MINNEAPOLIS The WCHA Final Five didn't end the way the Gophers would have liked it to, as Minnesota was bounced in the tournament's semifinals. But coach Don Lucia's team has a bigger goal in mind, and the journey to the NCAA championship begins Friday.
Minnesota, a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, will face Yale in the first round at 1 p.m. CT Friday in Grand Rapids, Mich. Though the two teams have squared off 19 times in their history, this will be the first postseason matchup. The Gophers own a 13-6-0 mark against the Bulldogs, but they'll be aiming to improve their postseason record against Yale to a perfect 1-0.
The Gophers were the top-ranked team in college hockey for a good portion of the year and finished the 2012-13 regular season with a 24-7-5 record. Minnesota went on to sweep Bemidji State in the first round of the WCHA playoffs before losing, 2-0, to Colorado College in the Final Five at Xcel Energy Center.
Yale, meanwhile, finished its regular season 16-10-3 overall and lost to Quinnipiac in the ECAC third-place game. The Bulldogs are led by a pair of 35-point scorers. Junior forward Kenny Agostino, a Pittsburgh Penguins draft pick, have 15 goals and a team-high 22 assists. Close behind him is senior Andrew Miller, whose 16 goals (including seven on the power play) are most on the team; he also has added 19 assists.
Bulldogs senior goalie Jeff Malcolm has started the majority of the games for Yale, going 16-6-2 overall with a 2.42 goals-against average and two shutouts. Minnesota is led in net by freshman Adam Wilcox, who has posted an impressive 1.85 goals against average seventh-best in the nation in 38 games.
The Gophers enter the NCAA tournament with the best scoring offense in Division I college hockey. Minnesota's 3.51 goals per game are tops among all teams, led by a team-high 21 goals from Nick Bjugstad. Junior Erik Haula has 16 goals and a team-high 33 assists, and Kyle Rau (15), Zach Budish (13) and Nate Condon (12) all have double-digit goals.
Minnesota also has the nation's third-best scoring defense, giving up just 1.97 goals per game. Yale has allowed nearly a goal per game more (2.76). Couple that with the Gophers' high-powered offense, and it appears Minnesota has the edge on paper.
But come playoff time, all it takes is one off night or a few odd bounces of the puck to end a team's season. It's win or go home, and the Gophers are trying to get back to the NCAA championship for the first time since winning it all in 2003.
It might be hard for Gophers fans to not look ahead past Friday's game with Yale. The reason? The winner of that game will play the winner of the matchup between North Dakota and Niagara on Saturday. Of course, the Gophers and UND are longtime rivals and will be joining different conferences next year after spending so many years together in the WCHA. They won't be playing each other in the regular season for several years, so this could be the last time for a while that each team's fans get the chance to enjoy the rivalry.
A potential game against North Dakota with a trip to the Frozen Four on the line would be just about the best way to draw things up. But the Gophers insist they're not looking past the Bulldogs.
"Hopefully, we will have a great game Friday night. I am just really excited to play Yale," defenseman Nate Schmidt told reporters Wednesday. "If we win the game, whoever we get after that will be a great game."
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