Myers: With Frozen Four bid at stake, Gophers proved to be dominant
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ST. PAUL, Minn. -- The Gophers and St. Cloud State hockey teams are as close as you can get in many respects. But on the ice in their final meeting of the season, there was a notable distance between the two.
Freshman Justin Kloos scored a pair of goals for the Gophers on Sunday evening, and goalie Adam Wilcox gave another lesson on why he was the team's (and the Big Ten's) most valuable player this season in leading the U of M back to the NCAA Frozen Four for the second time in the past three years.
Wilcox stopped all 24 shots in the Gophers 4-0 win over St. Cloud State in the NCAA West Regional's title game. The Gophers will face long-time rival North Dakota on Thursday, April 10 in the national semifinals at Wells Fargo Arena in Philadelphia.
"We're not satisfied with just being at the Frozen Four, we want to do something when we're there," said Seth Ambroz, who was part of the Frozen Four team that advanced to Tampa and was run out of the building by eventual national champion Boston College. "That's what we expect when we head to Philadelphia. We've got some more work to do."
Gophers coach Don Lucia and St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko worked together for years when the latter was an assistant for the former on NCAA title teams in 2002 and 2003. This past winter they coached Team USA at the World Junior Championships in Sweden and they talk weekly. The two teams shared the Western Collegiate Hockey Association title last season, and both won titles in their new conferences - the Gophers in the Big Ten and the Huskies in the National Collegiate Hockey Conference - this season.
But for the second time this season, the similarities ended when the puck was dropped. Lucia and Motzko squared off at Xcel Energy Center in late January, with the Gophers taking their semifinal meeting in the North Star College Cup by a 4-1 margin. In the first-ever NCAA tourney meeting between the I-94 rivals, there was little drama.
"It was not a good night for us. We ran out of a little steam," said Motzko. His team got to the regional final via an emotional overtime win with Notre Dame late on Saturday, and seemed to be lacking energy all night in the final. "Tip your hat to the University of Minnesota. They shut a lot of things down."
Kloos had the only goal of the opening period, in which the Huskies mustered just four shots on Wilcox. Seth Ambroz doubled the Gophers lead early in the second period before Kloos capped off a highlight reel-quality passing play to make it 3-0. The final nail came in the third period from captain Kyle Rau in the third period.
"They had that overtime game so they played late, and we talked about getting under them right away, getting pucks deep and getting the ground game going early," Tom Serratore said. "We did a good job of holding them back today and not letting them shoot."
St. Cloud State made its first-ever trip to the Frozen Four last season in Pittsburgh, fully expected a return trip, and was clearly devastated to get nothing for the effort on Sunday. Huskies captain Nic Dowd was asked one question in the post-game press conference and broke down in tears, unable to answer.
For the Gophers, there was a cool efficiency to their game as Lucia's teams improved to 6-0 all time in NCAA games played at the Wild's home rink.
"We took care of the puck really well, for the most part, all weekend long," Lucia said, after recording his 650th career win. "When we limit our turnovers, which we certainly really did tonight, we don't give the other team a lot. The first goal was obviously big -- you go through this tournament, it seems like every time I've watched a game whoever scores the first goal has won. It gives you that momentum, and then that second goal was huge for us to give us that two-goal cushion. All of a sudden the task seems a bit more difficult from the other side."
The task now is to maintain focus during the 11 days off before they face North Dakota. The Gophers western neighbors finished second in the new NCHC in the regular season and third in the conference tournament in Minneapolis a week ago. They beat Wisconsin and Ferris State in the NCAA Midwest Regional in Cincinnati to get to Philadelphia.
"Obviously they're not in our conference any longer, but that's why I came here, to play North Dakota," said Serratore, whose father was an assistant coach at North Dakota during the program's dynasty years in the 1980s. "We need to bring that physical presence against them, they're gritty and they play a similar style to what I see myself doing every night. There's nothing better than the North Dakota-Minnesota rivalry and we're going to be fired up for it."
And as they showed on Sunday, a little extra jump can go a long way at this time of year.