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SIOUX FALLS — Overtime had barely started last April 8 in Tampa when Quinnipiac's Jacob Quillan sped down the left-wing boards, took a pass from Sam Lipkin, made a move toward the net and deposited the puck past Gophers goalie Justen Close.

It took only 10 seconds, and the Bobcats stood as 3-2 winners and NCAA hockey champions after delivering a gut punch to a Minnesota team less than three minutes away from completing a storybook season.

"We'll take it to our grave," Gophers coach Bob Motzko said. "You have a loss like that — the Minnesota Vikings have had a few losses you take to your grave. That's for us. I hate it, but now, a new year."

Redemption from last year's sudden ending has been a theme for the Gophers, and on Thursday night they'll try to take their first step at writing a new script when they face Nebraska Omaha in the NCAA Sioux Falls Regional semifinals. A victory at the 10,600-seat Denny Sanford Premier Center would move Minnesota one win away from a third consecutive trip to the Frozen Four, this one at Xcel Energy Center.

To get to St. Paul and try to end an NCAA championship drought approaching 21 years, the Gophers will draw motivation from last year's missed opportunity. They also know that even though they have 17 players back from that team, this group still must forge its own identity.

"We obviously had a tough, tough time trying to get over that, and some guys still aren't," Gophers senior forward Mason Nevers said. "… We're trying to make up for it, obviously, but you never really forget something like that, and it can push you out of these moments."

One goal at a time

Motzko was an assistant to Don Lucia when the Gophers won their last two national championships — in 2002 over Maine in overtime at Xcel Energy Center and in 2003 over New Hampshire in Buffalo. In his sixth season as Minnesota's head coach, Motzko has the Gophers playing in their fourth NCAA tournament. They won one game in the 2021 tournament, two in 2022 and three in 2023.

Should they continue that progression, they would hang the program's sixth NCAA championship banner and do so in their backyard. Reaching the Frozen Four in St. Paul has been the shiny prize that fans have pointed to throughout the season, but Motzko isn't picky about the destination.

"Someone asks, 'Well, it's in St. Paul. Is that more motivation?'" he said. "What if the Frozen Four was in Kansas? It wouldn't matter. We'd want to be there."

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To get there, the Gophers must win two games in Sioux Falls. Top seed Boston University plays Rochester Institute of Technology in Thursday's first regional semifinal. Coaches, who are always focused on the opponent at hand, will tell you it's not a matter of winning two games, but winning one game twice. In Nebraska Omaha, the Gophers have an opponent that's surged in the second half of the season, going 12-3-2 since late January and finishing runner-up to Denver in the NCHC Frozen Faceoff.

"We were watching them a little bit last weekend, and they're just hard, they're heavy, they're aggressive," Gophers senior defenseman Mike Koster said of the Mavericks. "You know they're going to be ready to go, and we have to match that intensity."

The Gophers forged a 22-10-5 record on a strong second half of the season but are coming off a 2-1 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten semifinals and a 3-2 quarterfinal clincher over Penn State in which they were outshot 48-24. They've played a challenging schedule and are 6-6-3 against teams in the NCAA field.

With last weekend off, Motzko took his team to a northern Minnesota resort to recharge, bond and prepare for the tournament. "I hope we get the same results we did the last couple of years," he said of past NCAA first-round victories over Nebraska Omaha, Massachusetts and Canisius.

Forging their own identity

For the Gophers to make a long NCAA run, they must do so without the star power they had last year. Gone from that 2023 team are NHL rookie standouts like the Wild's Brock Faber, Toronto's Matthew Knies and Arizona's Logan Cooley. All three were first-team All-America selections last year, and Cooley and Knies were two of the three Hobey Baker Award Hat Trick finalists. In addition, on defense, Jackson LaCombe has played 62 games for Anaheim this season and Ryan Johnson has skated in 41 games for Buffalo.

This season, the Gophers rely on depth that features top scorers in Rhett Pitlick and Jimmy Snuggerud, an all-senior line with Jaxon Nelson, Nevers and Bryce Brodzinski, plus high-end freshmen in center Oliver Moore and defenseman Sam Rinzel.

Tying it all together is veteran goalie Justen Close, who boasts five NCAA tournament wins.

"This is our fourth NCAA tournament, and we have to draw on some experience right now with guys that have been in it," Motzko said. "We've won six games in the tournament last three years. We've got to hope that there's some experience that can drag us to the starting line and get us in that fight."

That fight begins Thursday with the Gophers knowing what's at stake. Fairly or not, high-end programs like Minnesota's are judged by what they do in March and April during a season that spans seven months. The razor-thin margin for error is never more apparent than during the NCAA tournament.

"The biggest thing is you never know what's going to determine the outcome of a game," Koster said. "Every shift matters."