After the Gophers fell 2-1 to St. Cloud State on Friday in a hard-fought game, there was almost an air of muted acceptance.
The Gophers played well, already far better than a frenzied opening-series display last weekend against Mercyhurst, but taking this first loss of the season against an in-state rival still felt unavoidable. Because while the Gophers did mostly everything right, St. Cloud had one obvious and invaluable advantage: experience.
The Huskies fielded four fifth-year players plus another six seniors in front of an announced crowd of 8,190 at 3M Arena at Mariucci. In fact, upperclassmen occupied all but five spots on their lineup.
For the Gophers, seven underclassmen took the ice, including four freshmen forwards playing in just their third collegiate game while shouldering key roles on scoring lines and power play units.
"They're obviously a lot more experienced than we are, going to the national championship last year," Gophers sophomore defenseman Brock Faber said of No. 2 St. Cloud. "With the environment we played in, that was probably the first time where a lot of us played in front of a packed house and a lot of the young guys, especially. So it's tough."
And it will only be tougher 5 p.m. Saturday, when the rematch happens at St. Cloud's Herb Brooks National Hockey Center.
But the No. 4 Gophers don't really have much to improve on before making that drive. Coach Bob Motzko observed a lot of good play from his team, like how it didn't give up too many chances to St. Cloud while still creating scoring opportunities for itself until the very end.
The only bad was the two glaring turnovers that a veteran Huskies team knew exactly how to exploit.
While the Gophers had taken charge early in the first period, hording the puck and keeping St. Cloud's windows limited, a mistake from defenseman Jackson LaCombe undid that work. He bobbled the puck in the neutral zone, and St. Cloud center Jami Krannila pounced. He seized the puck and took off on a breakaway, tucking a backhander past Gophers goaltender Jack LaFontaine on just his team's third shot of the game with three minutes left in the first period.
That propelled St. Cloud into a commanding second period, where the Huskies held the Gophers without a shot on goal until the dying seconds of a power play nearly 14 minutes after the puck dropped. And though the Gophers regained their starting energy for the final period and leveled the score from freshman Chaz Lucius' first career goal, chipped in past David Hrenak's net after strong work from linemates Ben Meyers and Matthew Knies, St. Cloud still capitalized on the next Gophers' gaffe.
About three minutes after the game was tied 1-all, the Huskies turned another turnover into a quick net crashing, ending in Mason Salquist's score.
"They played behind box. They're going to play smart. They chipped everything out. They wait for our mistakes," Motzko said. "We got the momentum back when we tied it, and then we got off our game. Like, we were fine, and then we got too excited, and we forced a play there, and we weren't able to defend it."
That might allude a bit to the tricky-to-channel energy of the Gophers' youth. St. Cloud also blocked 15 shots, which Motzko attributed partly to his team being stubborn instead of trying to approach scoring more from the sides. Hrenak ended with 22 saves while LaFontaine made 16.
The Gophers aren't about to age up six-plus years overnight. But Motzko still felt this game, despite the loss, was a good "growing up" moment.
"I mean, obviously, older guys, more mature game," Lucius said of the Huskies. "… I'm just getting my feet wet in college hockey and just trying to get acclimated and do my best to help the team win."