PHILADELPHIA – Don Lucia brought only one tie with him to the Frozen Four. It’s the same one he wore when his Gophers hockey team won back-to-back national championships in 2002 and ’03.
He’s kept that tie in his closet since. Until he packed for Philadelphia.
“I’m not superstitious,” he said, smiling as he walked through the locker room Friday morning.
Of course he is. Lucia also showed up to a news conference at the start of this NCAA tournament wearing his 2003 national championship ring. He casually played it off (wink, wink).
The message and symbolism behind those calculated gestures seem unmistakable: This Gophers team is deep enough and talented enough and tough enough to finish the season in the same spot as those other teams, as national champions.
Here’s their opportunity. Now they have to take it.
“It’s in our hands,” senior Jake Parenteau said.
Still a little sleep-deprived, the Gophers were beginning to emerge from the euphoric fog that engulfed their team and fan base after a stunning finish in a 2-1 victory against North Dakota in the semifinals Thursday night.
Justin Holl’s goal with sixth-tenths of a second remaining will go down as one of the most dramatic moments in the program’s storied tradition. It became a real-life script that hockey players can only dream about as Mites and Squirts.
That shouldn’t be the highlight of the Gophers trip, though. If that joyous moment ultimately stands as the pinnacle, the view of this season won’t look nearly the same upon reflection.
The Gophers have enjoyed a terrific season to date, no question. But will it become a special season, a championship season? That’s the question they must answer by how they respond in the national title game against Union on Saturday night.
“When you wake up and realize you get to play for a national title,” junior Kyle Rau said, “you better get your mind ready to go, because if not, you’re going to come out and lay an egg.”
The Gophers have been the best team in college hockey this season. They’ve lost only six games and been ranked No. 1 nationally for 17 weeks. They have speed and depth in their lineup, and there’s not a better goalie in college hockey than Adam Wilcox.
“Obviously, we’ve been No. 1 for most of the season, so we’ve been expected to play at the end of the season,” senior Nate Condon said. “Things haven’t really changed around us. We’ve been expected to win championships all year. We’re here now, so we might as well win it.”
Union, which does not offer scholarships, won’t be a pushover. The Dutchman have won 31 games and posted a 16-1-2 record against ranked teams. They’re not in the championship game by fluke.
The Gophers have a more complete team, but they’ll have to earn it. And they’ll have to play better than they did against North Dakota.
Strip away all the emotion and the Gophers recognize that North Dakota took it to them at different times, particularly in the third period. North Dakota finished with more shots and scoring chances, but Wilcox kept his team afloat until Holl’s heroics.
Lucia felt some of his freshmen played “tentative” and lacked their usual speed. He also admitted he felt “fortunate in some regards” that the game didn’t have a different outcome.
“I just want our guys to be in a situation where they feel they can play free, that they can play to win and play aggressively,” Lucia said. “Because if you’re going to play on your heels at this time of year, it’s awfully difficult to win.”
Lucia used the term “autopilot” to describe his approach to this one final game. In other words, he doesn’t believe any special motivational speeches or ploys are necessary. Yes, he brought along his good-luck tie, but his team’s forecheck is more important than fashion at this point.
The Gophers earned the right to be here. They’ve had a tremendous season. Now they get to determine how the final chapter reads.