ST. PAUL, Minn. — If the Minnesota Golden Gophers were nervous before their first appearance in the Frozen Four since 1995, they masked it well.
Well, maybe except for coach Don Lucia late in the game. After his team saw two-thirds of a 3-0 lead evaporate in the last 6 minutes, 5 seconds, the folded arms, hand on the chin and pacing behind the bench were telltale signs the Gophers’ coach had some jitters.
But for most of the game, his players didn’t. That’s one of the big reasons why the Golden Gophers are returning to the national championship game for the first time since 1989.
Lucia said in advance of this game, his players’ first in a Frozen Four setting, he expected them to be a bit nervous, but that might not be a bad thing. His experience with his players told him they play better when their backs are to the wall.
Indeed, they played something that resembled their best Thursday night before a partisan Gophers crowd at the Xcel Energy Center, but it had nothing to do with being jumpy.
The Gophers rallied around the energy they got from their fans and from what defenseman Jordan Leopold called “positive anxiety.”
“It’s a big game in a big town,” Leopold said. “We’ve got a lot of media covering us. We’re just happy to have the chance in front of our home crowd at the Frozen Four.”
You probably could have forgiven the Gophers for having some butterflies before Thursday’s nightcap at the NCAA semifinals. They have played on this ice before, in front of a crowd of the same magnitude at the WCHA Final Five.
But this was just plain different. There was a margin for error at the Final Five for the Gophers, who knew there would be another game no matter the result.
This was one and done.
“We try to tell our kids, play like you’ve been there before,” Lucia said. “But until you’ve been there, it’s hard.”
They knew the bright lights were waiting outside their locker room. They knew they’d hear the screams of their fans — more for Minnesota than even Lucia expected — when they stepped onto the ice.
The national television cameras would turn on and then it would be showtime. No time for mistakes — you never know if you’ll get the opportunity to get them back.
“It’s hard to say relaxed, but I think we did the best we could,” said Gophers goaltender Adam Hauser, who refused to accept the compliment a teammate paid him in the locker room in saying he was the reason the Gophers won.
“I was really impressed with the way the guys handled it. We didn’t come out like gangbusters and score a good solid goal early, we got a lucky bounce to put us up 1-0. We didn’t hurt ourselves. We weren’t playing passive hockey, but I don’t think we were playing quite as aggressively as we wanted.”
Still, it worked just fine. The confidence grew and signs of nervousness shrank with each Gopher goal.
Grant Potulny, four minutes into the first period. Potulny again, four minutes into the second. And Jeff Taffe, 100 seconds into the third.
It was 3-0, it was the kind of game the Gophers wanted to play and it was theirs for the taking.
And there was Hauser, making key saves here and there to energize his team and his fans. That was one of the best signs for Minnesota this night.
“I thought Adam was really good early,” Lucia said. “He made some big saves early, and when Adam does that, you know he’s going to have a good game.”
The down notes for the Gophers were few but prominent. Playing with a 3-0 lead may have worn on them by the time Michigan started its rally to cut the score to 3-2.
The two goals Minnesota allowed in the last 6:05 — one of them shorthanded — sent them into the national championship game with a little less convincing performance than a 3-0 final would have provided.
“The last half of the third period, I thought us as a team we were losing our edge. It’s easy to do in 3-0 games. We needed to snap out of it.”
They did, just in time for a final stand to hold off the Wolverines and seal the school’s 10th spot in the national championship game.
Fate has the Gophers playing Maine, the team that ended their season last year.
“This is my last game as a Gopher, and my season was ended last year by the University of Maine,” Hauser said.
“I remember. I definitely do.”