Don Lucia has trouble coming up with high points from a season in which his Minnesota Golden Gophers are 30-8-4, got a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament and have advanced to the Frozen Four.
But that’s just fine to the Minnesota coach. He hasn’t found any low points, either.
One of the things Lucia has always stressed with his teams is playing on an even keel. This year’s Gophers might have found the key to that, and used that as their means of success.
With that, they find themselves in the Frozen Four, just a few miles from their campus. They play Michigan in a semifinal Thursday night at 6:35 Central at the Xcel Energy Center.
The Gophers had one big goal for this season: earn an NCAA first-round bye. That allowed them to keep their focus on that, not on the race for the top in the WCHA, not for the league’s playoff chase.
Lucia observed that it was probably better for his team to have been out of the WCHA’s regular-season title chase early — Denver and St. Cloud State were the only contenders standing by late January. Last season, the Gophers were contending for the regular-season title until the last weekend, then had a bad series against St. Cloud State permanently derail them.
Not having that pressure helped them keep their eyes trained on the long-term goal. And it helped them stay on the middle ground — Lucia’s fast track to success.
“There really hasn’t been any real high points or low points — we’ve just kept coming and coming and coming,” Lucia said. “Our No. 1 goal this year was to get a bye, so we never lost sight of that fact. We were able to just keep playing and playing.
“Nothing hurt us mentally, being so close to winning something and then having it ripped from you. That happened to us a little bit the year before, being in that chase and losing in the last weekend. Maybe we didn’t recover.”
The Gophers haven’t had to do much recovering this season. They have never followed a loss with another loss. Only one short span on their schedule stands out as a down point: ties against Michigan State and St. Cloud State sandwiched around a loss to the Huskies late in November and early in December.
Still, they rebounded by splitting a series at Denver just before the holiday break. Aside from a few bumps (an 8-3 loss to Wisconsin and a loss at Minnesota-Duluth), the second half was just as smooth for the Gophers.
That’s one of the reasons they can be confident. But Lucia wants to make sure his team doesn’t get blinded by the Frozen Four lights.
He took Colorado College teams to this point twice, so he knows what to expect. He’s told his players, who have never played in a Frozen Four, not to change a thing.
Lucia took a cue from his former team, and wants that to be a model for the Gophers. He watched Colorado College beat Michigan State in the first round last weekend, and was struck by how the Tigers, whom he coached from 1993 to 1999, were aggressive from the drop of the puck, got the lead and kept going at the Spartans.
“The big thing we’re trying to get across to them is to make sure we’re playing on our toes,” Lucia said. “I don’t want to go in there with guys on their heels and playing tentative. I just think if you’re going to go down, you want to go down swinging, not looking at the third strike. We really want to be aggressive and play that way.
“We’re not going to change our style now. The big thing is, we don’t want to have any regrets. I just want them to play the best game they’re capable of playing, and you live with the results.”
The results against Michigan this season were favorable for the Gophers, but that was a long time ago. Jeff Taffe scored his first career hat trick in a 5-2 victory over the Wolverines on Nov. 23.
That outcome will probably have no impact on Thursday’s game, if not because it was more than three months ago, then because each of the teams has grown since then. Michigan matured into a CCHA double champion, and Minnesota into a calm, composed, confident team.
Michigan, though, is a repeat guest at the Frozen Four, so it knows what to expect. Lucia is sure there will be some nervousness from his team.
“I look back to myself as a player, and I think you play your best when you’re a little bit nervous and have that fear factor in you,” he said. “I know our team. It seems when our backs are to the wall and when they’re a little bit nervous, fearful, that we seem to play our best.”
That was probably the case in the Gophers’ NCAA quarterfinal victory over Colorado College. The Tigers scored the first goal on a deflection off Minnesota’s Keith Ballard.
But Minnesota rallied from that point, as it has done so many times this season. Its opponents have scored first 24 times this season, but Minnesota has won 14 of those games.
“Unfortunately, we’ve given up the first goal in a lot of games this year,” Lucia said. “The fortunate part is we’ve come back to win a lot of those. All the times we have been able to come back, we’ve developed a little bit more mental toughness. You give up that fluky goal and that could set your team back, but I don’t think our guys thought much of it and just kept playing.”
That appears to be the calling card of this Minnesota team: no disruptions, just a steady pace that has led them within two victories of a national championship.
Gopher alternate captain Johnny Pohl disputes the notion that he and his teammates will be nervous. They have been in enough big arenas in enough big games, he said, that that shouldn’t play a role.
He does want to make sure, though, that he and his teammates — and the rest of the Gophers fans in attendance — will be able to look back at this weekend fondly.
“It’s something that we’ll remember for the rest of our lives, so hopefully we can look back on it with good memories,” Pohl said. “We don’t want to let 20,000 people down.”