For those who worry that the Gophers’ early exit from the WCHA Final Five is a bad postseason omen, Don Lucia has an answer. Last year, Ferris State didn’t even make the final round of the CCHA tournament—it lost to Bowling Green in the first round—and still advanced to the NCAA championship game.
The Gophers’ 2-0 loss to Colorado College in the WCHA semifinals gave them a chance to rest and recharge before beginning the NCAA tournament Friday. Defenseman Seth Helgeson said the Final Five was “a bump in the road,’’ and Lucia concurred that his team should suffer no ill effects. Speaking to the media on Wednesday, just two hours before the No. 2 Gophers were scheduled to board a charter flight to Grand Rapids, Mich., for the West Regional, Lucia said the rare opportunity to rest a bit before the tournament should benefit his players.
The Gophers-Yale game is the first of the tournament, starting at 1 p.m. central time Friday at Van Andel Arena. The other West Regional matchup is North Dakota-Niagara, scheduled for 4:30 p.m.
“I feel very good about where we’re at,’’ Lucia said. “We had a very good week of practice. I think the guys are excited, and I think they’re energized.
“After we lost Friday (to Colorado College), we took Saturday and Sunday off, knowing we were probably going to be in the Grand Rapids regional on Friday. We charged up the batteries a little bit and had a good week. We’re excited to get going.’’
Lucia said he believes the NCAA tournament is wide open this year, with any of the 16 teams capable of winning the title. He likes the matchups in the West Regional and predicts fast-paced, action-packed games, since all four teams are highly skilled and can get up and down the rink.
The Gophers haven’t played Yale since the 2002 Mariucci Classic, but they’ve won the past seven games between the schools. Lucia knows coach Keith Allain and coached with him in the 1990s with USA Hockey’s under-17 summer programs. Yale made a good showing against the three opponents it had in common with the Gophers this season, beating Denver 2-1 in overtime, defeating Colorado College 6-5 in overtime and tying Boston College 3-3. All of those games were on the road.
Yale, ranked No. 15, is 18-12-3 and is making its fourth NCAA tournament appearance in the past five seasons. In 2010 and 2011, it lost in the regional finals to the team that went on to win the national championship (Boston College in 2010, Minnesota Duluth in 2011).
Sophomore defenseman Tommy Fallen of Plymouth, an honorable mention all-Ivy League pick this season, is the only Minnesotan on the team. He is the Bulldogs’ highest-scoring defenseman (seven goals, 15 assists) and their third-leading scorer. Junior forward Kenny Agostino and senior forward Andrew Miller are their stars. Agostino leads the team with 37 points (15 goals, 22 assists) and was a second-team all-Ivy and all-ECAC pick. Miller has 35 points (16 goals, 19 assists) and was named the Ivy League player of the year while earning first team all-ECAC honors.
“They’re going to play like we do,’’ Lucia said of Yale. “They’re a good-skating team that can get around the rink. Historically at Yale, they have a bunch of 5-10, 5-11 forwards who can skate. They can put pressure on you. They want to play the game at pace, and they average (35) shots on goal per game. If we want to turn the puck over a lot, then we’re going to be in trouble.’’
Other notes from today’s media session with Lucia:
--He said the Gophers are healthy, a pleasant surprise at a time of year when many teams are dealing with injuries.
--He is convinced the resilience the Gophers have shown throughout the season bodes well for their ability to shake off the Final Five loss and be in top form Friday. The Gophers have not lost back-to-back games this year, going 7-0-0 in games after losses up to this point. “Our guys feel good about themselves,’’ Lucia said. “They’ve bounced back and won after every loss this year. The most important thing for me is that the health of the team is good.’’
--He’s pleased that the Gophers are first out of the gate in NCAA tournament play. “I think it’s great,’’ Lucia said of playing the first game. “I’m kind of glad we have an afternoon game, so we’re not sitting around waiting all day. Last week (at the WCHA Final Five), it felt like we were sitting around forever. (Playing first) will be good for us.’’
--He has talked with his players about two potential issues: low attendance at the regional and TV timeouts that will be twice as long as they were during the WCHA playoffs. Timeouts that were one minute in the league tournament will be two minutes in the NCAA tournament.
“It’s a big question mark with attendance,’’ Lucia said. “You never know with the teams there. Nobody is very close by. Whether we have many people at the games, we have to block that out.
“(The extended timeouts) really do change the game a little bit. It’s critical for guys to mentally stay into the game, especially if it’s a situation where we have to kill a penalty, then have a couple of timeouts. They may be sitting on the bench for 10 or 15 minutes before they get their next shift.’’
--He enjoyed being a hockey dad last weekend, and he hopes to get the chance to do it again. Lucia flew to Detroit to watch his son Mario help Notre Dame win the CCHA tournament on Sunday. He sat in the stands and wore an Irish jersey. Notre Dame plays in the Midwest Regional at Toledo, Ohio, on Saturday and Sunday; if the Irish advance to Sunday’s regional final, Lucia plans to drive to Toledo to watch the game. His wife, Joyce, and son Tony will attend the Gophers’ game Friday, then drive to Toledo to watch Mario play Saturday.
“It was fun to go to the game and be a fan,’’ said Lucia, who also played for Notre Dame. “I don’t get to do that very often.’’