by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor
In the first half of the season, Minnesota was flying, piling up goals, getting great goaltending, and ripping through the schedule. North Dakota, a big, strong team, was seeing its senior leaders play undisciplined, and its goaltending situation up in the air. A team built for the NCAAs was unlikely to get there.
But by the season's final weekend, it became apparent that the true nature of how the team was composed had shined through. North Dakota stopped taking bad penalties, resolved the goaltending situation, and has steamrolled through the postseason. Minnesota, on the other hand, saw its limited size and experience show in a lack of goal-scoring and in being beaten physically.
"We knew what they were going to throw at us," said senior forward Barry Tallackson. "They've got big, strong defensemen and they were going to bang us all night."
Minnesota coach Don Lucia said that, ultimately, being prepared for it wasn't enough.
"We knew we weren't going to win the physical battle, but we kept talking for two weeks, you've got to get back up and keep coming," said Lucia. "And that's the strength of their team, and I think what's changed in the last six, seven weeks is that — they've always played snarly, but they've got a lot of seniors in their lineup, and ... now they're getting production throughout their lineup, and early on they weren't scoring, and I think that's made a big difference for their team."
The Gophers fell behind 2-0 in the first period, on two goals by 6-foot-3 fourth-liner Erik Fabian. The Sioux were exposing the defense by punishing them. Eventually the Gophers adjusted, and even took advantage of a tiring North Dakota, but it was too late.
"I thought maybe it caught a couple of our guys — a bunch of younger guys, that we had to get in there and go nose to nose a little bit more, and I thought we did that when the second period started," Lucia said. "When it was 1-0 after the first, we kind of hung in there, but we couldn't get that [tying] goal."
In a sense, though, this is what was expected, and Minnesota can remain proud of just getting to the Frozen Four.
"I think a lot of people wrote us off at the beginning of the season," said junior Gino Guyer, "but I think we really grew a lot together as a team a proved some people wrong this year. As a team, I think we have a lot to be proud of this season."
Said Lucia, "You're always sad to lose this time of year, but I'm not disappointed. And I think there's a difference.
"They're crushed, the seniors. It's hard to go in the locker room the last game of the season, I don't care if it's at the Frozen Four, the national championship game, or the first round of the WCHA playoffs, it's all the same. It's very difficult for the seniors. But I think that we got as much out of this group as we could because at this point of the year.
"The best teams usually win this time of the year and I think North Dakota was the best team today. They deserve to march on and that's what this time of the year's all about.
"It makes it difficult to play against them right now because of those older guys that are really doing their job and playing within their roles and are very effective at it. And that's what a team's all about; you've got to have some of those skill guys but you've got to have those soldiers. Right now, I think that's North Dakota. Their soldiers are playing extremely well for them."
Those soldiers are what won Minnesota two national championships, and it's what will get them back to the title game in the future. The Gophers have an amazing freshman class on the way, led by Phil Kessel, to join an extremely talented young group. But finding the soldiers will be essential.
"Sure. Guys switching to different roles [can do it]," Lucia said. "We lose four forwards, we have four forwards coming in. We have a defenseman coming. And everyone is a year older [by next season]. We had three freshmen playing, and two of them were right out of high school, and that's not an easy environment to play in. North Dakota was a big, strong team, and it was not a good matchup for us."
And now those young guys have learned a lesson.
"If they didn't, they better," Tallackson said. "So, we told them after the game, 'Remember this feeling.' And they're going to have a great team next year, they have a great freshman class coming in. They're going to be fine."