Scoggins: A long time coming, Gophers redeem themselves big-time

  • Article by: CHIP SCOGGINS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: March 26, 2012 - 11:18 AM

This team headed to the Frozen Four is not led by one player or one class.

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The Gophers' Travis Boyd started to celebrate his second-period goal after beating North Dakota goalie Aaron Dell.

Photo: Marlin Levison, Star Tribune

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The clock on the scoreboard read :06.9 seconds remaining. Armed with a three-goal lead, the Gophers hockey team finally felt comfortable enough to exhale and soak up the moment.

Players began to celebrate on the bench and ice. Don Lucia, forever stoic, stood on the bench, unfolded his arms and began clapping.

Three years of hard times, disappointing finishes and pointed criticism about the state of the program washed away at that moment. Those dark days felt like a distant memory to Lucia, his maligned senior class and a roster full of players who dyed their hair blonde and helped return Gophers hockey to a familiar place.

Back in the Frozen Four.

The Gophers punched their ticket to Tampa with a thorough 5-2 victory over rival North Dakota at Xcel Energy Center. In two weeks, the U will make its 20th overall Frozen Four appearance, and this one is as meaningful as any.

Picked to finish sixth in the WCHA with a senior class that had never even experienced the NCAA tournament, the Gophers won the conference title, the NCAA West Regional and now are two victories away from a sixth national title.

"It's amazing how we're kind of experiencing everything at once now," senior Jake Hansen said.

Fittingly, they ousted their biggest rival to remain alive. Facing North Dakota for the sixth time this season, the Gophers proved to be the superior team, and it wasn't even close in the finale. They dictated the game and won by a three-goal margin, an ironic twist because the Gophers held a similar lead against UND in the WCHA playoffs a week earlier, only to see it crumble in a 6-3 loss.

The Gophers kept pressing the action this time, never letting up, not until those final seconds when the outcome was assured. As the final horn sounded, the players formed one large human pile around senior goalie Kent Patterson, the regional MVP.

"The first time you do something," Lucia said, "that's when it's really enjoyable."

The Gophers experienced the other end of the emotional spectrum a year ago when they failed to qualify for the NCAA tournament for a third consecutive season. The seniors knew they had one chance left, and they didn't want to go down in Gophers history as the class that never made the tournament. That's a scarlet letter nobody wants attached to their hockey sweater.

"We've had some struggling years here and taken a lot of heat for it," Hansen said.

They were determined to change that. The process began with 6:30 a.m. workouts two weeks after the season, and they never let off the throttle.

"Everyone has been saying the senior class hasn't done anything," freshman Kyle Rau said. "You know what, they're going to the Frozen Four so that's huge for them."

And the entire program. The seniors guided the group, but contributions came from all reaches of the locker room. For myriad reasons, this team came together and developed the kind of identity and chemistry that just clicked.

It starts at the top with Lucia. Embattled in recent years, he deserves his share of credit now. Not only for leading the Gophers back into the tournament but for pushing the right buttons to get his players refocused after last week's meltdown.

That third-period collapse against North Dakota in the Final Five ultimately became just that. It was one bad period and not an ominous sign that this team couldn't rise to the occasion when the time called for it. Now, it merely looks like a speed bump on the path to the Frozen Four.

"The seniors kind of took over the team and said, 'We want to dictate what we want to do the rest of the year. We're not going to let anyone else take it from us,' " sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt said.

Those seniors contributed in different ways. Hansen and team captain Taylor Matson provide leadership and intangibles. Patterson has started every game in goal and become a steadying influence.

It's not just one guy, or one class, that fuels this team, though. The Gophers are well-rounded and deep, which is critical to their success.

Rau is a dynamic freshman who brings grit and scoring. What he lacks in size, he makes up for in spunk and an ability to get under his opponent's skin. Nick Bjugstad and Zach Budish are skilled players who provide scoring pop on the top line.

Role players understand their roles, and they performed them effectively in the biggest game of the year. That's what good teams do. "This team has worked harder than any team I've been a part of," Matson said.

Their work is not done, and they didn't seem content as they celebrated in the locker room.

"We didn't come to this tournament just to play in it," Rau said. "We want to win four games, and we got two down."

Chip Scoggins • ascoggins@startribune.com

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