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Updated: March 21st, 2013 11:33pm
Myers: Gophers to face desperate CC squad in WCHA Final Five playoffs

Myers: Gophers to face desperate CC squad in WCHA Final Five playoffs

by Jess Myers
1500ESPN.com

ST. PAUL, Minn. - It's always fun when old, familiar faces get together. At least that's what the Gophers are hoping, come Friday night.

After Colorado College's 4-3 overtime win over North Dakota on Thursday in the WCHA Final Five semifinals, the much-anticipated rematch between the Gophers and their rivals from the other side of the Red River won't happen. Instead it will be a hockey program that Gophers coach Don Lucia himself resurrected from near-death 20 years ago, coached by one of Lucia's life-long friends.

The Tigers got 29 saves from Joe Howe, their senior goalie from Plymouth on Thursday, and rallied from a 2-1 deficit to shock North Dakota and an army of fans in green that had come to St. Paul looking for a fourth consecutive tournament title. Even before he knew his team would face the Tigers, Lucia knew they could be a handful.

"Joe Howe is playing really well in the nets for CC right now and if you look at the start of the year it was a bit of a struggle for their goaltending," Lucia said on Wednesday. "I always say that the last person you want to see in an elimination situation is a senior goalie. They have a tendency to rise up."

For the Gophers, who haven't won the Final Five since 2007, rising up will be a key on Friday, after they advanced to St. Paul via two closer-than-anticipated wins over Bemidji State last weekend. Those wins followed two more wins over the Beavers in Bemidji one weekend earlier.

"They're big and strong and they'll be good on a smaller (ice) sheet," Tigers coach Scott Owens said of the Gophers. "They're probably looking forward to playing somebody other than Bemidji. We're just going to stay with our deal and see if we can make some good things happen. We respect them a ton...but because of the schedule we've played this year, we're not really intimidated by anybody."

While the Gophers are a lock for the NCAA tournament, the Tigers will be playing their fourth consecutive elimination game, knowing that a loss means they're season is over. It's that kind of desperation that scares some opposing coaches.

"They'll be playing desperate hockey and they can score," Lucia said. "You look at the last six weeks of the season, and they're playing their best hockey. That's why they're here."

Owens noted that while the crowd on Thursday was dominated by thousands of North Dakota fans, the Gophers fans in attendance were mostly rooting for Colorado College. He said he hopes that the script is flipped on Friday, and they thousands of North Dakota fans with no team to root for will adopt the Tigers and give them some love among what is sure to be an overwhelmingly pro-Gophers crowd.

The Gophers and Tigers met twice in early December in Colorado Springs, with the U of M winning 4-2 and tying 4-4.

Wisconsin's touchdown bests Mavericks in tourney opener

The upstart Mavericks' stay in St. Paul was short-lived, as red-hot Wisconsin blew Minnesota State out in the tournament opener. Known primarily for their suffocating defense, the Badgers flashed their offensive side, opening up a 3-0 lead less than 10 minutes into the game and cruising to a 7-2 win.

The Badgers have been left for dead twice this season - after a 1-7-2 start, and after an ugly come-from-ahead home loss to lightly-regarded Penn State on Feb. 25 - but have now won seven of their last eight and have scored 29 goals in their past seven games.

"I don't think one would've suspected the number of goals we scored, but pucks went in for us," said Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves. The Mavericks, playing in the Final Five for the first time in a decade, looked overwhelmed in giving up a pair of shorthanded goals by the Badgers. Starting goalie Stephon Williams, who last week was named the WCHA's Rookie of the Year, left the game in the second period after a collision in the crease, which happened while the Badgers were scoring their fifth goal on 19 shots.

"I think we put him on an island early, and (Wisconsin) finished," Mavs coach Mike Hastings said of his young goalie. "We helped them scored goals, and they're too good a hockey team to do that."

Wisconsin (20-12-7) will face St. Cloud State in Friday afternoon's first semifinal and likely needs to win the tournament to get into the NCAA tourney's 16-team field, which will be announced on Sunday. The Mavericks (24-13-3) are a better bet to get into the NCAA tournament for the first time in a decade, but nothing is guaranteed.

"Our body of work is what it is, and we'll have to see where we sit come Sunday," Hastings said. The Mavericks were the only club in the six-team WCHA tournament field that will stay in the conference next season.

Four Minnesotans for the Hobey

There were no Gophers among the 10 finalists for the Hobey Baker Memorial Award, announced on Thursday, but that doesn't mean the State of Hockey was shut out. Four of the 10 are Minnesotans, including St. Cloud State senior forward Drew LeBlanc, from Hermantown, who was also named the WCHA's Most Valuable Player.

Quinnipiac senior goalie Eric Hartzell, from White Bear Lake, North Dakota senior forward Danny Kristo, from Eden Prairie, and Omaha junior forward Ryan Walters, from Rosemount, were the other local finalists. Walters was the WCHA's scoring champion this season with 40 points in 28 league games.

Minnesota Duluth senior forward Jack Connolly, from Duluth, won the Hobey last year. The trophy has been given to the top player in college hockey every year since 1981 when Neal Broten of the Gophers won in inaugural award.

Jess Myers covers the Wild and college hockey for 1500ESPN.com. He is a member of the editorial advisory board for USA Hockey Magazine.
Email Jess | @JessRMyers
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