Gophers hockey looks to end NCAA championship drought

Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox said the Gophers are out to win the NCAA title this season and "add a couple more diamonds" to their WCHA regular-season champion rings.

Ann Heisenfelt/Ann Heisenfelt/Associated Press

ST. PAUL, Minn. — As the Gophers men’s hockey team addressed the media Friday in advance of Saturday’s NCAA tournament game, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia sported some extra jewelry.

Lucia, the Gophers coach since 1999, was wearing his NCAA championship ring on his right hand. It’s a reminder of Minnesota’s dominance in the early 2000s when the Gophers won back-to-back national titles in 2002 and 2003.

It’s been more than a decade since Minnesota last hung an NCAA championship banner at Mariucci Arena. Owners of the No. 1 overall seed entering this year’s tournament, the Gophers are hoping this is the year that drought ends.

"We got our rings finally from our WCHA regular season last year. I don’t know about the other guys, but that got me excited," said Minnesota goalie Adam Wilcox. "We want to make it a little bit prettier. Winning the championship will make it prettier and add a couple more diamonds on there."

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The ring itself is obviously not the biggest motivating factor for Minnesota, which comes into this year’s tournament with high expectations. The Gophers finished with a 25-5-6 regular-season record and were the top-ranked team in college hockey for the majority of the season.

Minnesota’s hockey program has won five national titles, dating back to the school’s first championship in 1974. Coming into the tournament with the No. 1 overall seed doesn’t change expectations that are already high for a storied program — or so say the Gophers, who will take on Robert Morris at 4:30 p.m. CT on Saturday at the Xcel Energy Center.

"I think the coaches made it pretty clear that since we’re playing at the U of M, we’re expected to win; we’re expected to go play in Frozen Fours," said senior captain Nate Condon. "That’s something that’s kind of how the bar’s been set at Minnesota. Coming into this season, we knew what the expectations were and it hasn’t really changed for us."

The last time the Gophers were in a national championship game was 2003, when they won 5-1 over New Hampshire for their second straight title. Since then, Minnesota has been back to the Frozen Four twice in the last 10 seasons, losing both times in the semifinals.

Recent postseason struggles still haunt the Gophers after Minnesota was knocked out in the first round of last year’s West regional of the NCAA tournament. As a heavy favorite, the Gophers fell to underdog Yale — the eventual national champion — by a 3-2 final in overtime.

The way things ended last season still doesn’t sit well with Minnesota, as the Gophers look to replace that memory with more pleasant ones this time around.

"It’s definitely a motivating factor. We don’t want to be one and done again," said junior forward Kyle Rau. "It sucked last year. I think all the returning guys all know how bad it felt, not making it to the Frozen Four like we wanted to. We had a good team last year. We’ve got a good team this year, too, so we’ll see how it goes."

If Minnesota hopes to avoid another early exit, it will have to fend off a Robert Morris team playing perhaps its best hockey of the season at the right time. The Colonials have won five straight games heading into Saturday’s matchup in St. Paul and went 17-5-3 down the stretch after a rough 2-12-2 start to their season in the Atlantic Hockey conference.

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Robert Morris not only boasts a 30-goal scorer in Cody Wydo but also the No. 6 scoring offense in all of college hockey (3.46 goals per game). Though Minnesota had one of the best scoring defenses this season (2.03 goals against per game), the Gophers will no doubt be tested in Saturday’s regional game.

"You look at what they’ve been able to do the second half of the season, they’ve won 17 games. They’re scoring a ton of goals here this second half of the year," Lucia said. "They certainly had to play their way into the tournament by winning six playoff games in their league. The one thing we’ve seen over the years is whoever has come out of that league has played awfully well."

After last year’s abrupt end to the season, the word "Yale" is not one that Gophers fans like to hear. Nor is Holy Cross, the infamous underdogs who shocked Minnesota and knocked the Gophers out in the first round of the playoffs in 2006.

Lucia’s team would prefer not to add Robert Morris to that list. One-and-done scenarios haven’t been too kind to Minnesota in recent years. This season’s crop of Gophers hopes to change that.

"Either way, our expectations didn’t change getting the No. 1 seed versus anything else," said junior forward Travis Boyd. "Maybe people think there’s a little extra pressure on us, but not for us. Our goal stayed the same, and we’re going to continue to pursue that goal."

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