Gophers enter NCAA tournament ‘clicking on all cylinders’

If peaking at the right time truly means something in the world of college hockey, Minnesota appears to be in solid shape heading into Friday's NCAA tournament opener against Minnesota Duluth.

Duane Burleson/Duane Burleson/Associated Press

MINNEAPOLIS — It didn’t seem to matter much to the Minnesota Gophers hockey team last year when they entered the NCAA tournament on the heels of two straight losses. Minnesota went on to advance to the national championship before ultimately losing to Union.

In 2013, the Gophers entered postseason play off a loss in the WCHA Final Five semifinals and wound up losing their first game in the NCAA tournament. The final game of the year before the NCAA tournament in 2012 was also a loss.

For the first time in years, Minnesota now enters the playoffs on a high note. Thanks to a series sweep of Penn State in the last week of the regular season, followed by two wins in the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers are currently riding a four-game winning streak. The bigger picture for coach Don Lucia’s team has been just as good, with Minnesota going on a 12-3-1 tear in its last 16 games leading up to Friday’s NCAA tournament matchup with Minnesota Duluth.

If peaking at the right time truly means something in the world of college hockey, the Gophers are in pretty good shape.

"I think we’re clicking right now on all cylinders," said Minnesota defenseman Brady Skjei.

That can’t be said about this Gophers team at different points in the season. There was a time when they weren’t clicking on all cylinders, let alone most cylinders. During a stretch that included eight losses in 14 games, Minnesota struggled to score. Junior goaltender Adam Wilcox was also not the same goalie during that time as the one who won the Big Ten Goaltender of the Year award one season earlier.

As Minnesota has started to trend in the right direction after that lull, many things have started to click again for the Gophers. They’re scoring more goals than they did earlier in the year, thanks to seniors such as Kyle Rau (20 goals), Travis Boyd (19), Sam Warning (12) and Seth Ambroz (11). But Minnesota has also seen its sophomores emerge as well. That includes Justin Kloos (13 goals) and Taylor Cammarata (27 points), as well as strong play of late from Vinni Lettieri (9 goals).

Yet for as much as Minnesota’s offense has done over the last few months to turn the ship around, much of the credit belongs to Wilcox. He made 39 saves to shut out Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament and held Michigan to two goals in the conference championship game as Boyd, Kloos and Rau led the scoring charge.

Wilcox had three shutouts in his first 27 games of the year. He’s equaled that number over the last 10 games as he appears to have returned to form.

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"I’ll take that Adam the rest of the way and see where we end up," Lucia said. "He feels good about himself right now. The team feels good about the way he’s playing. We all know how important goaltending is this time of the year. We hate to put it on one player, but the bottom line is more often than not, who’s ever goalie plays better is going to advance this time of year."

The Gophers’ opponent Friday, Minnesota Duluth, is not trending upward like Minnesota is. The Bulldogs have won just once in their last seven games and have lost three in a row entering the postseason. UMD’s season is almost a mirror image of the Gophers’ as the Bulldogs got off to a fast start and were strong though the midway point before fading late.

Minnesota has a roster filled with players who have NCAA tournament experience. Everyone except the Gophers’ freshmen have played in a national championship game, and the seniors have been to multiple Frozen Fours in their careers. Those seniors have been a big key for Minnesota’s late surge. Now they hope they can ride that wave of momentum to keep their college careers going a bit longer.

"Throughout every year you’re going to have ups and downs," Boyd said. "Maybe this year our downs were more noticeable and a little more down than usual. But we’re playing the best hockey we’ve played all year. I think everyone in the locker room is confident of how we’re playing. . . . If we play how we’ve been playing, I like our chances."

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