by Dan Myers/CHN Staff
Minnesota is back in the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005. It won the WCHA regular-season championship, then lost in the Final Five semifinals. The Gophers then defeated Boston University and North Dakota to win the West Regional.
Players to Watch
This time of year, all coaches tell you the keys to winning are goaltending and special teams. It's no different for Minnesota.
The Gophers are led by senior goaltender Kent Patterson, the WCHA's goaltending champion and a man who has played all but 20 minutes this season. He has the experience, and the ability, to steal games all by himself. When he's on, there are few better in the entire country. After struggling in a 6-3 loss to North Dakota at the WCHA Final Five in mid-March, Patterson was spectacular against Boston University and UND in the NCAA Regionals the next weekend. Expect Patterson to lay it all on the line this weekend as he wraps up a sterling collegiate career.
Minnesota also boasts a power play capable of carrying the team to victory. The first power play unit, consisting of Erik Haula, Kyle Rau and Nick Bjugstad, could be the most talented in the country. Haula has quietly amassed 48 points and works magic when paired with Rau and Bjugstad. The three have combined for 25 power play goals this season.
Don't sleep on Minnesota when it's killing penalties either: Sophomore forward Nate Condon has used his lethal speed this season to cause problems and create havoc all year, scoring four short-handed goals.
On the blueline, sophomore Nate Schmidt led all defensemen in the country in assists. Mark Alt, another sophomore, is a big, rangy and physical defenseman who get can it done in both ends. Jake Parenteau has established himself as a rock-solid defensive-defenseman.
Minnesota has been the WCHA standard bearer all season long, beginning with a road sweep of the defending national champions in Duluth to open the conference schedule. Despite being outshot 50-16 Saturday night at Amsoil Arena, the Gophers found a way to win 5-4, gaining a 5-2 lead heading to the third and then holding on as UMD peppered Patterson with 20 shots in the third period.
The four points ended up being crucial, as Minnesota finished the year three points ahead of the Bulldogs in the WCHA standings.
Another critical moment came on the final night of the regular season. With the MacNaughton Cup still undecided, Minnesota trailed Wisconsin 1-0 headed to the third period. But as they've done all season on Saturday nights, the Gophers rallied, getting a short-handed goal by Haula and a power play blast from the point by Schmidt three minutes later on a goal that will go down as one of the most memorable in program history, especially if Minnesota is able to win twice this weekend.
The final key stretch for this team came in a pair of playoff tests against North Dakota.
After playing perhaps it's best 35 minutes of the season, leading 3-0 over the Sioux late in the second period, the Gophers allowed a goal late in the second and five more in the third in a crushing 6-3 loss.
Two days later, UND was named the top-seed at the West Regional in St. Paul, hosted by the second-seeded Gophers. Both Minnesota and North Dakota won its first round matchups setting up a region final rematch, in the same building, as the week before. This time, the Gophers learned from their mistakes, grabbed a lead and never looked back in a 5-2 win to advance to the Frozen Four.
• The Frozen Four schedule works out perfectly for Minnesota. The Gophers are just 11-9 on Friday nights this season. But with a Thursday-Saturday schedule, Minnesota won't have to deal with that problem. The Gophers haven't played on a Thursday yet, but if they can beat Boston College, the odds are good of a sixth national title: Minnesota is 15-3-1 on Saturdays this season.
• If the game is close either day headed to the third period, it favors Minnesota. The Gophers have owned the final 20 minutes all season long, holding a 55-25 advantage in third period scoring.
• Minnesota has 18 NHL Draft picks on its roster.
• Despite a young blueline with only one upperclassman, Minnesota set a new school record for lowest team goals against at 2.21.
• Minnesota's 2.04 goals against in conference games was more than a half-goal per game lower than Minnesota Duluth, the second best team in that category.
• The Gophers are seeking the sixth national championship in program history. It would be the third title in the last decade for Minnesota, which won back-to-back national championships in 2002 and 2003. The title in 2002 broke a 23-year drought between championships.
• A championship this year would be coach Don Lucia's third, putting him in the conversation with Herb Brooks, who won three national championships in the 1970s, as perhaps the greatest head coach in program history.
• As always, the Gophers have a local flavor on their roster: 23 of the 27 players were born and raised in the state of Minnesota. Both of Lucia's assistant coaches, Mike Guentzel and Grant Potulny, are former Gopher players. Lucia, who played at Notre Dame, grew up in Grand Rapids, Minn.
• Guentzel, a Gopher defenseman from 1981-85, was an assistant coach under Lucia and Doug Woog for 14 seasons before leaving the team in 2008 to pursue other opportunities. After coaching at Colorado College in 2008-09, Guentzel was head coach of the Des Moines Buccaneers of the USHL in 2009-10. He went to Nebraska-Omaha as an assistant in 2010-11 before rejoining the Gopher bench prior to this season.
• Potulny, a three-time captain as a player, was a member of both national championship teams in 2002 and 2003 and is the only player in program history to captain the Gophers to consecutive titles.