Gophers and North Dakota fans didn't get that dream matchup they wanted in the WCHA Final Five last weekend. Thanks to the NCAA, they might yet get another game between the two rivals this season, in the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers, as expected, landed the No. 2 overall seed and will be the top seed in the West Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich., where they will play Yale on Friday afternoon. North Dakota got the No. 2 seed in the regional and plays Niagara, the regular-season champion of Atlantic Hockey. The winners play in the regional final Saturday afternoon with a Frozen Four berth on the line.
If that sounds like a familiar storyline, it is. Last year, the Gophers hosted the West Regional at Xcel Energy Center and won their first-round game against Boston University. They then defeated North Dakota 5-2 in the regional final to advance to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2003.
The WCHA got six teams--half of the conference's current membership--into the tournament. Hockey East and the ECAC got three each, and Atlantic Hockey and the soon-to-be-defunct CCHA got two each.
"Our league, I would argue, is the best in the country,'' Gophers captain Zach Budish said. "It's a tough league, and that prepares us well. We play quality opponents every weekend. That gets you prepared for playoff hockey.''
The Gophers have a 14-6 record against Yale, but they haven't played the Bulldogs since the 2002-03 season--when they beat them 7-3 in their holiday tournament on their way to their second consecutive national championship. This will be the first time the teams have played in the postseason.
Yale finished third in the ECAC this season behind Quinnipiac, ranked No. 1 in the USA Today poll and No. 2 in the USCHO.com poll, and Rensselaer. It's 18-12-3 overall, with a 7-7-1 road record and 12-9-1 conference mark. The Bulldogs have been shut out in their past two games, falling 5-0 to Union in the ECAC tournament semifinals and 3-0 to Quinnipiac in the third-place game.
This will be Yale's fourth NCAA appearance in the past five years after going only twice from 1952-2008. And it's made a good showing, making the regional final in 2010 and 2011 and losing to the eventual national champ both times (Boston College in 2010, Minnesota Duluth in 2011). And in 2010, the team it beat in the first round was ... North Dakota, 3-2. The Northeast Regional final was a real shootout that year, with Boston College beating Yale 9-7.
Statistically, Yale doesn't really stand out. It's ranked 26th nationally in scoring offense (2.82 goals per game) and 31st in scoring defense (2.76 goals against per game). Its power play is pretty decent, connecting on 20.9 percent of its attempts to rank 12th nationally. It's one of those Ivy schools that endows its head-coaching position, so Keith Allain has a title to rival a European royal: Keith Allain '80, Malcolm G. Chace Head Coach of Hockey. Whew.
The Gophers were clearly unhappy with the way they played in a 2-0 loss to Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five semifinals. They can take some solace in the fact that they have not lost back-to-back games all season. It has been pointed out in their pregame notes that the last time that happened was in 2003, when the Gophers won their second national title in a row. They didn't lose back-to-back games in 2002, either, when they broke their long NCAA title drought.
When asked after the CC game what the Gophers needed to clean up before the NCAAs, Budish had this to say: "Our compete level. We have to make sure we finish checks and limit our turnovers. Our coaches always stress that we're playing our best hockey when our hit total is up and our turnover numbers are down. When we're moving our feet and finishing our checks, we're more involved. We can create some chances off of that.''
Budish also said the Gophers' power play--which did not score on three chances, including a five-minute major--was "embarrassing.'' Coach Don Lucia said the team will work on the power play in practice this week. But he did not seem concerned about what he saw in the CC game.
"We've been good about bouncing back,'' he said. "When we lose a game, we seem to come back and play better next time out. ... We've had a great season so far. We've put ourselves in great position. We have to keep this in perspective. Our guys, when they get stung a little bit, usually bounce back quite well. I look forward to watching them bounce back this week.''