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Freshmen playing big role for Frozen Four-bound Gophers

  • Article by: CHRIS MILLER
  • Star Tribune
  • March 31, 2014 - 6:29 AM

A youth movement this season has paid off in the Gophers’ 21st trip to the NCAA Frozen Four. Eight freshmen played regularly, and seven were in the lineup Sunday night when the Gophers beat St. Cloud State 4-0 for the NCAA West Regional title.

With Nick Bjugstad, Erik Haula and Nate Schmidt — all would have been seniors this season — playing in the NHL, the Gophers have gone 26-6-6, with freshmen contributing an NCAA-high 56 goals.

“We have been blessed with upperclassmen who were great leaders,” said freshman center Justin Kloos, who was named the regional’s most outstanding player. “Because of our balance, you don’t have a ton of pressure. Every line can score, every line can play against the other team’s top players.

“Sometimes freshmen get in trouble trying to be cute … like soft plays at the blue line. But we’ve learned the hard way.”

Kloos scored twice Sunday after getting a goal in Saturday’s 7-3 victory over Robert Morris. He was joined on the all-regional team by Gophers goalie Adam Wilcox, defensemen Brady Skjei and Mike Reilly and forward Nate Condon.

St. Cloud State center Nic Dowd, who scored the overtime winner Saturday in a 4-3 victory over Notre Dame, also made the team.

Gophers coach Don Lucia knew he’d be relying on freshmen. They contributed 40 percent of the team’s 137 goals.

“We put them in those roles right from the get-go to get them ready for this time of year,” Lucia said. “This weekend, they learned the way they have to play. They can’t play too cute.”

Looking ahead

The Gophers will seek their sixth national title, and third under Lucia, at the Frozen Four. The NCAA hockey tournament skips next weekend to avoiding conflicting with the Final Four, so the Gophers won’t play until April 10, against North Dakota. The other Frozen Four semifinal that day in Philadelphia matches Union against Boston College. BC’s 24th Frozen Four appearance ties Michigan for the NCAA record.

“Once North Dakota won, we had to win — we can’t go a year without playing them,” Lucia joked. “It’s a very familiar team. I don’t have to throw in a tape to know how North Dakota plays. And fans will light up the message boards.”

The two former WCHA rivals were in different conferences this year. The Gophers won the newly formed Big Ten hockey conference, and North Dakota played in the upstart NCHC. St. Cloud State won the NCHC regular season title, and North Dakota was the last team to make the 16-team NCAA field with an at-large berth.

Etc.

• St. Cloud State and the Gophers met for the first time in NCAA tournament play, a year after the Huskies made their first trip to the Frozen Four. The teams tied for the WCHA title in 2013.

• Huskies coach Bob Motzko, was a Gophers assistant on Lucia’s NCAA championship teams in 2002 and 2003 before leaving for St. Cloud State, his alma mater, in 2005.

• Announced attendance on Sunday was 8,893, for a two-day total of 18,125. The East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn, drew 13,184; the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., drew 11,996; and the Midwest Regional in Cincinnati had 11,111

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