Myers: Gophers hockey team focused on future after WCHA letdown
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If members of the Gophers hockey team were prone to dwelling on the past, this might have been a tough week for them.
Their last game was their worst of the season, at least in terms of offense, and they open the NCAA playoffs in a place where one of their coaches wore a college hockey jersey for the last time.
Assistant coach Grant Potulny confirmed as much on Wednesday as the team was packing for Grand Rapids, Mich., recalling that his final game as a Gopher was inside Van Andel Arena nine years ago, when he scored his team's only goal in a 3-1 loss to Minnesota-Duluth.
But the Gophers to a man seem completely focused on the future, on Friday's afternoon meeting with Yale, knowing that another clunker of a game will be their last, but also taking some solace in the way they've bounced back from losses all season.
"It's all about playing well this weekend. Whether you can create momentum from the previous week, I don't know," Gophers coach Don Lucia said, brushing off his team's one-and-done trip to the WCHA Final Five.
"Our guys feel good about themselves. They've bounced back and won after every loss this year, so the most important thing for me is that the health of the team is good."
A year ago, the Gophers coaches responded to a loss in the Final Five by working the players hard the next day. By contrast, Lucia gave the team the rest of last weekend off, trying to ensure they were rested and loose heading into the NCAA regional weekend.
"It's been a really light week of practice. Guys have been in great spirits, looking forward to this weekend and knowing that you've got to put a game like that behind you," defenseman Nate Schmidt said, reflecting very briefly on the 2-0 loss to Colorado College.
"We didn't play our best, didn't do the things that have been successful for us all year. Now we just have to get ready for the weekend."
With Minnesota, North Dakota, Yale and Niagara gathering in west Michigan, there will be no decided home ice advantage for anyone, at least based on geography, and Lucia recalls that 2004 game versus Minnesota-Duluth in Grand Rapids that was played before a few thousand fans inside an 11,000-seat arena.
With reports of roughly 5,000 tickets sold this weekend, the atmosphere will be nothing like the raucous crowds the Gophers are used to at home, or when they visit other WCHA arenas.
"The crowd sometimes helps, and home games are always nice, but at the same time, it's playoff hockey," Gophers junior forward Nate Condon said. "It's pretty much on us no matter where you're playing. Like last year at the Frozen Four, it wasn't a home crowd by any stretch of the imagination, so it's on the players to get themselves going."
In Yale, they expect to see a physically smaller version of themselves. Lucia has known Bulldogs coach Keith Allain for a long time, and knows that they like to play a similar up-tempo style of hockey. Allain, meeting with the Connecticut media on Wednesday before his team headed to Michigan, said if the Bulldogs have one advantage, it's that they're used to playing on a smaller ice sheet like the one in Grand Rapids.
"They are a really good hockey team. They have scoring from all their lines. They like to play the puck possession game, and their goaltender has had a hell of a year," Allain said.
"We want to pressure them and make them play faster with the puck than they want to. They are used to playing on an Olympic sheet, which gives you a little more time. I'm sure they were practicing on their NHL sheet this week. They are very fast, and they like to beat you one-on-one."
The easy joke among a few of the Gophers was that against an Ivy League opponent, you need to out-skate them because you will be hard pressed to out-smart them.
"They're a pretty smart group of guys, but we're no shabby bunch ourselves," Schmidt said, with a sly grin.
With arch-rival North Dakota playing on the other side of the West Regional bracket, coach and players alike said they're guarding against looking ahead. Seth Helgeson said as focused as they are on Yale, he'd love one more meeting with North Dakota in the regional final, then relented and admitted he'd probably cheer for Niagara on Friday evening, if the Gophers advance in the regional opener.
"Anytime you see North Dakota go down, you're kind of happy inside," Helgeson said.
During NCAA playoff time, the rigors of travel -- even across the country -- are non-existent, as college hockey's governing body provides a charter plane for the trips to the regionals. While Minnesota State and St. Cloud State shared a plane to their regional in Toledo, the Gophers loaded up at MSP and headed east on their own, and at least one player took advantage of being able to bring sharp objects in carry-on luggage, which is verboten on commercial flights.
Schmidt was sporting a bit of scraggly facial hair, but said that it would be gone by game time on Friday. In breaking with hockey tradition, Lucia said no to playoff beards this season, after the loss at the Final Five.
"I've got a razor in my bag, unfortunately," Schmidt said, as he headed for the airport, four wins away from the Gophers' sixth NCAA hockey title.