Gophers claim West with play worthy of No. 1 seed

Minnesota players race to celebrate Sunday night's victory with goalie Adam Wilcox (left), who had his fourth shutout of the season.

Ann Heisenfelt/Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — These Gophers have that look, the one befitting of a tournament’s top overall seed.

With a trip to the Frozen Four on the line, there was never any doubt which team was the No. 1 seed. Minnesota outplayed St. Cloud State from start to finish, and the 4-0 final was indicative of that. The Gophers’ defense never gave the Huskies a chance to get back into the game, thanks in large part to the 24-save shutout performance by goalie Adam Wilcox.

Minnesota is playing its best hockey at the best time to do so. Two convincing victories this weekend — the Gophers beat Robert Morris 7-3 on Saturday — proved just that.

"I was saying after the game, these (were) two complete games, six periods of just giving it to the other team," Wilcox said after Sunday’s shutout. "We didn’t give them anything. We didn’t give any team a chance to come and get us."

The Gophers’ reward for this weekend’s dominant performance? A date with arguably the school’s biggest and most bitter rival, the University of North Dakota, in the Frozen Four in Philadelphia. The former WCHA foes will face off at 7:30 p.m. CT on April 10. They’ll follow Boston College and Union, who open things up at 4 p.m.

Gophers 4, Huskies 0

There was plenty of talk this season — at least from outsiders — about Minnesota’s postseason struggles in recent years. While the Gophers had gotten to the NCAA tournament on a somewhat regular basis, they hadn’t been to the national title since the 2002-03 season.

There’s still one more hurdle to climb before playing for a title, but based on how Minnesota has played this weekend, it looks primed to make a run at another trophy.

"Obviously if our team’s playing its best hockey at the end of the year, that’s what you want," senior captain Nate Condon said. "Right now, we’re getting production out of a lot of guys.  . . . If we can keep that going, it’s pretty hard to beat us."

Like it’s done all year, Minnesota got scoring from a variety of sources Sunday. Freshman Justin Kloos temporarily took over for the team lead in goals when his 14th of the season put the Gophers up 1-0. Junior Seth Ambroz — who entered with 13 goals — took notice and also scored his 14th when he buried a loose puck on the doorstep to make it a 2-0 Minnesota lead early in the second.

Kloos regained his scoring crown when his 15th goal of the year (and second of the night) after a beautiful tic-tac-toe pass from linemates Taylor Cammarata and Condon. That put the Gophers up 3-0 and effectively squashed any hope for the Huskies; Minnesota wasn’t about to led a three-goal lead slip away.

Junior captain Kyle Rau scored midway through the third on a rebound to make it a 4-0 rout. When the final horn sounded at the Xcel Energy Center, the celebration was on for the Gophers, who mobbed Wilcox near his net before donning their Frozen Four caps.

The Gophers were in this same position two years ago, advancing to the Frozen Four before losing 6-1 to Boston College in the semifinals. That Minnesota team entered the postseason with a 24-12-1 record, not quite the 25-5-6 regular-season mark of this year’s squad.

Photos of the Week: 3/23/14-3/30/14

Just like that 2011-12 team, however, the 2013-14 Gophers don’t rely on just one or two big scorers, and they’ve put their trust in one goalie for nearly the entire season.

What this year’s team has that the previous Frozen Four team didn’t: a plethora of talented freshmen who have contributed in their first seasons. That was on display again Sunday with Kloos leading the charge.

"Obviously we’re a lot younger, but the excitement never goes away," Lucia said when asked to compare his two most recent Frozen Four teams. "I think that’s the big thing for these guys, the excitement, the drive to get there, that’ll be all new, but it never gets old. As a coach, you enjoy it just as much every time you go."

Lucia has two national titles on his resume at Minnesota, with the last one coming back in 2003. Winning a championship has remained the goal and the expectation for the Gophers each year since then, but it’s an achievement that hasn’t been reached in more than 10 years.

Thanks to a balanced scoring attack, a talented freshman class, and a Hobey Baker finalist in net, this year’s Gophers group continues to look the part of a national title threat. Minnesota made sure to send a message this weekend, and Sunday’s 4-0 win was an exclamation point on its Frozen Four berth.

"We’re happy getting this far, but at the same time we’re not satisfied," said Condon, who was a freshman on the Gophers team that went to the Frozen Four two years ago. "It’s something that we talk about at the beginning of the year that we want to win our conference, we want to win the Big Ten tournament and we want to go to the national championship. Those are the goals for us, and nothing’s stopping us from that."

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