Good evening from Grand Rapids, Mich., where all four NCAA West Regional teams--the Gophers, Yale, North Dakota and Niagara--practiced and spoke with the media Thursday in advance of Friday's opening games of the NCAA men's hockey tournament.
The Gophers appeared loose and happy this morning when they arrived at the arena. Coach Don Lucia said he liked the excitement and enthusiasm they showed, and he reiterated that they are in very good health for this time of year. The only player injured recently, forward Sam Warning, returned earlier than expected after sitting out the Gophers' WCHA first-round playoff series against Bemidji State. He played in the WCHA Final Five and has been participating fully in practice. "His conditioning wasn't at the level we wanted it to be,'' Lucia said. "It was good for him to go through a game and have another full week of practice. (His conditioning) is back up to where it was before he was injured.''
There are a handful of connections between the No. 2 Gophers and No. 15 Yale, their first-round opponent. Lucia worked with Yale coach Keith Allain to coach USA Hockey under-17 teams in Japan and Mexico City in the mid-1990s. Yale assistant coach Dan Muse will be on Lucia's staff for the 2014 World Junior Championships, serving as video coach while Lucia is head coach. Yale forward Nicholas Weberg played at Shattuck-St. Mary's. Yale's Mitch Witek and Anthony Day played junior hockey with the Gophers' A.J. Michaelson at Waterloo of the USHL, and Yale's Stu Wilson and Tommy Fallen played in the USHL with Warning at Cedar Rapids. Fallen is a Plymouth native who played with eight current Gophers and against 15 others.
In addition, Lucia said that Sean Ritchlin--a former Michigan player who will be providing analysis for the ESPNU TV broadcast--played on one of those U-17 teams that he and Allain coached. And Allain was head coach for the U.S. team at the 2011 world junior championships, where the Gophers' Nick Bjugstad was on the roster. More proof that college hockey is a small universe.
Allain said he has plenty to worry about with the Gophers. First and foremost, he is concerned with the first-line tandem of Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, though he also cited the Gophers' depth and the goaltending of freshman Adam Wilcox as factors. Of his own team, he said, 'We like to play fast. We're quick with our minds, our hands and our feet.''
Yale junior forward Kenny Agostino had a minor distraction Thursday when he found out his NHL rights had been traded as part of a deal that brought Calgary star Jarome Iginla to Pittsburgh. The Penguins got Iginla in exchange for the rights to Agostino and St. Cloud State's Ben Hanowski, as well as their first-round pick in the 2013 NHL draft. Agostino got the news when he woke up in Grand Rapids on Thursday morning and checked his phone. "It's cool to be part of something like that,'' he said. "But it's on the back burner right now.''
Other notes from the Gophers:
--Like his players, Lucia said he was delighted for the Gophers' women's hockey team, which finished a 41-0 season with a victory over Boston University to win its second consecutive NCAA championship Sunday. "It's great for them,'' he said. "And I think the best thing is the sellout and creating new fans. Just like we want little boys coming to Mariucci Arena and watching the men's team play, you want to bring girls to Ridder and watch the women's team play. That's how women's hockey will continue to grow.
"We saw support for the women's team grow as the year went on. They deserved it, they earned it, and I hope they inspire a lot of little girls to grow up and be a Gophers women's hockey player. In our department, everyone is supportive of each other. The better they do, the better it is for us.''
Bjugstad said it gave him "goose bumps'' to see the women hoist the trophy. "I stayed out there and watched them pass it around,'' he said. "It was definitely motivating. I loved going to that game to see how it felt to win a national championship.''
--Lucia said he wanted to see the Gophers "play free and play well'' in the regional. He said he has emphasized that no matter how important the games are this time of year, players must remember to stick with the style that brought them to this point.
"My message is, don't play any differently than you have all year,'' he said. "Don't think you have to play harder or better. Just do what got you here. Don't think you have to do everything yourself. Play as five-man units. Keep the structure of the game. Play confident. Make plays. And play to win. That's important this time of year; you can get tentative. We want them to play on their toes and play aggressively.''
--Erik Haula said national rankings don't matter, with one exception. The Gophers' high ranking landed them the top seed at the regional, which meant they got the best locker room at Van Andel Arena.
By the way, the Gophers and North Dakota--which plays Niagara in the other West Regional semifinal Friday--are clearly well-coached off the ice as well. Players from both teams expertly avoided answering questions about a possible rematch in the regional final.