ESPNU. Boston University returns most of their squad that lost 5-2 against the Gophers on April 6, but with an incredible addition of projected first-overall 2024 NHL draft pick, Macklin Celebrini.

“Our older guys tonight, particularly Closer, Nelly, Nevers, Brodzinski and that experience I really believe that the last few years in these games have truly came through,” said Motzko. “I’m really proud of our guys tonight.”