Selfless Gophers look to capture inaugural Big Ten tourney title
MINNEAPOLIS — The Gophers men’s hockey team collected several individual Big Ten awards earlier this week, but the individual recipients refused to take all of the credit.
Don Lucia, the Big Ten’s Coach of the Year, deflected the praise to his players. Adam Wilcox, both the Goalie of the Year and Player of the Year in the conference, gave thanks to the teammates playing in front of him. And Mike Reilly, the Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year, heaped praise on his roommate, Wilcox.
That’s the type of team this year’s Gophers are: selfless. Aside from perhaps Wilcox, there’s not one player Minnesota relies on night in and night out. It’s a team effort every weekend, a philosophy that resulted in the Gophers winning the regular-season Big Ten crown.
Now Minnesota is hoping it can do the same and win a pair of games this weekend to take home the inaugural Big Ten tournament championship at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
"There’s been a lot of talk this year about that, whether it was winning the first Big Ten title or winning the first North Star Cup," Lucia said Wednesday. "We’ve been able to accomplish a lot of those goals so far this year. We’re excited about the regular season, but that chapter’s over. We open up a new chapter and that’s this weekend. We just want to play well."
The Gophers locked up the Big Ten’s regular-season title last weekend with an overtime win at Michigan. In order to also take home the conference’s tournament trophy, Minnesota needs just two more wins. Lucia’s squad has a first-round bye and will play Friday against the winner of No. 4 Ohio State and No. 5 Michigan State. The winner of that game will advance to Saturday’s championship.
Because of the first-round bye, the Gophers will have the chance to watch Thursday’s game and scout their upcoming opponent — although they’ve already faced both the Buckeyes and Spartans four times each.
"I really believe that when you win that first game, you get the jitters out of it and I think you’re more ready to go when the game begins on Day 2," Lucia said. "Both of them will be desperate teams. The only chance Ohio State or Michigan State has to advance to the NCAAs is to win the Big Ten championship. Both possess very good goaltenders. I think they’re both playing pretty good hockey right now. We’ve had awfully close games with both of them."
This is the first season of the six-team Big Ten Conference, meaning this weekend will be the first Big Ten tournament. Minnesota left the WCHA Conference to join the Big Ten, and Gophers fans grew accustomed to frequenting St. Paul nearly every year for the WCHA Final Five.
Without the likes of rival North Dakota or the several other in-state schools taking part in the Big Ten tournament, the atmosphere is surely to be a different vibe than previous years at Xcel Energy Center.
"It’s not going to be like the Final Five was. We’re kidding ourselves if we think there are going to be 15,000, 16,000 people there this weekend," Lucia said. "Hopefully we’ll have a great contingent of Gopher fans and we can put on a real good show for them. The goal for us is to get to Saturday night."
To do that, Minnesota will do what it’s done all season: rely on a solid game from Wilcox, and hope to get to the three-goal mark on offense. The Gophers lost just five games all year, and they scored two or fewer goals in each of the five losses. Even in its six ties this season, Minnesota failed to score three goals in four of those games.
Given what Wilcox has been able to do between the pipes, Minnesota doesn’t always have to score a ton. He allowed an average of 1.91 goals per game, the third-best mark in the nation. If he can keep opponents to two or fewer goals, the Gophers — who average 3.47 goals per game on offense — feel good about their chances.
"It’s almost a race to three goals," Wilcox said Wednesday. "Usually a lot of times, games end up 3-2. So we’re going to try to keep two or less on the board every game. Obviously we always shoot for zero, but no more than two for us."
It’s essentially a certainty that Minnesota will play again in St. Paul in the West regional as the No. 1 seed in next weekend’s NCAA tournament. With that top spot all but locked up, there isn’t quite as much on the line for the Gophers this weekend.
But Lucia and his team insist they’re not looking past the Big Ten tournament. Taking home that trophy is another goal they hope to achieve.
"It’s hard not to look forward to that, just because it’s in St. Paul and we’re going to have a great fan base there," Reilly said of the NCAA tournament. "Obviously we’ve got to focus on this weekend first."
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