Greetings from SNHU Arena in Manchester, N.H., where the top-seeded Gophers will play Notre Dame at 2:30 p.m. today in the NCAA Northeast Regional.
The Gophers had a good day of practice Friday and looked ready to go. They were banging around a soccer ball in the tunnel as UMass-Lowell and Cornell were playing the third period (Lowell won 5-0 to advance to Sunday’s regional final). Mike Szmatula, who missed seven games because of an injury and returned for the Big Ten tournament semifinals, is centering the third line; right wing Connor Reilly moves up to that line from the fourth, and Brent Gates Jr. is on the left. Darian Romanko is centering the fourth line with Ryan Norman and Jack Ramsey.
The top two lines remain intact: Pitlick-Kloos-Sheehy and Cammarata-Lettieri-Bristedt. Defensive pairings are the same as in the Big Ten semifinal, with Jack Sadek alongside Jake Bischoff on the top pair, taking the place of the injured Ryan Lindgren. Jack Glover, back in the lineup during Lindgren’s absence, is with Steve Johnson on the second pairing.
Szmatula said he felt good in his return last week and is glad to be back. Last week’s practices, he added, were all about the little things.
“We’re focusing on the details, doing a lot of film, faceoffs and faceoff plays,” he said. “It’s just attention to detail, because a faceoff loss for a goal can end a team’s season. And nobody wants to have that.
“We just want to make sure we play our game. If we eliminate our own mistakes, we’re going to be just fine. It comes down to who plays their game better and doesn’t shoot themselves in the foot.”
Coach Don Lucia has urged the Gophers not to try too hard. “Hit singles,” he said. “Don’t try to hit a double or triple every time you come up to bat. You want to play a good game, and hopefully, that’s enough to move forward.”
We solicited questions via Twitter a couple of days ago. Here are answers to a few:
• @GopherPuckLive asked for thoughts on this intriguing statistic: Since the NCAA tournament went to a 16-team format, the Gophers are 0-6 in regionals held outside the Twin Cities and 3-3 in regionals held in the Twin Cities. In four of those six regionals outside the Twin Cities, the Gophers were a No. 1 seed. They have a record of 2-6 with wins over #4 seed Notre Dame and #4 seed Air Force (in non-Twin Cities regionals).
The NCAA adopted the 16-team field beginning in 2003, when the Gophers won their most recent national title. They actually have played in four Twin Cities regionals since then — in 2003 and 2005 at Mariucci Arena, and in 2012 and 2014 at Xcel Energy Center. They advanced to the Frozen Four every time.
And they have failed to make the Frozen Four in all six regionals played outside the Twin Cities. The most recent time this happened was two years ago, right here in Manchester. The Gophers, fresh off their only Big Ten tournament title and a year after losing to Union in the NCAA championship game, were the top seed in the Northeast Regional at this arena (then called Verizon Wireless Arena). They were bounced 4-1 by Minnesota Duluth.
They also have lost first-round games in Grand Rapids, Mich. (to Yale in 2013); Grand Forks, N.D. (to Holy Cross in 2006); and Worcester, Mass. (to Boston College in 2008). They lost in regional finals in Grandapids (to UMD in 2004, after beating Notre Dame) and Denver (to North Dakota in 2007, after beating Air Force).
It’s a pretty powerful testament to just how important it is to play such high-stakes games in a familiar, comfortable environment, with no travel hassles and the boost of a home crowd.
Here’s what Lucia had to say about it Friday: “If you look at most teams, if you play closer to home, it’s an advantage. I think I saw a stat just recently where if a team got on a plane and had to fly somewhere, the chances of them winning aren’t as good. It’s a lot easier if you’re an hour away, or a couple hours away, and can jump on a bus. And maybe you’ve played in buildings and surroundings that you’re a little more used to. I think all of that has a tendency to play into it.”
• @peekay622 asked: Why can’t the Big Ten tournament find an audience? What is wrong there?
I think there are a few things at play here. First, the conference hasn’t been around long enough to build rivals on par with North Dakota or UMD. The Big Ten hasn’t been particularly deep in its first four years of existence; this was the first season it sent three teams to the NCAA tournament (the Gophers, Penn State and Ohio State). And plenty of fans still can’t let go of their anger at the breakup of the old WCHA, making them unwilling to support — or even accept — Big Ten hockey.
The conference probably hoped for too much when it booked the first four league tournaments at Xcel and Joe Louis Arena. Big Ten officials seemed to underestimate the depth of fans’ animosity and the amount of time it would take to build the kind of interest and emotion it takes to have a lively, well-attended tournament.
The resurgence of Wisconsin under new coach Tony Granato, the addition of a strong Notre Dame program next season and Penn State’s rapid ascent are all good signs for the future of Big Ten hockey. And the tournament moves to campus sites next season, a smart move during this building phase.
Here’s Lucia on the league’s future:
“I think as you move forward, the Big Ten is going to be an absolutely terrific league. What Penn State has done to build their program, and Ohio State is in the NCAA (tournament), Wisconsin missed out by a game, and obviously, Michigan and Michigan State aren’t going to be in the situation they’re in much longer. And Notre Dame has been a terrific program since (coach) Jeff (Jackson) went there. They’ve made a commitment to their program.
“That’s seven (schools). And we’ve talked about hopefully we can get to eight. That would be exactly where we want to be.”
Look for full coverage after the game.