Zulgad: Gophers' meltdown vs. UND could prove to be a game-changer
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Don Lucia has done his best to downplay the significance of his team's 6-3 loss to North Dakota a week ago Friday night in the semifinals of the WCHA Final Five.
The Minnesota Gophers held a commanding 3-0 lead halfway through that game only to give up six unanswered goals at Xcel Energy Center.
"We had to flush that one out and I think we did," Lucia said Saturday following the Gophers' 7-3 victory over Boston University in the semifinals of the NCAA West Regional at the X. "Every two minutes we got asked about it by the media. There the only one's who hadn't forgotten about it."
It's not surprising that Lucia would attempt to take this position, but the Gophers coach has to know better.
The Gophers will get their chance for revenge against North Dakota on Sunday in the regional final at Xcel Energy Center, and Lucia has to realize that if the Gophers can get past UND that The Friday Night Meltdown (FNM) will have played a key role in shaping a team that will be headed to Tampa, Fla., for the Frozen Four.
The FNM was the primary reason why when the Gophers went into one of their usual lulls Saturday afternoon that seniors Taylor Matson, the team captain, and Jake Hansen, an alternate captain, both identified the warning signs and made it clear that there would be no repeat of what had happened against the Sioux.
That came with about six minutes left in the second period after Ross Gaudet's fifth goal of the season had tied the score at 2-2. The Gophers had taken the lead on Jake Parenteau's goal at 9 minutes, 21 seconds of the second.
Gaudet was called for a hooking penalty 13 seconds later, but the Gophers appeared to sleep walk through the power play. Gaudet then scored after a careless turnover by Parenteau in front of goalie Kent Patterson.
This was the type of sequence that for much of this season would have put the Gophers into a tailspin. The FNM, after all, was just another example of the Gophers' struggles in series openers this season and much of that seemed to be a product of the fact this team didn't seem to be mentally tough.
Matson and Hansen, though, addressed that issue on the bench during a television timeout after Lucia was done talking.
"They came out and said, 'You know what guys. Whatever happened last weekend, happened last weekend,'" sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt said. "'We need to come out and play with more poise, we need to come out and play with more intensity this next half (of the game). Take a punch, give a punch.'
"If you're back on your heels against any team at this time of year, especially a team as talented as BU, they're going to come back in waves and they're going to hurt you."
Less than two minutes after Gaudet tied it, junior defenseman Seth Helgeson restored the Gophers' lead. Thirty-one seconds later, Hansen backed up his words by beating Boston University goalie Kieran Millan for the first of his two goals in the game to give the Gophers a 4-2 lead that they took into the second intermission.
Schmidt wasn't the only player to talk about being able to get back up after taking a punch. That was a common theme in the Gophers locker room on Saturday. That wouldn't have been the case if it wasn't for the FNM.
Without that loss fresh in their memory bank, maybe Boston University ties the score, the Gophers go deeper into their shell and there is no sixth meeting of the season between the Gophers and North Dakota.
The announced attendance at the Xcel Energy Center on Saturday was a sparse 9,386 fans. The upper deck of the building wasn't even opened and there were plenty of good seats to be had in the lower bowl.
Ticket prices, a gorgeous March day in Minnesota and the fact that Western Michigan and Boston University didn't bring huge contingents of fans, were given as potential reasons for the lack of energy in the building. (North Dakota beat Western Michigan 3-1 in the first game of the day.)
That shouldn't be an issue on Sunday.
The Gophers consider North Dakota to be their top rival in the WCHA and with Minnesota headed to the new Big Ten hockey conference after next season, hockey fans should savor the hatred between these two programs while they still can.
The Gophers swept the Sioux 2-0 and 3-2 in two fantastic games early November at Mariucci Arena. The teams then split a series in January in Grand Forks before meeting again on March 16 in downtown St. Paul.
All of those games had good intensity and plenty of bad blood, with Ben Blood going after the Gophers' Kyle Rau in the handshake line after Minnesota's 6-2 victory on Jan. 14.
North Dakota would love nothing more than to even the season series at three games apiece on Sunday and head to Florida with a shot at winning the NCAA title. The Gophers, meanwhile, can deny the FNM will be in the back of their minds all they want but nobody is buying it.
"You really don't need any more elements to add," to this rivalry, said senior center Nico Sacchetti, whose fourth goal of the season gave the Gophers a 5-3 lead Saturday. "Every time the Gophers and the Sioux meet up it's always going to be an intense game. It's an intense rivalry and it's going to be a battle. I wouldn't expect anything else."
Schmidt admitted that he didn't get a whole lot of sleep Saturday as he attempted to take his pregame nap. He ended up staring at the ceiling for about a half-hour before getting some rest.
That was for a 4 p.m. faceoff. Sunday, the puck will drop at 4:30 p.m.
Publicly, Lucia will go into the game rolling his eyes at the notion that the FNM will play any role in the rematch. Privately, Lucia knows that will be the case and there's no getting around it.
"It's tough," Schmidt said when asked about the lip service that has been provided about the FNM not impacting the Gophers. "Obviously, the first couple days of practice it's lingering in the back of guys' heads. But you have to move on.
"We thought before we came here, the regional, the way it was set up, that if we could play a good team (like) BU and come out and win a game we could have a chance to play a team like North Dakota again in the regional final with the chance to go to the Frozen Four. It doesn't really get much better than that."