Taylor Matson has never played a hockey game in Florida.
“I’ve actually been there for a family vacation once but I never played hockey,” Matson said.
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New experiences have been a theme for Minnesota this postseason. Not one player on this season’s roster played in a national tournament game, and when they made their regional debut last week, they shined.
The Gophers, in their first national tournament since 2008, took down Boston University 7-3 and North Dakota 5-2 to punch their ticket to their first Frozen Four since 2005. Minnesota faces top overall seed Boston College at 8 p.m. EDT in Thursday’s semifinals in Tampa, Fla.
Freshman Travis Boyd was put in a position he was unfamiliar with going into the regional. An occasional healthy scratch throughout the season with no goals and six assists, he was bumped up to the third line before the BU game and recorded an assist. Sunday, he scored the first goal of his collegiate career to make it 4-1 over UND and assisted on Nate Condon’s goal that sealed the win.
“Travis is a very skilled freshman,” Matson said. “It was great for him to get that goal and it’s a great confidence booster for him. He’s been dishing me and [Nate] Condon the puck a little bit more and our line has great chemistry right now.”
Secondary scoring was a key in the regional for Minnesota. Four forwards — Matson, Boyd, Condon and Nico Sacchetti — scored a goal each. Three non-traditional scoring defensemen — Seth Helgeson, Ben Marshall and Jake Parenteau — scored as well.
Those seven players scored a combined 28 goals through the WCHA Final Five.
“We try to use our depth up front and in the back,” Sacchetti said. “As you saw, our blue line got some really important goals for us. It’s a team game. When someone doesn’t score that you expect to, you have to have secondary scoring.”
Minnesota’s top six forwards will need to step up and take charge Thursday against a loaded and balanced BC team that features first-round draft pick Chris Kreider (23-21–44), Johnny Gaudreau (20-22–42) and Barry Almeida (22-16–38). Those are the Eagles’ top three scorers and they play on three different lines.
BC is ranked sixth nationally, scoring 3.5 goals per game.
“BC has a lot of skill and talent,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “They’re the favorite and they can really transition the puck and push the pace offensively. Taking care of the puck is very important.”
The nation’s top offensive team: Minnesota at 3.67 goals per game.
Nick Bjugstad was the go-to guy on the Gophers’ offense for two thirds of the season before he suffered an upper-body injury, keeping him from going to the high-traffic area in front of the net where he scored a lot of goals this season.
He still leads Minnesota in goals with 25 but gave up the lead in points to Haula, who’s been coming on strong in the past few weeks. Haula (20-28–48) has 11 points over a six-game scoring streak. Bjugstad (25-17–42) has scored only twice since he suffered the injury, and one of the goals was an empty-netter.
Freshman Kyle Rau has played a key role with 18 goals and 25 assists this season. His presence around the net is hard to contain because, despite his small frame, he’s strong on his skates and can score in the dirty areas while he takes a check.
Jake Hansen has 15 goals and 22 assists on the second line with Haula, and Nate Schmidt is a good quarterback for the Minnesota offense from the blue line with 38 assists. He’s arguably the best offensive defenseman in the country.
Schmidt has been a part of rejuvenated defense that has helped goaltender Kent Patterson win the WCHA’s goaltending champion award with a 2.23 goals against average and a .911 save percentage.
“Kent’s been our pillar,” Lucia said. “He’s given us a chance to win every night this season.”