GRAND RAPIDS, MICH. – After his team’s practice Thursday, Gophers coach Don Lucia walked off the ice at Van Andel Arena knowing the bulk of its preparation was complete. “The hay’s in the barn now,’’ Lucia told his players, who open the NCAA tournament Friday against Yale. “There’s nothing more we can really do. It’s all about performing in this environment now.’’
Lucia said he is not worried that the Gophers, the No. 2 overall seed, enter the West Regional after a 2-0 loss to Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five semifinals. He has seen many other teams fare poorly in their league tournaments and thrive in the NCAAs — including Ferris State, which made it to last year’s national championship game, losing in the first round of the CCHA playoffs.
The Gophers are healthy and well-rested after their quick exit from the Final Five. Forwards Erik Haula and Nick Bjugstad said they also are fueled by their irritation over the loss to Colorado College, as they were last year after losing to North Dakota in the Final Five semifinals. The Gophers, of course, beat UND in the regional final a year ago to make the Frozen Four for the first time since 2005.
“It was a little embarrassing losing in front of our home crowd,’’ Bjugstad said of the Final Five flop. “If you look at last year, we were angry with the performance we had [in the Final Five], and we came out pretty hard in those regionals. We’ll come out a little heated [Friday] and be ready to go.’’
The Gophers have not lost back-to-back games all season, going 7-0-0 after losses thus far. And the players on the top seed in the West Regional have been enthusiastic and energetic in practices this week. Lucia said it will be good for them to get started quickly. The Gophers play Friday afternoon in the first game of the tournament.
The key, Lucia said, will be for the Gophers to stick with their strengths: “Don’t think you have to play harder or better. Just do what got you here.’’
Yale defenseman Tommy Fallen was particularly excited to see his team’s draw in the tournament. Fallen, of Plymouth, is the only Minnesotan on Yale’s roster. He has played with eight current Gophers and against 15 others in youth, high school and junior hockey.
“It was a dream of mine since I committed to Yale that at some point, we’d play the Gophers,’’ said Fallen, a sophomore who was honorable mention all-Ivy League. “It’s going to be special.’’
After Thursday’s practice, Fallen displayed a memento from Minnesota. He wore a rubber bracelet in honor of Jack Jablonski, the Benilde-St. Margaret’s player who was paralyzed after being checked from behind in a game. A political science major, Fallen has something in common with another well-known person from his home state: Gov. Mark Dayton played hockey at Yale, too.
New twist for UND
The previous three seasons, North Dakota has entered the NCAA tournament fresh off a WCHA Final Five title. This time UND was defeated by Colorado College in the Final Five quarterfinal last week, creating an unfamiliar feeling heading into their West Regional game against Niagara on Friday.
North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol said his team took Sunday off, then quickly adjusted its mindset in a lively practice Monday. A rugged WCHA season has prepared UND well, Hakstol said, and he is pleased with the team’s playing. The program is making its 11th consecutive NCAA appearance, the longest active string in the nation.
“It’s a different feeling,’’ forward Corban Knight said. “We’ve had success at the Final Five, and we’ve always managed to carry that momentum into the [NCAA] tournament. This year, we’re well-rested after the game last week, and that might be a good thing for us. We healed up some wounds and got in a solid week of practice.’’
North Dakota will face Niagara goalie Carsen Chubak, a top-10 finalist for the Hobey Baker Award. Chubak, a junior, was named Atlantic Hockey player of the year and leads the nation with six shutouts.