Team Game Has Minnesota in Running For National Title
by Joe Meloni/Senior Writer
St. Cloud State was desperate.
The Huskies trailed Minnesota, 3-0, as the third period of last Sunday's West Regional final began in St. Paul. They were playing for their season, for a second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four, for bragging rights over the in-state rival Gophers.
They wanted a goal. Just one goal to change the game. A two-goal deficit is that much more manageable than a three-goal difference. But, as St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko said, the Gophers never relented. The pressure they applied was the same with a three-goal lead as it was when the game began.
With 12 minutes remaining in regulation, a spark came. Freshman defenseman Niklas Nevalainen cut to the net and tested Gopher goaltender Adam Wilcox. The Huskies won an offensive zone draw. That was their chance. But, just as they had throughout the game, the Gophers snuffed that out as well. Freshman center Gabe Guertler won a faceoff on a tie up. Seconds later, the Gophers' speed drew a penalty, and junior captain Kyle Rau made it 4-0 nine seconds into the power play.
The spark was gone. The game was over. The Gophers were headed to Philadelphia. And their dominance in the third period of the West Regional final demonstrated everything that makes the 2013-14 Gophers the juggernaut they've become.
"That's how it has to be for us," Rau said. "Everyone knows they're going to have to play against teams' top lines. Five guys defend. Five guys play without the puck. We try to (support) the puck to spend as little time in our zone as possible."
The Gophers' philosophy — five men heading in the same direction with the same goal in mind — earned them the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA Tournament. The same edict guided them to their dominating win over St. Cloud State. And it will be the only way they get past North Dakota on Thursday night in Philadelphia.
The goal has never changed for Rau and his teammates. Even with unbeaten runs, a convincing Big Ten regular-season championship and individual honors given to several players, this concept is always in their minds. But this is Minnesota, one of the nation's most storied programs once again loaded with high-end talent and NHL prospects. It's not often that clubs capable of running up four- and five-goal wins arrive at the Frozen Four in the top 50 in scoring nationally.
"It's just how the year has gone," Rau said. "We know if we all do our jobs, the goals will come. It has to be the same way at both ends of the ice."
The Gophers rank sixth nationally in scoring (3.51 goals per game). Generating chances is never a problem even without a single player doing most of the scoring. Every team in this season's Frozen Four earned their way with their own formula. Boston College relies heavily on its top line. North Dakota rode sophomore goaltender Zane Gothberg through their regional win. Union is most similar to the Gophers with four lines and three defensive pairings grinding on opponents and forcing mistakes that lead to goals.
There is no right or wrong way to win. This concept just works for Minnesota. However, don't think the Gophers' lineup lacks scoring talent. Whether it's Rau, freshman Hudson Fasching, Justin Kloos or even defenseman Mike Reilly, Minnesota will score goals. They just don't need one player to do it.
It's fitting in some ways that sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox received the most praise this season. The Big Ten Player of the Year and Hobey Baker finalist, Wilcox enters the Frozen Four with the highest save percentage (.934) of any goaltender still playing. While talented, this philosophy of every player working on each end has made Wilcox' job a little easier this season.
The Gophers were among the best possession teams in the country, taking more than 54 percent of shots in their games and finishing the year fifth in average shot differential. Even average goaltenders thrive on dominant possession teams. A goaltender as gifted as Wilcox paired with skaters as relentless and strong on pucks as Minnesota is a recipe for a successful season.
"He's been great for us all season," Rau said of Wilcox. "He's been our best player whenever we've needed him to be. You try to make your goalie's job as easy as possible, but we don't always do that. He's there to bail us out when we need him to."
Thursday's semifinal with North Dakota promises the type of game that makes college sports special. The Gophers and UND share one of the nation's best, most intense rivalries. Realignment threatened to put a stopper in this feud before the tournament field promised to deliver the matchup.
"Obviously, it's a big rivalry," Rau said. "We've had some good games against them in my first couple seasons. The fans always get excited when we play North Dakota. We have to try to look at like another game. It's the Frozen Four, so that's all that matters right now."
Winning, really, is all that's even mattered for this edition of the Gophers. Players want to compete at the next level. They want to win championships. This team knows how to do that. They showed in the West Regional final that they can have what it takes to make anyone play their style of hockey.
Like Rau said, five guys defend. Five guys support the puck. It's a pretty simple formula, and it might just lead to a national championship.