Myers: Even the favored Gophers will need a little luck in Frozen 4
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As they prep for their second Frozen Four appearance in the past three seasons, it's clear that the Gophers are good. Talent- and season resume-wise, they're the best of the four teams gathered at the Wells Fargo Center, on the south side of Philadelphia this weekend.
And they're blessed with good health, which is no small accomplishment at this time of year, having survived relatively unscathed from a first-ever trip through a Big Ten season, and being able to play close to home both for the conference tournament and the NCAA regional.
But having taken teams - both from Colorado College and Minnesota - to a few of these April weekend tournaments before, Gophers coach Don Lucia knows that talent and good health are only two legs of the stool you need to stand on to reach the NCAA's top shelf.
"I've always said if you're going to do well at the end you've got to be good, you've got to be lucky and you've got to be healthy," Lucia said last week, when the Gophers were still skating at home, prior to their Monday trip to Philadelphia. "We're healthy right now. Hopefully we'll be good and get some bounces here at the end."
The need for luck comes from experience, and Lucia has seen both sides of it. In 1996, when he took Colorado College to the Frozen Four, he had one of the most solid teams in college hockey history, but fell short when Michigan beat the Tigers in overtime.
His first title team with the Gophers, in 2002, had good fortune smile on them when a ridiculously talented Denver team - which had won the WCHA's regular season and playoff titles, and had the Gophers' number all season - was bounced in the NCAA regional. That opened the door for the Gophers to out-last Michigan and Maine in St. Paul and claim the crown.
A year later, in Buffalo, the Gophers had one of the great teams in the program's history, but needed a fluky bad-angle overtime goal by a rookie named Thomas Vanek to survive a meeting with Michigan in the Frozen Four semifinals.
They know something about bad hockey luck in Philadelphia, where the Flyers have not won a Stanley Cup in nearly 40 years, since becoming the first of the "Class of '67" expansion teams to do so back in the '70s.
On Wednesday the Gophers, as the tournament's top-seed, dressed in the Philadelphia Flyers locker room, and skated on the Flyers ice. At the pre-tournament press conference, Lucia joked that all these years later, he finally made it onto the ice in Philadelphia.
"It's kind of funny," Lucia said of his spin around the ice. "Actually I was drafted by the Flyers back in 1978, but like any good man you have to know your limitations, so I got into coaching instead."
Two years ago, when the Gophers stormed into the Frozen Four in Tampa for an opening-round date with Boston College, goaltending was not supposed to be a limitation. But senior Kent Patterson's college goaltending career ended disastrously, with six Eagles getting pucks past him.
Goaltending has seemingly never been a limitation for the Gophers, with Adam Wilcox putting his name solidly in the program's record books as a rookie last year and as a sophomore this year. Lucia said Wilcox's steady play has meant consistency, which has made the ride easier.
"During the course of the season we haven't had those lulls where you play poorly for a few weeks at a time, and a big part of that is Adam," the coach said. "Consistency in net. He gives us an opportunity to win every time he plays."
The Gophers were a team on the rise and in transition at the start of the 2012-13 season, and having Wilcox step in right away as a freshman, with no hiccups in his game, in retrospect, is one of the biggest reasons his teammates feel they're back in the Frozen Four.
"It was great knowing that we had that solid foundation to build off of," Gophers captain Nate Condon said on Wednesday. "Obviously, Adam did a great job last season for us and stepped in and played right there. So we knew coming into the season that he was going to be good for us, and that he was going to be our backstop. We do have a young team, so it's hard for guys to step in and play right away. I think maybe that helped some of our freshmen defensemen really get in the hang of things, maybe some of the older guys finding new roles on the team."
The roles are defined now. The team is healthy. And with some luck they'll play two games over the weekend.
On Tuesday many members of the Gophers got out and sampled Philly cheesesteak, taking in a little of the atmosphere of a city most had never visited before. For Lucia, it's his seventh Frozen Four team, but nothing about the experience is starting to feel the least bit stale.
"You have to enjoy it. It never gets old playing in a Frozen Four," Lucia said. "There are no guarantees that anybody on our team is ever going to get another chance to do this."
That part comes from talent, and health, and a little luck.