Good afternoon from Loveland, Colo., where I've arrived to cover the NCAA West Regional men's hockey tournament, featuring both the Gophers and Minnesota State Mankato. Top-seeded Minnesota will play No. 4 seed Nebraska Omaha at 9 p.m. Saturday (ESPNU), and the second-seeded MSU Mavericks will meet No. 3 seed Quinnipiac at 4 p.m. (ESPN3 stream).
I can see the Rockies from my hotel in Loveland, though this photo doesn't do it justice. It's my first trip to Colorado, other than being in the Denver airport, so looking forward to the new experience.
Already today, we've had big news in college hockey. For the second straight day, a Big Ten team is out of the tournament because of COVID-19 issues. Thursday, it was Notre Dame in the Northeast in Albany, N.Y. Friday, it was Michigan, the No. 3 seed in the Midwest Regional in Fargo. The Wolverines were to play Minnesota Duluth on Friday, but now the third-seeded Bulldogs move into Saturday's regional final against the winner of the North Dakota-American International game.
The other early news Friday: The three finalists for the Mike Richter Award, given to the nation's top goalie, were announced, and the trio has a heavy Minnesota flavor. Gophers senior Jack LaFontaine and Minnesota State junior Dryden McKay join Boston College sophomore Spencer Knight. It'll be interesting see who wins it. Here's a look at the stats of each:
LaFontaine: 21-6 (most wins), 1.74 goals-against average (third) .936 save percentage (second), five shutouts (tie second).
McKay: 19-3, 1.40 GAA (first), .930 save percentage (tie seventh), nine shutouts (first).
Knight: 16-3-1, 2.13 GAA (13th), .933 save percentage (tie fifth), three shutouts (tie sixth).
As for the games, we got our first big upset. No. 4 Bemidji State stunned No. 1 Wisconsin 6-3 in the East Regional in Bridgeport, Conn.
I'll be adding info from today's news conferences from the four teams in Loveland. Check back for updates.
Mavericks relishing moment
Minnesota State was the first team to hold its video conference Friday, and coach Mike Hastings was upbeat after his team's first practice since arriving in Colorado on Wednesday. The four teams in Colorado spent the past two days undergoing COVID-19 tests.
"The setup here in the Loveland and the people here have been fantastic,'' Hastings said. "Today was a good day on the ice, and I'm really excited about what's in front of us.''
Hastings sees Quinnipiac as a structurally sound team, especially on special teams. "We're going to have to be disciplined and stay out of the [penalty] box,'' he said. "… The present a real difficult opponent but one that's going to ask you to play a really honest game. Our puck management is going to be really important.''
Hastings stressed the need for his team to enjoy the experience even with COVID-19 casting a shadow.
"I wouldn't be telling you the truth if I said there's not a little bit of anxiety in that room until all the tests come back and we're clean,'' he said. "… The uncertainty is difficult to get through, so you better enjoy it.''
The Mavericks are seeking the program's first NCAA tournament win in their seventh appearance. Hastings isn't shying away from that fact and the task at hand.
"We address it,'' he said. "We discuss what we've learned from it. You've got to own your past and dictate your future.''
McKay sees the opportunity to change the narrative.
"There's nothing we can do about the past,'' he said. "… All we can do is focus on the game tomorrow. It would be awesome to get that monkey off our back tomorrow.''
Update from Gophers access:
Gophers honing their focus
With Notre Dame and Michigan of the Big Ten out of the NCAA tournament because of COVID-19 issues, the first question asked of Gophers coach Bob Motzko on Friday during the team's media availability was if his team is healthy and had passed its COVID-19 tests. "Yes'' was the answer, and Motzko also said he hasn't yet talked to Notre Dame coach Jeff Jackson or Michigan coach Mel Pearson, but he empathizes with those teams.
"It's sad,'' he said. "You feel for those kids. But it's a reminder that it's out there. None of us are safe. We play tomorrow, and we have one more day to test. Right now, everybody's keeping their fingers crossed.''
Motzko was happy with what he saw from his team's practice Friday.
"They're excited to just get on the ice and skate,'' he said, referring to the two days of testing before the teams were allowed to take the ice. "We were sharp, we were crisp, and we had a little snarl in practice, too, which was good.''
With Bemidji State's upset of Wisconsin in the East Regional, Motzko said he noticed the result, but "I'm not going to dwell on it,'' he said. "I've been a No. 1 seed and got beaten by a No. 16, and I've been a No. 16 and beat a No. 1. All that matters is how you're playing. … It's a great lesson for our guys.''
Gophers captain Sammy Walker wants the team to pay attention to the present.
"We're not really looking past this game,'' he said. "Just our first shift, our first five minutes is what we're focusing on. … Anyone can win in this tournament.''
Added leading scorer Sampo Ranta, "It's up for grabs, and you have to play your best hockey right now. I feel our team's doing that. We've been really good lately, and we've just got to be ready to go tomorrow right from the get-go.''