Minnesota thrice: Mankato knocks out Gophers, joins Duluth, St. Cloud in Frozen Four

LOVELAND, Colo. — Athletes are told to be cool, be unemotional, and “act like you’ve been there before.” In that vein, the emotion shown on ice by the Minnesota State Mankato Mavericks on Sunday night was understandable, as the Mavericks had never been here before.

Playing in the first regional final in program history, the Mavs grabbed an early lead on in-state rival Minnesota and kept the Gophers frustrated and bottled up much of the night. The 4-0 win by MSU sends them to their first-ever Frozen Four, where they will meet another in-state rival.

On Thursday, April 8, the Mavs and St. Cloud State will battle at PPG Paints Arena in Pittsburgh, with the winner making their first-ever appearance in the national championship game.

On Sunday, the underdog Mavericks (22-4-1), who were seeded second in the regional tournament, played the game they needed to play versus the top-seed Gophers, who had used speed and relentless offense to get to the title game.

Instead the Mavs were the early aggressors, getting first-period goals from Sam Morton and Ryan Sandelin, and keeping pucks away from goalie Dryden McKay, who stopped all 22 of the shots that got through to him for his 10th shutout of the season.

“We found a way,” said Mavericks coach Mike Hastings. “I thought the guys came out and they played free. We made some plays early, and the goal that Morton scored to get us off, we wanted to try to play from ahead because we’d gotten tired of playing from behind.”

The Gophers, who finished their 100th season of hockey with a 24-7-0 mark, got 23 saves from goalie Jack LaFontaine, but were blanked for the only time in 2020-21.

The Mavericks played something akin to a perfect road period in the opening 20 minutes, throwing 14 shots at the Minnesota net, scoring twice and dominating the faceoff circle. Sandelin, who was the hero in Saturday’s overtime win that got MSU to the regional title game, set up Morton’s first goal, a pretty wraparound that slipped behind LaFontaine.

Barely two minutes later, Sandelin tipped a shot that went off the left post and in for a 2-0 Mavs lead.

Gophers coach Bob Motzko noted that with his team playing the late game on Saturday, he expected a heavy attack from the Mavericks early on Sunday, and got it.

“We knew that was going to be their game plan. We had to play the night game last night and they had the extra rest. And they wanted to get on us early, and they did a tremendous job,” said Motzko. “We didn’t survive it. I give our guys credit. We battled back, we got in the hunt. We got in the fight the last two periods, but they were blocking shots and sacrificing.”

With that two-goal lead in hand, the Mavericks played a slowdown game in the second period, making the Gophers battle for every inch of ice, clogging shooting lanes and allowing just four shots to reach their goalie.

The Gophers applied more pressure in the third, as Motzko juggled his lines in search of a spark. All they got to show for it was a brilliant cross-ice pass by Cade Borchardt in the other end of the rink, and a third-goal dagger by Nathan Smith in the final half of the third period. MSU got an empty net goal from Dallas Gerads for the final margin.

Perhaps the most impressive stat for the Mavericks was their 23 blocked shots, to only 22 saves for McKay.

“I have to tip my cap to the team tonight,” said McKay, who is the only Mike Richter Award finalist headed to the Frozen Four. “I’ve never seen an effort like that as far as the commitment to blocking shots and selflessness. That’s something we pride ourselves on. They made my life pretty easy back there.”

Sandelin, who was named the regional Most Valuable Player, actually knows plenty about the Frozen Four, having watched his father, Scott, coach Minnesota Duluth to a trio of national titles in the past decade. It will be a Sandelin family reunion of sorts in Pittsburgh, as the Bulldogs face Massachusetts in round one.

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