Gophers coach Don Lucia and redshirt sophomore forward Zach Budish were on a teleconference call on the Frozen Four run by the NCAA on Tuesday morning.
Lucia reiterated that the Gophers' goal since this season began was to return to the NCAA tournament. The Gophers received one of the 11 at-large bids to the tournament this year after missing it the past three seasons.
"We are very excited to be heading to Tampa Bay next week," he said.
Also there will be Boston College of Hockey East, the Gophers' opponent in the semifinals, and two first-time Frozen Four teams in Ferris State, a Division II team in most sports from Big Rapids, Mich., and Union College, a Division III team in most sports from Schenectady, N.Y.
Lucia said the great thing about college hockey is that it has teams in a national tournament from major conferences like the Big Ten and the ACC and from Division II and III schools.
He said he remembered taking a small school, Colorado College, to the national final in 1996 when the Tigers lost of Michigan in overtime. It doesn't matter in college hockey if you are a Division I or III school, "all have equal footing," Lucia said, "and [the Frozen Four] is extra special this year."
(Colorado College is a Division I school in men's hockey and women's soccer, but Division III in all other sports. Union College is Division III primarily, Ferris State Division II.)
THE DON SAYS
Lucia was asked a mix of serious and funny questions.
Do you have bracket envy because everyone is always talking about the NCAA basketball brackets? There are NCAA rules about being in a college hockey pool, Lucia said, so he doesn't have basketball bracket envy. But when the Gophers are not in the NCAA hockey tournament, he is envious of the teams still playing.
How did the Gophers deal with their 6-3 loss to North Dakota in the Final Five semifinals? The Gophers gave up five goals in the third period that game after giving up only 18 all season, Lucia said, so he felt that loss was an aberration. "We put it behind us as quickly as we could," he said.
Saturday , the day after the loss, the team had a one-hour practice at Ridder Arena and a video session. The team gathered in their locker room for the NCAA selection show
"When the brackets broke and we saw Boston University, Western Michigan and North Dakota were in our region, our total focus was on BU," Lucia said. "After we beat BU, the guys were excited for another crack at [the Fighting Sioux]. … The week before was a good learning experience."
How are the Gophers preparing for BC? The Eagles have skill and talent and are the prohibitive favorite. "Taking care of puck will be extremely important," Lucia said. "They are a great transition team and the way their goalie has played, we will not score much on them. So we will try to win a tight, low-scoring game."
What has goalie Kent Patterson meant to the team? "Kent has been our pillar," Lucia said. "We felt that going into this year … he would have to make a few saves, until [the young defensemen] got experience."
Forward Kyle Rau's impact? "We need Kyle come in as freshman and contribute. He scored at every level he has been. ... We thought we had a good foundation for three solid lines."
The Gophers lost to BC 5-2 in Worcester, Mass., in their last NCAA tournament in 2008. Does that help any this time? "We know how play," Lucia said. "We played well against them, as well as anybody did that year. We had chances. We have to convert chance we get. They are a outstanding team, but we have played good teams all season long to prepare us."
Is there a benefit to playing Frozen Four in non-traditional markets? It helps with the awareness of college hockey throughout country, Lucia said, that's the real positive. Schools might not necessarily add men's hockey because if they do, they would have to add a women's sport, too
Do Gophers need leading scorer Nick Bjugstad to score goals to win the Frozen Four? "Not if somebody else scores," Lucia said. "Hockey is such team game at this time of year. You can not rely one player." He said the Gophers won the regional because they got goals from players like Nico Sacchetti, Travis Boyd and Taylor Matson and three defensemen. "If you rely on one player, you will not go very far," Lucia said.
What do great teams have? Teams playing at the end have to be strong in every phase of the game. Goaltending is huge, Lucia said. BC began its run when their goalie began playing well. You need good defensemen and you have to be deep up front, especially down the middle.
BC has has a phenomenal run over last decade. You have to give players the leeway to make plays they need to make, Lucia said. Many times on talented team, there is some jealousy. Players have to buy in into their roles.
Will Gophers be bothered by distractions? "We are in a major media market," Lucia said, "every game of ours is on TV." There are pregame and postgame shows, weekly media days. "We are used to it all," he said.
He said the trip to Tampa is obviously business, but he wants his players to have fun there, too. It is a reward for a good season. "Thursday [of next week] is the time for business," Lucia said. "The rest of the time they need to enjoy the experience."
The Gophers leave for Tampa on Tuesday of next week.
This is the sixth time Lucia has taken a team to a Frozen Four. Here is how his teams have fared:
1996 in Cincinnati, Lucia's Colorado College team lost to Michigan in championship game
1997 in Milwaukee, Colorado College lost in semifinals
2002 in St. Paul ... Gophers beat Maine 4-3 in OT for NCAA title
2003 in Buffalo, N.Y. ... Gophers beat New Hampshire 5-1 for NCAA title
2005 in Columbus, Ohio ... Gophers lost to North Dakota 4-2 in semifinals
Does the site of the Frozen Four matter? "I've been to six of them,'" Lucia said. "They were all great experiences. When you go there, the focus is on hockey game down there. It does not matter if you are playing in Tampa or Timbuckto [a small city in Mali, a nation in western Africa]. ... The host teams do a tremendous job."
GOPHERS RULED STATE
"Coming into this year, part of our goal was to take over the state of Minnesota, that was Step 1," Budish said.
The Gophers did, going 9-1 against the four other WCHA teams in Minnesota.
"Step 2 was to be the top team our conference," Budish said. The Gophers did that, too, leading the WCHA race from start to finish.
Last year, of course, Minnesota Duluth won the NCAA title in a Frozen Four held at the Xcel in St. Paul.
"We hoped to be in the Frozen Four," Budish said. "And to see Duluth win whole thing in front of our eyes -- we watched the game and we wished we had been playing there."
FOUR WCHA PLAYERS HONORED
This is the time for college hockey all-america teams to come out.
The latest is College Hockey News' all-america team which can be found here.
Four WCHA players made either CHN's first or second teams: senior Jack Connolly of UMD is one of the forwards on the first team, junior Justin Schultz is one of the defensemen. On the second team are sophomore forward Brock Nelson of North Dakota and junior forward Drew Shore of Denver.
Two CHN all-america players are in the Frozen Four. Boston College junior defenseman Brian Dumoulin is on the first team, and Union sophomore goalie Troy Grosenick is on the second.
First-line left winger Kyle Rau of the Gophers is on CHN's national rookie team along with Denver defenseman Joey LaLeggia and Boston College forward Johnny Gaudreau.