Bulldogs, Gophers square off in NCAA tourney opener
MANCHESTER , N.H. -- In the third-place game of the North Star College Cup on Jan. 24, Minnesota Duluth senior captain Adam Krause appeared to not only score the game-winning goal with 2 minutes and 11 seconds to play at Xcel Energy Center in St....
MANCHESTER , N.H. - In the third-place game of the North Star College Cup on Jan. 24, Minnesota Duluth senior captain Adam Krause appeared to not only score the game-winning goal with 2 minutes and 11 seconds to play at Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul, it also looked as if he had inserted the dagger into Minnesota’s NCAA tournament hopes.
But nine weeks, 12 wins, three losses, a tie and a couple of Big Ten titles later, here sit the Gophers at Verizon Wireless Arena set to play the Bulldogs at 4:30 p.m. today in a Northeast Regional semifinal.
“That was a big game for both us and them,” UMD senior wing Justin Crandall said of the Bulldogs’ 2-1 victory. “You don’t want to take last in the tournament.”
Worse than finishing last in a tournament where state pride is on the line was the position it would put either team in.
The Bulldogs went into that contest winless in their previous four games. The Gophers, on the other hand, were in an even bigger tailspin having picked up only four wins and two ties in 15 games.
A mid-November sweep at the hands of UMD had dropped Minnesota from the top spot in both the USCHO.com and USA Today/USA Hockey Magazine polls, but the loss to UMD in St. Paul had dropped the Gophers out of the top 16 in the PairWise rankings - the rankings that mimic the NCAA selection committee’s.
On Jan. 24, it appeared the only way Minnesota was going to make the NCAA tournament was with a Big Ten tournament title.
“That was a game both teams needed to win,” UMD coach Scott Sandelin said. “I know walking out … how dejected they were. We would have been the same way. Neither team had been playing very well.”
Both teams ended up catching fire after the North Star College Cup, though it was the Gophers who were able to sustain their momentum and capture a pair of titles.
After the North Star, Minnesota swept Big Ten opponents Ohio State and Michigan on back-to-back weekends.
After splits with Penn State, Michigan State and Ohio State, Minnesota swept Penn State on the final weekend of the regular season to win the regular-season conference championship by two points.
The Gophers, who ended up needing only one Big Ten tournament win to secure a spot in the NCAAs, moved from a No. 4 to a No. 3 seed by topping Michigan for the tournament title.
“We started stringing some wins together and that helped a lot with the confidence in the room,” Gophers senior forward Kyle Rau said. “It seemed like when we were losing games, we were waiting to lose it. Now when we get to the third period, we’re confident we are going to win it.”
In addition to a lack of confidence midway through the season, the Gophers also were struggling in goal. Junior goaltender Adam Wilcox, a finalist for the Mike Richter Award and nominee for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award as a sophomore, began the year allowing just more than two goals per game. During the Gophers’ 4-8-2 stretch between Nov. 14 and Jan. 24, Wilcox was allowed more than 2.5 goals per game and was yanked against Michigan after giving up five goals on 16 shots.
Wilcox, who grew up in South St. Paul, Minn., alongside Crandall and UMD junior forward Austyn Young, gave up nine more goals in two games against Wisconsin the last weekend in January, but since has returned to form with shutouts in two of his last four starts.
“Adam has been so steady his first two-and-a-half years, then he went through a rough patch where some pucks were going in that normally didn’t go in,” Lucia said. “Our team kind of coincided with when he struggled, we struggled. That can happen, but you can see him start to get his game back. Just like your team, it’s not going to happen overnight.”
UMD won five of its next seven games after beating the Gophers for the third time this season, but was unable to sustain momentum. Injuries to stalwarts such as sophomores Dominic Toninato and Alex Iafallo finally caught up with the Bulldogs, who are 1-4-2 in their last seven games.
Maybe the Bulldogs can get another big game from their captain - who scored both goals in the win over Minnesota in St. Paul - to break out of a funk and eliminate their former WCHA rivals for good.
“That’s why he’s a great captain,” Crandall said. “He steps up in a big game like that, scoring two goals and it helps us win the hockey game.”
No. 2 UMD (20-15-3) vs. No. 3 Minnesota (23-12-3)
What: NCAA Northeast Regional semifinal
When: 4:30 p.m. today
Where: Verizon Wireless Arena, Manchester, N.H.
Radio: WWAX-FM 92.1
Internet: www.921thefan.com (audio); www.watchespn.com