Quick Rebuild Propelled Minnesota to Frozen Four
by Jashvina Shah/Staff Writer
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PHILADELPHIA The Minnesota Gophers have appeared in 35 NCAA tournaments. They’ve won the National Championship five times and have seen 21 Frozen Fours.
But when they reached their last Frozen Four, it didn't look like a team with that kind of tradition. In 2012, its first Frozen Four appearance since 2005, Minnesota fell to future champion Boston College, 6-1, in the semifinals.
This year, the Gophers are in Philadelphia ready to fight for the program’s sixth national championship.
That wasn’t the case two years ago.
“Last time we were here, it was kind of while we were still in the rebuilding stage of our team,” senior co-captain Nate Condon said.
“Rebuilding” is a term that could have applied to the Gophers at the beginning of this season. Minnesota lost Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad, Zach Budish and Nate Schmidt — four of the team’s top-five scorers from last season — after the end of the 2012-13 season.
But Condon said the team isn’t carrying that mindset anymore.
“This time our team is expected to do well and we're expected to win championships,” Condon said. “That's been the mindset all season, is that we're expected to win, and we were supposed to finish top of the Big Ten, finish top in the country the whole season.”
A change in the way Minnesota recruited has helped them overcome the impact of losing players, which it routinely does, and allow those "rebuilds" to happen more smoothly and quickly — like, within one season, which it needs to do when you're Minnesota.
"We went through a stretch where we didn't anticipate we'd be losing the kids as quickly, or as young, as we did," Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. "And I think we did a poor job of preparing our program for those departures. Recruiting was getting earlier and earlier at the same time. Recently, I think we've done a better job of protecting ourselves, committing kids and with the understanding that you can come in next year if X leaves. If X stays, you have to play an extra year of junior hockey. So we've done better balancing that.
"And quite frankly, we're trying to balance recruiting college players too. It's funny how a lot of times when it's league awards, you look at guys winning, it's a lot of 5-(foot-)9, 5-10 guys who are winning awards and are very good. And this year, we're not that big and maybe we have some college players who maybe won't be NHL players, but will be four-year college players."
Despite having a relatively young team, Minnesota won the regular season Big Ten title before dropping the league tournament semifinal to Ohio State.
“We do have a young team, so it's hard for guys to step in and play right away,” Condon said. “I think maybe that helped some of our freshmen defensemen really get in the hang of things. Maybe some of the older guys finding new roles on the team. Anytime you have that kind of good base on your team, you can experiment with a lot of other things, and I think it helped us do that early in the year."
In 2012, Condon was a sophomore. Haula was the team’s leading scorer with 49 points, while then-freshman Kyle Rau had 43. Sam Warning and Travis Boyd — two of Minnesota’s top scorers this year — were also rookies in 2011-12.
The Gophers complied a 28-14-1 record that season, backed by Kent Patterson in net. He helped the team to wins over Boston University and North Dakota in the West Regional. For the year, he held a .907 save percentage.
“We were really happy to be here and we had a great time in Tampa Bay,” Condon, said. “But the mentality really wasn't there that we came for a championship.”
The Gophers followed the Frozen Four loss with a 2012-13 season that ended in a loss in the West Regional last season, again to a future NCAA champion in a 3-2 overtime decision to Yale.
Entering this season, the Gophers looked much different than either of the past two years.
Co-captain Kyle Rau was one of the team’s only top scorers still with the team. Minnesota had lost 10 players, including defensemen Seth Helgeson, Mark Alt and Nate Schmidt.
Over half of Minnesota’s roster were underclassmen when the season started.
“When the year was beginning we knew we obviously had to replace a lot of talent, including three defensemen,” coach Don Lucia said. “We had a lot of question marks on how the puzzle was going to be pieced together.”
Freshmen Justin Kloos, Hudson Fasching, Taylor Cammarata, Connor Reilly, Vinni Lettieri have played in almost every game this season, with each player appearing in at least 35 of the 39.
“They're really talented offensively,” Condon said. “They're really great players. It's just a matter of, I had to show them the ropes in the beginning of the year of how to be defensive and be a college hockey player.
“So it's been a little different for me this year as I kind of had to help coach up some of the younger guys and their defensive habits. But it's rewarding to see them kind of come into their own this season.”
One of Minnesota’s underclassmen — sophomore Adam Wilcox — has been one of the biggest reason’s for the team’s success.
That season Minnesota was playing in the Frozen Four in Tampa, Wilcox was a goalkeeper in the USHL. The next season he arrived at Minnesota and took over the starting role. As the last line for Minnesota, Wilcox finished the season with a .934 save percentage. He recorded four shutouts and helped the Gophers allow two goals or less in 28 games.
“The one thing as a coach that you know is comforting is you knew you had an outstanding goaltender to build from,” Lucia said. “If you were going to make mistakes, that he could cover up some of those, especially early in the year.
“It takes time for the young guys to learn, you know what, you better make sure you're backchecking all the time or you better be in the proper position defensively.”
The upperclassmen were important when Minnesota's season reached one of this season's rare points of adversity, a semifinal loss in the Big Ten tournament to Ohio State, a team it lost to in a shootout the weekend before. But unlike last year, when Minnesota allowed disappointment in the WCHA tournament to seep into its performance against Yale in the NCAA Regional, the Gophers took care of business with cold efficiency in defeating Robert Morris and St. Cloud State to reach the Frozen Four.
The Gophers now have some of the stronger underclassmen contributors in the country. Sophomore defensemen Mike Reilly is the second-highest scoring underclassmen defensemen, and his 32 points are tied for second with Minnesota.
Regardless of the team’s state, they’re focused on finding No. 6.
“The mentality is that we're here to win,” Condon said. “That's what we're trying to preach to the younger guys.”