The Gophers upperclassmen are having a sense of déjà vu. Upset in Xcel Energy Center one weekend, back in the venue a week later for a chance at redemption.
The expectations are high for the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA men’s hockey tournament. It is host to the West Regional and will face Robert Morris on Saturday in the first semifinal. St. Cloud State and Notre Dame complete the four-team field headed for St. Paul.
Boston College (Northeast), Union (East) and Wisconsin (Midwest) are the second, third and fourth overall seeds and were selected as top regional seeds. Minnesota State Mankato will compete in the Northeast Regional and meets Massachusetts-Lowell on Saturday night in Worcester, Mass.
Defending NCAA champion Yale did not make the field.
“The last three years we’ve had a bye [in conference tournaments] and maybe we’ve come in and taken the team a little lightly, as the No. 1 seed. The good thing is, two years ago we were able to lose here [at Xcel] on Friday night and come back and get two wins and win the Western Regional,” Gophers junior forward Travis Boyd said. “So hopefully we can do that again. … We’ve got to be able to move on and learn how and what it really takes to win at this time of the year.”
The Gophers were upset by unranked Ohio State in the semifinals of the inaugural Big Ten tournament on Friday at the X. They’ll face one of the two unranked teams in the NCAA tournament field in the first round but have learned their lesson, Boyd said.
Robert Morris (19-17-5) won the Atlantic Hockey tournament to claim a spot in the regional. The Colonials started the season 2-12-2 but rallied for their first NCAA tournament berth. It’ll also be the first meeting between the Gophers (25-6-6) and Robert Morris, which is based in suburban Pittsburgh.
Waiting on the other side of the regional bracket for the Gophers are in-state rival St. Cloud State and Notre Dame, where Mario Lucia, son of Gophers coach Don Lucia, plays. St. Cloud State (21-10-5) was in line to become a No. 1 seed until being swept by Miami (Ohio) in the first round of the NCHC tournament. Notre Dame (23-14-2) has been one of the hottest teams in March, with three victories over Boston College. The Gophers beat St. Cloud State 4-1 in the North Star College Cup in late January at Xcel and split a series at Notre Dame in early November, losing 4-1 and winning 5-4.
“It’s what we expected when we looked at how things were coming together. … The one thing that is nice, it kind of has a national flavor with four teams from different conferences,” Don Lucia said of the West Regional. “We’ve played at a very consistent level all year long. When the year began, I didn’t expect to be in the situation we are now. We’ve played a very tough nonconference schedule and within our own conference, and I think that helped us prepare [for this tough field].”
Though the Gophers were nearly unbeatable on the Olympic-sized ice sheet at Mariucci Arena this season, they’ve been just better than average on smaller rinks. Since February, they are 3-4-2 on the smaller surface.
Two of those losses were to Wisconsin, the Big Ten’s tournament champion. The Badgers face North Dakota in the first round of the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati. Interestingly, Wisconsin had a big hand in North Dakota earning an NCAA bid. The Badgers’ 5-4 overtime victory over Ohio State in the Big Ten final denied the Buckeyes an automatic bid and opened a spot for North Dakota.
North Dakota finished No. 14 in the PairWise Rankings, the last spot available to receive an NCAA invitation. Michigan missed the cut at No. 15. Robert Morris and Denver weren’t in the top 14, but they won their conference tournaments and automatic NCAA bids.
Minnesota State Mankato was a bubble team entering the weekend but secured its spot by winning the WCHA tournament final on Saturday. The Mavericks are on a 13-game unbeaten streak.