March 30, 2014 PRINT Bookmark and Share

Minnesota Gets Needed Test From Robert Morris

Gophers Shake Off Postseason Pressure

by Phil Ervin/CHN Reporter

ST. PAUL, Minn. — Don Lucia spent the past eight days encouraging his players to dwell in the present, avoiding so much as a glance away from the current task.

"The reality is that if you start looking at what happened last year going bad," Lucia said, "that's not the way you want to go into it."

But about 3 minutes into Minnesota's NCAA West Regional game on Saturday, the longtime Gophers coach himself had reason to slip out of the moment. Minnesota had just yielded a two-man advantage, conjuring memories of a first-round loss to Yale last season in which the Bulldogs drew a pair of first-period penalties and sucked away momentum en route to a 3-2 victory and, eventually, the 2013 national championship.

"I'm going, 'Oh my gosh, that's how last year's game started,'" Lucia said.

Even among all the triumphs of the Gophers proud hockey history, and even in the steam of the action Saturday at a maroon-and-gold-encrusted Xcel Energy Center, it was hard to set aside their recent postseason woes.

Not with the encumbrance of playing in the self-proclaimed "State of Hockey." The same fans that rocked the home of the Minnesota Wild during starting lineup announcements began catcalling as soon as Seth Ambroz was sent to the box for roughing 1 minute, 23 seconds in. They and the local media haven't let Lucia and his players forget that crushing loss to Yale a year ago, or an upsetting inaugural Big Ten tourney semifinal defeat in this same arena March 21.

Even the Gophers' youthful contingent gets it. Seven Minnesota freshmen skated in Saturday's 7-3 win — a tally that upstart Robert Morris ensured isn't quite indicative of the game's course.

All but one of them is from the pucks-crazed state where the Mississippi River starts.

"There's expectations?" joked Lucia, who's coached the Gophers for 15 seasons and led them to back-to-back national titles in 2002 and 2003. "They just understand. It's one of the reasons you want to come here. We have a lot of expectations in our program. All you have to do is look up in the rafters (at Mariucci Arena).

"When you're here, you've got four years max to be here and try to contribute and add to that tradition. They come because of the banners that are up there before us, and they're here to put some more banners up."

Exhibiting the efficiency with which it raced to the first-ever Big Ten regular-season championship and national tournament's No. 1 overall seed, Minnesota (26-6-6) inched closer to adding another.

The field's 16th-placed entrant just didn't make it easy.

"I don't think we just came here to be a patsy," said Colonials coach Derek Schooley, whose 10-year-old program made its first NCAA appearance this season.

The score sheet suggests the Gophers handled Robert Morris (19-17-5) in a manner completely befitting a first round, top-vs.-bottom matchup. Minnesota outshot the Colonials 50-25, captain Nate Condon scored a pair of goals, and top centerman Kyle Rau and defenseman Mike Reilly tallied a goal and an assist apiece.

But Robert Morris — whose traveling contingent consisted of a 17-member pep band, four cheerleaders, a handful of parents and college president Dr. Gregory Dell'Omo — applied enough pressure to leave the Gophers feeling battle-tested.

“It was the type of game we needed to have," Lucia said.

After Ambroz was whistled for shoving after the whistle, Ben Marshall was sent off for tripping to give the Colonials a two-man advantage for 21 seconds. Richter Award finalist Adam Wilcox made four of his 22 saves during the early extended penalty kill, and Minnesota held off NCAA Division I's No. 6 offensive attack.

The Gophers scored three times in the opening frame's final 3:37 and took a 4-0 lead on Rau's putback of a long Justin Holl shot at the second's 8:12 mark. But Robert Morris snipers Cody Wydo and Zac Lynch each scored on a two-on-one assisted by the other to make it 4-2 heading into the third.

Reilly and Taylor Cammarata assisted on a Hudson Fasching marker regain a three-goal advantage 14:22 into the third. Colonials center David Friedmann erased it 25 seconds later.

Not until Condon found an empty net from the neutral zone could he, Lucia and the Gophers breathe easy. Minnesota was already a skater down with Travis Boyd getting the gate for elbowing.

"We were shorthanded," said Condon, who became the ninth Gopher to score nine or more goals this season, "so I just wanted to throw it down the ice.

"Thankfully, it went in."

There were some tense moments early — Gophers shoving after the whistle, Lucia wondering if this was headed down a Yale-like road.

Then Condon took a pass from Michael Brodzinski deep in their own zone and glided the length of the ice, sending a low wrist shot around defenseman John Rey and past goaltender Dalton Izyk's glove side with 3:47 left in the first.

"I think Nate's goal relaxed everybody," Lucia said.

For Minnesota's veterans — some of whom played in the Frozen Four two years ago — it was a reminder. For the youngsters, it was a lesson.

At this point in the year, no one's going quietly.

"I hope everybody in Minnesota now realizes why we are in the national tournament and how hard we play," Schooley said.

The Colonials were in because they went 17-5-3 in the year of 2014, earned the Atlantic Hockey Association's fifth seed and won six of seven postseason games to claim their first conference title. The school of 5,000 in Moon Township, Pa. (a Pittsburgh suburb) has no alumni in the NHL and no current players that have been drafted.

Before the regional, Rau admitted he didn't even know where Robert Morris was.

He does now.

"I mean, this time of year, no one's gonna give up," said Rau, who assisted on Brodzinski's goal that gave the Gophers a 2-0 lead late in the first. "It's your season on the line. We need to take that into account and know that no one's gonna roll over for us."

That'll be a valuable mental nugget when Minnesota takes on either St. Cloud State or Notre Dame on Sunday for a spot in the Frozen Four.

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