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TAMPA, FLA. - Bryce Brodzinski remembers the vision that Bob Motzko had for the Gophers men's hockey team back in the fall of 2019.

"Coach Motzko talked to us our freshman year and said, 'It's gonna take a little time, but it's gonna happen,' " Brodzinski, now a senior, said Friday.

The "it'' to which Motzko referred is winning the national title, and Saturday night at Amalie Arena, the top-ranked Gophers will try to convert their coach's words into championship deeds when they face No. 2 Quinnipiac in the NCAA Frozen Four final.

A victory would give the Gophers their first crown under Motzko, who was an assistant coach with the team when Minnesota last won it all in 2003.

"This is why you play the game; this is why you come to the school to play in the bright spotlights,'' Gophers freshman center Logan Cooley said. "To win a national championship would mean everything to us.''

The Gophers haven't accomplished that feat in two decades, a long drought for the proud program. Motzko, hired away from St. Cloud State following the 2017-18 season to replace Don Lucia, has the Gophers on the cusp of realizing their goal in his fifth season in Dinkytown.

"We just have to play our best hockey,'' Motzko said. "We've got the right guys to go to war with, and we're fired up to get there."

With a mix of veterans in captain Brock Faber and fellow defensemen Jackson LaCombe and Ryan Johnson and ultra-talented underclassmen in Cooley and linemates Matthew Knies and Jimmy Snuggerud, the Gophers (29-9-1) won the Big Ten regular-season title by a record 19 points.

Although they lost 4-3 to Michigan in the conference tournament title game, they've recovered in the NCAA tournament by beating Canisius, St. Cloud State and Boston University by a combined score of 19-5.

"I don't say this in a bad way: They're simple, but they're great at it," Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said of the Gophers. "They don't try to overdo things. He lets his players play. They keep it simple and easy."

Quinnipiac, 'tremendous team'

Yes, the Gophers are the betting favorites to beat Quinnipiac, but to characterize the Bobcats as "The Little ECAC Engine That Could'' would be a disservice. Pecknold has Quinnipiac in the championship game for the third time since 2013, and the Bobcats (33-4-3) have the most wins in the nation this season. Even more impressive, they dispatched first Ohio State and then Michigan of the mighty Big Ten by a combined 9-3 score to reach the title game.

"Obviously, it's a lot of excitement getting to the national championship game, but we know that we didn't come down here just to win one game," Quinnipiac forward TJ Friedmann said. "We're down here to leave with a trophy."

Added Collin Graf, the Bobcats' leading scorer: "We proved these last couple of weeks that we can play with anyone, beat anyone."

The Gophers, of course, will try to make sure Quinnipiac doesn't leave with the trophy. To do so, they'll need to avoid the mistakes that hurt Michigan in its 5-2 semifinal loss to the Bobcats and get solid goaltending from Justen Close, who made 29 saves Thursday in a 6-2 semifinal win over Boston University.

"They're a 33-win team," Faber said. "They're a tremendous team, and it's going to be a battle tomorrow."

Gophers coach Bob Motzko and players arrived at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday for the semifinal against Boston University.
Gophers coach Bob Motzko and players arrived at Amalie Arena in Tampa, Fla., on Thursday for the semifinal against Boston University.

Carlos Gonzalez, Star Tribune

Building their culture

Both Motzko and Pecknold spoke highly of how cohesive their teams are. Pecknold, in his 29th year at the Hamden, Conn., school, has instilled a culture that's led to consistent success. The Bobcats have been in the NCAA tournament eight times since 2013.

"It's just buy-in," Pecknold said. "It's unconditional. This is what we do to win hockey games, and you need to be selfless and you've got to buy in."

For the Gophers, who have 14 NHL draftees on their roster, building a team this season meant quickly assimilating 11 freshman who've become key contributors.

"We've got 11 young guys who've matured greatly throughout the year," said freshman right winger Jimmy Snuggerud, whose 50 points trail only Cooley's 60 among Gophers. "Our seniors have done a good job helping us with that."

Throughout the year, Motzko has spoken about how this team remains calm under stress and avoids peaks and valleys. He also appreciates what his players have done for him personally.

"They keep us young. And they sure have helped me the last couple of years, I can tell you that," said Motzko, whose 20-year-old son, Mack, was killed in a car crash in July 2021.

Faber said the Gophers have several reasons for wanting to win the national championship, and one is their coach.

"It would mean the world to all of us," he said. "It's so much more than just a game. Win or lose, we'd do anything we can for this program and especially Bob."