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Updated: April 11th, 2014 5:15pm
Zulgad: Gophers not just happy to be here, a title is within sight

Zulgad: Gophers not just happy to be here, a title is within sight

by Judd Zulgad
1500ESPN.com

PHILADELPHIA - The Minnesota Gophers arrived at the 2012 Frozen Four in Tampa, Fla., seeming very happy to be there.

One of the top college hockey programs in the country had ended a four-year drought by qualifying for the NCAA tournament that March and a 5-2 win over North Dakota in the West Region final at Xcel Energy Center put Minnesota in the final four for the first time since 2005.

The upperclassmen on that team had been determined to get the Gophers deep into postseason play, but once that happened there was almost a sigh of relief.

Boston College took advantage and cruised to a 6-1 win in the semifinals.

Two years later, the Gophers have returned to the Frozen Four and this time their mindset appears to be different.

Instead of being happy to be here, the Gophers went toe-to-toe with North Dakota on Thursday and came away with a memorable 2-1 victory when defenseman Justin Holl scored his first goal of the season with 0.6 seconds left in the third period. 

Minnesota will be looking for its sixth national championship, and third under coach Don Lucia, on Saturday evening it faces Union at the Wells Fargo Center.

The temptation is to believe the Gophers are going to have a difficult time rebounding from such an emotional victory against an opponent that until this season was their biggest rival.

But if you bought into what was said by the Gophers after Thursday's win, that won't be a problem. Whether they were telling the truth, players did their best to convince everyone that beating North Dakota was just a step in the process.

"You don't come here to win one game," said senior co-captain Nate Condon, who played on the 2012 team. "I think that's probably going to be the mentality."

It certainly should be.

After Minnesota beat Robert Morris in their first game of the NCAA tournament on March 29 at Xcel Energy Center, a reporter asked Lucia about the pressure that came with being part of the Gophers program.

Lucia chuckled at the statement, feigning surprise that the word pressure would be associated with his job.

Lucia knows well that he has the most pressure-packed job in college hockey and winning back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003 only leaves his fan base asking, "What has happened since?"

The Gophers have the ability to change that on Saturday and this group of players seems to understand. There is far too much talent pumped into this program on an annual basis, even with a few underclassmen bolting early, to have lengthy dry spells between NCAA tournament appearances or national championships.

Lucia has a team that can roll four lines, has solid defensive pairings and, maybe most importantly, has a goalie in Adam Wilcox who can win a game for his team when it's needed.

There is a case to be made that North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol got the best of Lucia and the Gophers on Thursday night with a game plan that often forced Minnesota's shooters to the outside, clogged up passing lanes and nearly sent the top-seeded team in the tournament packing.

That's not a complete indictment of the Gophers. It's a credit to Minnesota that as frustrated as North Dakota had it at times UND was never able to take a lead or cause the Gophers to melt down.

Two years ago, a Gophers team that was happy to be in the Frozen Four probably would have bowed out. This club, which features five freshmen playing on a regular basis, seems to be mentally tougher top to bottom.

They understand that just being one of the final two teams standing isn't the goal; a national championship is. Anything less likely will be a bitter disappointment for everyone from Lucia on down.

Judd Zulgad is a columnist for 1500ESPN.com. He co-hosts "Mackey & Judd" from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. weekdays and "Saturday Morning SportsTalk" from 10 a.m. to noon on 1500 ESPN Twin Cities.
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