The Gophers play Air Force today on the first day of the Mariucci Classic, but it's hard for them not to look ahead to their Frozen Four opponent.
Asked what he remembers most about the Frozen Four last April when eventual NCAA champion Boston College spanked Minnesota 6-1 in the semifinals, Nate Schmidt rolled his eyes and laughed.
"I remember seeing and being behind a lot of 2-on-1's, so that wasn't very good," said Schmidt, the Gophers' top-scoring defenseman.
Almost nine months after the Eagles ruined the Gophers' national title dreams, Boston College will waltz into Mariucci Arena this weekend as the No. 1 team in the country thanks to an 11-2-1 record.
The fourth-ranked Gophers (11-3-3) will get a crack at them at 7 p.m. Sunday on the second day of the 22nd annual Mariucci Classic that also brings Air Force and the University of Alabama-Huntsville to Minneapolis.
"I don't want to say it's just another game because it's not," Schmidt said of the BC rematch. "It's got a little implication on it."
The big story line in the tournament is legendary Boston College coach Jerry York being one victory from breaking Ron Mason's NCAA mark for most Division I victories by a hockey coach. In 41 years, York has won 924 games and can break the record when the Eagles face Alabama-Huntsville at 4 p.m. Saturday.
"It's kind of neat that he has the opportunity to do that here and our fans will have the opportunity to see history being made," said Gophers coach Don Lucia, a winner of 608 games in 26 seasons.
Before the Gophers have to worry about the Eagles and the "measuring stick" Lucia says they will provide, the Gophers have a 7 p.m. date Saturday with Air Force -- coached by Frank Serratore, the father of Gophers hard-hitting junior forward Tom Serratore.
It'll be the first time Pops has seen his son play a college hockey game in person, and it'll be from the opposing bench.
"People were saying [over Christmas], 'You won't be sad if the Gophers win and your son scores the winning goal,'" Frank Serratore said, laughing. "My response was, 'You think I want to listen to him chirp me the rest of my life? Are you kidding me?' I want the winning goal to be scored by a guy in [Falcons] blue. That's what I want."
The Gophers, off the past three weeks, are looking at the games against Air Force and Boston College as a kickstart to the second half. They were inconsistent for much of the first half and sit tied for fifth place in the WCHA with a 6-3-3 record and 16 conference games left. The Gophers are three points back of WCHA-leading St. Cloud State with two games in hand.
Twelve of the Gophers' final 19 games are at home. Their only airplane ride the rest of the regular season is a return flight from Chicago after playing Wisconsin in an outdoor game at Soldier Field on Feb. 17.
In January, the Gophers face No. 3-ranked Notre Dame, then 10 days later, North Dakota, tied for second place in the WCHA, and finish with Minnesota State Mankato, which has won seven of eight, in a home-and-home series.
"I think after this little pod of games the next three weeks, we'll have a good feeling of where we're at," said Schmidt, second among defensemen nationally in assists with 13.
The Gophers have gotten tremendous goaltending from freshman Adam Wilcox (10-2-3, 1.78 goals-against average), are the seventh-best defensive team in the country (2.00 goals per game allowed), have solid special teams (10th-best power play, eighth-best penalty kill) and allow only 22.9 shots a game.
Offensively though, while they rank 10th in the nation at 3.35 goals a game, the Gophers have scored only 37 even-strength, non-empty-net goals (2.17 a game). Lucia said it is critical the Gophers score another 5-on-5 goal every game.
"Our best players have to be our best players," Lucia said. "As we move forward, we need a little more offense from [Nate] Condon, [Zach] Budish, [Kyle] Rau, [Nick] Bjugstad."
Last year's leading scorer, Erik Haula, leads the Gophers with 22 points. But through 17 games, Rau has 15 points and Budish, Condon and Bjugstad have 13 each. Bjugstad is tied with Haula with eight goals, but the Florida Panthers' first-round pick hasn't been as dominant as expected.
"He's done a good job in a lot of areas, but when you're pressing offensively, you try to do too much," Lucia said. "You hold on to the puck a little bit too long, you're not moving as quickly as you can. And don't forget, other teams are keying on him and making sure their top 'D' are out against him."
The Gophers returned to practice Christmas night and have found their legs after a predictably sluggish start from the holiday break.
"Guys were laying over the boards the first half-hour [Tuesday]," Schmidt said, laughing.
But Lucia wants no excuses this second half, and it starts with two formidable opponents in the Mariucci Classic.
"I still think we've got another level we can get to as a team, and for me, the sooner the better," Lucia said.
|Toronto - LP: A. Loup||4||FINAL|
|Cleveland - WP: J. Outman||6|
|LA Angels - LP: H. Santiago||1||FINAL|
|Detroit - WP: R. Porcello||2|
|Atlanta - LP: G. Schlosser||3||FINAL|
|NY Mets - WP: J. Valverde||4|
|Seattle - LP: T. Wilhelmsen||2||FINAL|
|Miami - WP: M. Dunn||3|
|St. Louis - LP: S. Maness||2||FINAL|
|Washington - WP: R. Soriano||3|
|Milwaukee - WP: Z. Duke||3||FINAL|
|Pittsburgh - LP: J. Gomez||2|
|NY Yankees - WP: P. Claiborne||5||FINAL|
|Tampa Bay - LP: H. Bell||1|
|Minnesota - WP: P. Hughes||8||FINAL|
|Kansas City - LP: Y. Ventura||3|
|Cincinnati - WP: H. Bailey||8||FINAL|
|Chicago Cubs - LP: C. Villanueva||2|
|Chicago WSox - WP: E. Johnson||16||FINAL|
|Texas - LP: R. Ross Jr.||2|
|Houston - LP: B. Peacock||1||FINAL|
|Oakland - WP: J. Chavez||4|
|Philadelphia - WP: J. Diekman||10||FINAL|
|Colorado - LP: M. Belisle||9|
|San Francisco - WP: T. Lincecum||4||FINAL|
|San Diego - LP: R. Erlin||3|
|Arizona - LP: J. Collmenter||1||FINAL|
|Los Angeles - WP: J. Wright||4|
|Baltimore - LP: B. Matusz||5||FINAL|
|Boston - WP: E. Mujica||6|
|Portland||73||4th Qtr 10:12|
|Los Angeles||2||3rd Prd|