Gophers return to NCAA tournament as top seed in West Regional

For the 12 newcomers who joined the Gophers men’s hockey team at the start of the 2019-20 season, the college hockey story began in the shadow of the Rocky Mountains. They are all seasoned veterans by now, late in their second seasons in maroon and gold. And they are preparing to head back to Colorado, where the next chapter of their stories will be written.

For the first time since 2017, the Gophers are bound for the NCAA tournament, having received the top seed in the West Regional, which begins Saturday. Minnesota will play the final first-round game of the tournament, opening versus Omaha at 8 p.m. at the Budweiser Events Center in Loveland, Colo.

“We’ve got a group of guys here that this is their first NCAA tournament and they couldn’t be more excited with the work they’ve put in to get there,” said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, who will be coaching this team in the NCAA tournament for the first time. “I believe it started a year ago, this journey that we’ve been on.”

The Gophers, with a dozen new faces on the roster, started the 2019-20 season with a split at Colorado College and took their lumps for the first half of that season. They’ve been on a hot streak since just after Christmas 2019, culminating with a return to the NCAA tournament field.

“Everyone is super excited, and it was fun seeing who we play, and where everyone winds up,” said Gophers captain Sammy Walker after the team gathered at 3M Arena At Mariucci to watch the selection show on Sunday evening. “We’re just excited to get on the road and get that first game going.”

The Gophers’ 55 NCAA tournament wins are the most in college hockey history. On the other side of the Loveland bracket, Quinnipiac will face Minnesota State Mankato, and the Mavericks will be seeking their first NCAA tournament win after capturing what was likely the WCHA’s final regular-season title.

It will be the U of M’s record 38th NCAA tournament appearance. The Gophers were a top seed in 2017 but were upset by Notre Dame in the first round. The most recent of their five NCAA titles came in 2003, when Motzko was an assistant to head coach Don Lucia.

The 16-team tournament field features four teams from the Big Ten, with Wisconsin, Michigan and Notre Dame also getting in. The Irish were a longshot but likely got the final slot late Sunday afternoon due to St. Lawrence having to drop out. The Saints won the ECAC tournament and its automatic bid but announced on Sunday that they would not participate after their coach, Brett Brekke, tested positive for COVID-19.

“I guess we were the fortunate ones to be able to take advantage of their misfortune. I feel bad that it happened that way,” said Irish coach Jeff Jackson, praising Brekke’s team for winning when it counted. “I’m grateful that we have the opportunity and even more so knowing we were the last team in and we got in in a unique way. Now we’re in and we need to try to take advantage of having a second chance.”

The Gophers and Omaha were briefly members of the WCHA at the same time but have not played each other since 2013. Motzko faced Omaha more recently when he coached St. Cloud State in the NCHC. Asked about his first-round foe, Motzko said the coaches will begin learning more about the Mavericks immediately.

“I’ve got to answer that in a few days. I went in today and had no idea who we were playing,” Motzko said. “We’ve got to dig into it. I started in that league, and I have so much respect for that conference. You know you’re going to get a battle-tested team and we’re going to have to be playing our best hockey.”

The Gophers (23-6-0) finished second in the Big Ten during the regular season and won the conference tournament last week at Notre Dame, beating Wisconsin in the finale. Omaha (14-10-1) finished fourth in the NCHC and is one of four teams from that conference to make the tournament field.

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