Myers: Gophers must come down from emotional high to play title game
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PHILADELPHIA - Justin Holl's last-second goal in the Frozen Four semifinals, which lifted the Gophers over North Dakota and into the NCAA title game, is something Minnesota hockey fans will remember for a long, long time. Especially if they were foolish enough to park on the street in Dinkytown on Thursday night.
On Friday, as the Gophers prepped for their first appearance in the NCAA title game in more than a decade, the challenge was to not fondly recall the tight battle with their historic western border rivals. For coach Don Lucia and his staff, today was a day to forget the past, and move on to the only bigger thing remaining.
Like beating Union on Saturday night, getting past the dramatics of the North Dakota game from a physical and psychological standpoint, is a notable task. On Friday morning, Lucia and the Gophers players seemed to still be coming down from the emotional high.
"It's nice to have a day off in between," Lucia said, making it clear that a press conference less than 12 hours after leaving the rink the night before was not the best part of his weekend. "It was a late night last night, so the most important thing we have to do is spend the day recovering. And that's where Cal (Dietz), our strength coach comes in. I didn't even crawl into bed until 3 a.m. You're eating your postgame meal at 12:30 a.m. You get back to your room at 1 a.m. It takes a while to decompress and here we are back at the rink at 11 a.m., and that's another topic."
Dietz has been with the Gophers athletic department since 2000, and knows a few things about high-performance athletes, having married U.S. Olympic hockey gold medalist Karyn Bye. On Friday, he talked of the challenge he has getting the team's minds and bodies back into shape after the energy and emotion expended versus North Dakota.
"For recovery stuff we do things that help at the cellular level, but I think it's more mental for these guys," Dietz said, as the Gophers stretched inside the Philadelphia Flyers locker room. "As long as I can make them feel better, they'll play better. The stress of last night and the emotion are what taxes them, so we work on breathing techniques and mechanical stuff to make sure we take them out of that stressed state and the emotional high back down. When you bring them back down the body can start to recover and restore its resources."
All of those resources will be needed in the title game versus a highly-skilled Union team that's playing in a NCAA title game for the first time.
"We need to play better tomorrow to beat Union than we played last night," Lucia said. "I thought some of our young guys played tentative. It's amazing. Sometimes you're a little nervous and your legs get heavy and you're not moving the way they need to move. I thought that we were fortunate in some regards last night to be moving on, but sometimes you have to find a way to win. We found a way to win and we stuck with the game until we made a play. But, we have to be a little bit sharper and get pucks behind 'D' and establish some more offensive zone time than what we did last night, because Union is a very, very talented team."
When Union's seniors were freshmen, they beat the Gophers in Minneapolis, but they know that they too are in for a battle on Saturday night.
"Obviously their goaltender is phenomenal," said Rick Bennett, coach of the Dutchmen, who will face Adam Wilcox for the first time. "We have to make sure that we get some traffic in front of him, you know. That is standard coach speak that you're going to hear. In general, we have to be sharp. It's more about us. I feel the same as it was last night against Boston College, we don't have to help them out either."
A reporter mentioned a former Gophers coach facing a similar challenge 34 years ago. After Herb Brooks coaxed the Miracle On Ice upset of the Soviet Union out of his 1980 U.S. Olympic team, he had to re-focus them to beat Finland for the gold medal two days later or all would be for naught. While the Gophers may hear a "you were born to be a player..." sentiment from their coach, they feel that with the physical and psychological prep work they're doing, and the weight of playing for a national title, they won't need much more inspiration for the last game.
"This is kind of a self-motivating thing," Gophers co-captain Nate Condon said. "Guys grow up wanting to play in national championships and wanting to win titles. So, while I'm sure coach has something worked out for us, I think it's going to be on us to get ourselves ready."