MANCHESTER, N.H. – As much as the Gophers hoped to win the Big Ten men’s hockey tournament, they found a small blessing in their March 17 semifinal loss to Penn State: an extra day off.
The Gophers have not had an idle weekend since the first week of January. Coach Don Lucia gave them a freshening last week in preparation for Saturday’s NCAA tournament opener against Notre Dame, allowing his players three days off in a four-day span. That gave them time to rest weary legs and heal some minor aches before traveling to the Northeast Regional at SNHU Arena.
“We tried to do everything we can to gauge our guys’ energy level this week,’’ Lucia said of the Gophers, who resumed daily practices on Wednesday. “I think we’ve been real sharp these last three days.’’
Forward Tyler Sheehy said the Gophers will benefit from the rest. Lucia said he hopes that will lead to a strong start — something he feels is essential against the Irish — and good decisions.
In the win-or-go-home pressure cooker of the NCAA tournament, Lucia is urging his team to play wisely but not cautiously.
“We want them to play on their toes,’’ he said. “We want them to play to win. You don’t have to play safe. If you’re afraid to play, you’re not going to have a whole lot of success this time of year.
“We want our guys to play fast, and we want them to make plays, but make smart plays as soon as the puck is dropped. You just want them to play their best hockey.’’
Sense of place
The Gophers and Notre Dame have distinctly different memories of Manchester. The Gophers played in the Northeast Regional at SNHU Arena — then called Verizon Wireless Arena — in 2015 and lost 4-1 to Minnesota Duluth in the first round. The Irish began their run to the 2011 Frozen Four in the same place, defeating Merrimack and New Hampshire.
Gophers forward Justin Kloos, who played in that 2015 regional, said he isn’t superstitious about the return.
“There’s a little bit of familiarity,’’ he said. “I don’t think we’re reading too much into it.’’
Irish coach Jeff Jackson didn’t hesitate when asked what he recalled about his last visit.
“Anders Lee, in overtime,’’ he said, referring to the goal scored by the former Edina star that propelled the Irish past Merrimack and into the regional final.
The links between the Gophers and Notre Dame run deep. Gophers coach Don Lucia played for the Irish from 1977 to ’81; a defenseman, he was an alternate captain as a senior and finished his career with seven goals and 23 assists.
Lucia’s son Mario, who now plays for the Wild’s AHL affiliate in Iowa, finished his Notre Dame career last year. Ryan Guentzel, the eldest son of Gophers associate coach Mike Guentzel, played at Notre Dame from 2007 to ’11.
No state has landed more players on the current Notre Dame roster than Minnesota. The team includes four forwards from Edina — senior Ben Ostlie, juniors Connor Hurley and Bo Brauer, and sophomore Dylan Malmquist — as well as defensemen Tony Bretzman (Mendota Heights), Jordan Gross (Maple Grove) and Peter Mark (Minneapolis).