FARGO – Jackson LaCombe and Logan Cooley decided to play a game of catch a couple of times Saturday night, and they did it so well that the Gophers are going to the NCAA Frozen Four for the second consecutive year.
LaCombe, the senior defenseman, and Cooley, the freshman phenom forward, hooked up for pair of goals against St. Cloud State in the NCAA Fargo Regional, the two biggest plays in Minnesota's tougher-than-it-looked 4-1 victory over the Huskies that sent the Gophers to Tampa, Fla.
The top-seeded Gophers (28-9-1) will face Boston University, a 2-1 winner over Cornell in the Manchester Regional final, in the Frozen Four semifinals on April 6 at Amalie Arena. Last year, the Gophers ended an eight-year Frozen Four drought, making it to Boston before losing 5-1 to Minnesota State Mankato in the national semifinals.
Regional Most Outstanding Player Bryce Brodzinski scored in the first period, and Jaxon Nelson added an empty-netter late for the Gophers. Justen Close made 27 saves in front of a revved-up crowd of 5,326, a record for an NCAA regional at Fargo.
Adam Ingram scored a second-period power-play goal for the second-seeded Huskies (25-13-3), who got 26 saves from Jaxon Castor.
"Terrific effort from our group," said Gophers coach Bob Motzko, who is taking a team to the Frozen Four for the third time after leading St. Cloud State there in 2013. "High, high battle level. … We were just so strong tonight to finish that thing out."
The first game of catch between LaCombe and Cooley came at 5:57 of the second period with the score tied 1-1. The defenseman spotted Cooley up the ice and hit him with a perfect stretch pass of about 60 feet. Cooley took it from there, breaking alone on Castor and beating him five-hole to give the Gophers a 2-1 lead. Cooley celebrated by twirling his stick and slamming it back in its imaginary holster. The goal was Cooley's 20th of the season and extended his point streak to 15 games.
"The play just kind of opened up, and obviously Cools has some blazing speed," LaCombe said.
The second game of catch was much shorter, about 15 feet. At 11:44 of the third period, Cooley won a faceoff and sent the puck directly back to LaCombe, who blasted a shot from the point past Castor for a 3-1 lead.
"The big fella there pounds one in to give us a little breathing room," Motzko said of LaCombe, who also blocked six shots.
The goal turned out to be the backbreaker for St. Cloud State.
"You're in a one-goal hockey game to go to the Frozen Four with eight minutes left," Huskies coach Brett Larson said. "You work all season to put yourself in a position like that."
Minnesota took a 1-0 lead at 6:40 of the first when Nelson swooped in down the left side, sent a pass back to Brodzinski, who snapped a shot past Castor. St. Cloud State came out with more energy in the second, and Matthew Knies took an interference penalty at 1:33. The Huskies cashed in with Ingram's goal.
Only 7 seconds after Ingram scored, Cooley was called for slashing, and the Huskies had their fourth power play. Minnesota killed the penalty as Close made one save.
St. Cloud State went on the power play for the fifth time at 3:18 of the third period when the Hockey East officiating crew called Brody Lamb for hooking. The Huskies peppered Close with five shots during the man advantage, but he stopped all of them.
"I got a little worried because of all the penalties," Motzko said. "… Normally, we don't take a lot of penalties. I didn't think we took a lot of them tonight."
At 7:04 of the third the Huskies had a great chance to tie the score, but Kyler Kupka sent a rebound wide of an open net after Close made a save on Micah Miller.
Larson pulled Castor for an extra attacker with 1:17 left, and Nelson scored into an empty net with 31.1 seconds left to put an exclamation point on the victory.
"We're definitely very excited," Close said of the Frozen Four trip. "It's been a goal of ours all year to get there. We were there last year and got a taste of it. We've got a better idea of the compete level and the intensity it's going to take."
Motzko, exhausted from the tense game, wasn't ready to talk about Boston University, the Gophers' opponent in Tampa. "Give me till Tuesday," he said.