Frozen Four: Gophers relishing underdog role

It's been Boston College this and BC that in advance of the Frozen Four. With all due respect, the Gophers are ready for the faceoff.

TAMPA, FLA. -- Erik Haula is jittery and cranky after a 10-day layoff. Haula, the Gophers' leading scorer, wants to play Boston College already -- rather than continue to read and hear about the high-flying Eagles.

He is about to finally get his wish.

The Gophers and Eagles will meet Thursday in the second semifinal of the Frozen Four. It is being called a matchup of hockey royalty; between them, the two programs have nine NCAA titles and 41 previous Frozen Four appearances. Ferris State and Union, in the other semifinal, are both making their first Frozen Four appearance.

"Everyone has the jitters right now," Haula said this week, before venting his frustration. "I am actually kind of sick of all this stuff going around here. I just want to get in the game and start playing. You know, all this hype that [the Eagles] are getting. There are four good teams in this tournament."

Perhaps, but BC is the clear favorite. Gophers coach Don Lucia agrees and makes this analogy: Boston College, he said, has the aura of Tigers Woods in his heyday. Given the choice of Tiger at his peak or the rest of the field in a tournament, Lucia said, most people would have still picked Woods.

The Eagles have won two of the past four NCAA titles. On top of that, BC is the No. 1 overall seed and is riding a 17-game winning streak -- the longest in Jerry York's storied coaching career at the Jesuit-run school in Chestnut Hill, Mass. To get here, the Eagles shut out defending national champion Minnesota Duluth.

"It's kind of nice to be in the underdog role for a change," said Lucia, whose team is also peaking but hasn't been to the Frozen Four since 2005. "Let's put the pressure on them. I like the way we are playing. ... And we know this is not the best-of-seven [series], it is the best of one. It is a one-game shot."

That thought offers comfort.

"In college hockey anyone can beat anyone any night," Gophers captain Taylor Matson said. "BC has a hot goaltender [and] their defensive corps is really strong as well, but we have dealt with top teams throughout the whole season."

Two balanced teams

Lucia said the Eagles are unique. "They are skilled and they are big," he said. "They have that combination which most teams don't. Three lines that can score. They have a 20-goal scorer on ever line. Who has that?"

Well, the Gophers come close. They have size in players such as forwards Nick Bjugstad, Zach Budish and defenseman Seth Helgeson and Mark Alt. They have speed with forwards Kyle Rau, Erik Haula and Nate Condon scattered among the top three lines. Bjugstad and Haula, the sophomore centers on the top two lines, are the Gophers' 20-goal scorers, and the reinvigorated third line -- with freshman Travis Boyd the past two games -- is coming off a three-goal performance in the region final.

"It is going to come down to the little things," Haula said.

Here are four keys to a Gophers victory:

• Win most of the puck battles. "That is more important than maybe the big hit," Lucia said. He said the Gophers have tapered like runners and swimmers do before a big meet and should be mentally and physically recharged.

• Take care of the puck. "We have to make sure we get pucks behind their 'D,'" Lucia said. "We cannot turn pucks over and allow them to transition because of their team speed." If the Eagles are in the Gophers' end, Lucia said, "we have to make sure to get in there and hit and pin and eliminate BC."

• Win the goalie duel. BC goalie Parker Milner has not given up a goal in more than seven periods of ice time. "We are hoping he is due to let one in," Lucia said. Gophers goalie Kent Patterson was the MVP of the West Regional; he can steal a game and usually plays his best when he is busy. Lack of shots should not be a concern for Patterson against BC.

• Score first -- or at least second. Boston College is 28-3-1 this season when scoring first. Lucia said if BC does score first, the Gophers need to get the second goal of the game.

Asked if he had a pregame pep talk planned, Lucia was blunt. "If you have to give the big time pep talk this time of the year," he said, "you are in sorry shape. The guys are pretty motivated."

As is Lucia.

"It is hard to get to a Frozen Four," he said. "It is hard to win a semifinal game. This is our chance. When you are a freshman or sophomore there is no guarantee you will get this opportunity again."




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