Minnesota Takes Lessons From Title Game Loss
by Avash Kalra/Senior Writer
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PHILADELPHIA When the returning players for Minnesota’s hockey team reassemble many months from now in Minneapolis, the memories of Saturday night’s championship game loss to the newly-coronated Union Dutchmen will have – perhaps by the tincture of time alone – faded somewhat.
In the moments immediately following their loss in the final game of the year, though, those memories are, understandably, raw.
The memory of the successes – of its regular-season conference title, of Saturday’s opening goal, scored by Gophers rookie star Justin Kloos, and of pulling to within one goal with 3:40 to play in the third period.
And there’s the memory of the anomalies, too – of allowing a touchdown’s worth of goals, and of taking three penalties in the first 12 minutes of the third period, and two in the first three minutes of the game, despite being the least-penalized team in the Big Ten this year.
Perhaps more than anything, though, there’s the memory of a 1 minute, 54 second stretch in the first period, when Union erupted for three championship-defining goals – half the total they scored on Hobey Baker finalist and Big Ten Player of the Year Adam Wilcox. At the start of that stretch, Minnesota led 2-1. At the end? The Dutchmen led 4-2, enjoying a lead they would never relinquish.
And that may be a memory that, over time, won’t fade much at all. After all, within that stretch, only two minutes long in game time, were lessons that can be carried indefinitely – lessons learned for Big Ten Coach of the Year Don Lucia and for his young team that featured six freshman forwards in the lineup on Saturday.
“The biggest lesson is that you have to be as mentally engaged as you are physically,” said a composed Lucia as he walked back to his locker room, about to address his players one final time before they leave Philadelphia. “You can’t have a bad five-minute segment. That’s the difference between winning and losing. But I’m proud of the guys for getting to a one-goal game with a few minutes to go.
“They kept on battling right up until the end.”
Saturday’s championship game was Minnesota’s first NCAA final appearance since 2002-03, when the Gophers won the second of back-to-back titles.
Certainly, an enormous effort is required to win a championship. But it wasn’t really effort, per se, that was the problem on Saturday – “I’m not sure if the mental part of our game matched the physical part,” Lucia noted – and that in itself may serve as a valuable lesson for these Gophers.
“You’re trying to do too much,” Lucia said. “When we looked at some of the goals after the first period, you’re leaving your guy to maybe go help out another guy who doesn’t need help.
“Our guys tried. Sometimes you want to win too bad and then you start to chase rather than just play your position.”
Lucia, of course, made sure to credit Union for its role in the Gophers’ first period errors.
“We talked to them about, ‘don’t chase, don’t chase,’” continued Lucia. “’Get your guys in front of the net.’ We didn’t. Credit Union. They’re a good team, and they earned the win.”
In a few months, in Minneapolis, the Gophers will look similar in many ways to the team that leaves Philadelphia tonight. Gone will be senior Nate Condon, who on Saturday played in his 159th consecutive – and final – game. Gone will be senior Jake Parenteau. And gone will be Thursday’s Frozen Four hero Justin Holl, as well as Tom Serratore, son of Air Force head coach Frank Serratore.
But the core of this young team – which featured 59 goals from freshmen alone, more than any other rookie class in the nation – will be back.
And they’ll remember at least some of what happened Saturday against Union at Philadelphia’s Wells Fargo Center. Some of it may be a blur. The moments that truly influenced the game will stay with them – as they likely should, for any team willing to learn from the toughest of mistakes, the ones made at what can seem like the worst moments.
“For the freshmen, that’s part of the process that you learn from, and hopefully they can take this as we begin next year, and take another step forward,” said Lucia.
“This is one of the most enjoyable years I’ve had coaching. This was a great group of kids. ... I’m sad to see it end. This is one of those years where you could keep coaching a month or two more, just to be around these guys.”
Added junior Travis Boyd, “We made mistakes that we haven’t been making all year and didn’t really pick a great time to do it because there’s no excuse for it today and there’s no other game to make up for it.”
For Boyd, though, there’s another year – next season, when the 2014-15 campaign will open with much different expectations, much higher ones, than the ones that opened this season last fall. In Minnesota, the State of Hockey after all, championship game appearances and wins are part of reasonable expectations.
And if the Gophers meet them next year, don’t think the lessons learned tonight didn’t have anything to do with it.