ST. PAUL, Minn. — Heading into the weekend’s NCAA regional at the Xcel Energy Center, it would have been easy for top-seeded Minnesota to overthink on the path to a Frozen Four berth.
Last season, the Golden Gophers were upset in their first NCAA tournament game as a No. 1 seed by eventual champion Yale. Just more than a week ago, they had a disappointing early exit from the Big Ten tournament, losing to Ohio State in the semifinals.
2014 NCAA West Regional
“I thought it was the best two games since I’ve been here in two years,” Gophers goaltender Adam Wilcox said after posting his third shutout of the season.
In Saturday’s 7-3 romp over Robert Morris, offense was the story, as Minnesota snapped a four-game streak of scoring three or fewer goals by posting season highs in goals and shots on net.
Sunday, however, what stood out was Minnesota holding the third-highest scoring offense in the nation goalless.
Nothing came easy for the Huskies against the Gophers’ mobile defensemen, who didn’t give St. Cloud’s forwards a lot of time to get anything done in the offensive zone.
“They were real efficient for the most part getting the puck out of our own end and getting to retrievals, and getting out the rink quickly,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said of his defensemen. “And I think that’s a real key for this group.”
The Gophers were tenacious in keeping the Huskies to the outside — just six of SCSU’s 43 shots attempted came from between the circles.
“A lot of our shots were on the perimeter,” Huskies coach Bob Motzko said. “We had a hard time getting that second wave deep into the zone.”
Minnesota’s speed made it difficult for St. Cloud State to get shots off, and most of the Huskies’ shots were hurried — there were rarely St. Cloud State players in front of Wilcox for screens or to go after rebounds.
And most of the shots came from far out — 25 of the Huskies’ 43 shots attempted came from between the top of the circles and the blue line.
The defense’s ability to move the puck up and out of the zone also was shown during a beautiful tic-tac-toe passing sequence on the rush to set up Justin Kloos’ second goal of the game, a second-period tally to put Minnesota up 3-0.
“I think we made it pretty easy for them to play and get pucks out,” Huskies forward Nic Dowd said. “They’re obviously a good skating group.”
The Gophers were credited with 10 blocked shots, including seven in the third period, to complete the defensive effort.
That willingness to do whatever it takes to keep the puck out of the net has the Gophers believing they can atone for the disappointment of their last trip to the Frozen Four in 2012.
And when Minnesota is clicking on both ends of the ice like it did this weekend, the goal of ending the season with a championship looks reachable.
“That just shows the type of team we have,” Wilcox said. “The older guys want it. They made the Frozen Four a couple years ago and it didn’t turn out the way they want. So they’re going to do it right this time, and they’re going to give it everything.”