MINNEAPOLIS — Two years ago, Mercyhurst — at the time the first-ever MAAC team invited to the NCAA tournament — nearly pulled off a monumental upset against Michigan in the Wolverines’ home state.
Before Friday’s game, amidst the talk of a mismatch against defending national champion Minnesota, there was a quiet refrain of possibility.
Could lightning strike twice?
Lightning did indeed strike, but the Lakers were the targets, and nine times, at that. Minnesota scored early and often at the NCAA West Regional, building a three-goal lead after the first period into an insurmountable 8-0 advantage after two on the way to a 9-2 win. Captain Grant Potulny had a hat trick to pace the Gopher offense.
“Mercyhurst got our ‘A’ game tonight,” said Gopher coach Don Lucia. “That score against Michigan two years [ago] was a lesson.”
“If we had our ‘A’ game, would it have mattered?” Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin asked rhetorically. “The University of Minnesota is better than Mercyhurst College, and I’m okay with that. … Maybe one day, we can bridge that gap, but that day wasn’t today.”
The Gophers outshot the Lakers 56-18 overall, including tying an NCAA Regional record with 27 in the second period.
Despite the lopsided margin, the contest never devolved to cheap hits or post-whistle action, a contrast to Friday’s early Ferris State-North Dakota game, in which both teams dished it out during and after the play.
“They played the game the way it’s supposed to be played,” said Lucia. “That’s a real credit to [them]. … I tip my cap to their coaches.”
Gotkin, meanwhile, was equally gracious.
“[The Gophers] played wonderfully, not that that’s a surprise to anyone,” he said. “I think the fans from Erie, the players from Mercyhurst, they understand why they’re national champions.”
“We haven’t had a lot of games like this,” said Lucia. “I’ve been on the other side of those, and they’re no fun.”
The contest, of course, was played on the Gophers’ home ice of Mariucci Arena, and though Minnesota didn’t seem to need much help from the crowd, it was in evidence nonetheless.
“They’re [Mercyhurst] not used to playing in front of 10,000 fans,” said Lucia, “and the crowd got into it.”
The opening goal came courtesy of a familiar source, as Potulny scored in his eighth consecutive playoff game. Gino Guyer’s diagonal pass found Potulny alongside the net, and two whacks later, the puck drifted across the goal line at 1:15 of the first.
For the Gophers, it was a familiar sight.
“Who better than our captain to get us the first goal?” said Lucia.
Mercyhurst, meanwhile, saw the hopes of a 2001 repeat immediately darken.
“When that puck went in … I thought, ‘Gee, this isn’t what we wanted.’” said Gotkin.
Minnesota’s second goal, at 4:33, was just as sudden. Parked behind the net off a scramble, Guyer hit Keith Ballard cutting in from the point. The defenseman’s pass from Guyer in left circle, wrister between pads.
The Lakers settled down a bit after that, although Mercyhurst’s first shots on goal didn’t come until the nine-minute mark, when defenseman Mike Muldoon put two short-range pokes on Travis Weber.
Potulny struck again at 15:04, getting around the corner and wristing the puck just under the crossbar to make it 3-0 after one.
Guyer and Tallackson kept up the pressure coming out of intermission, with Guyer picking up his fourth assist by feeding Tallackson at the blue line.
Thomas Vanek added the fifth goal, curling to the edge of the crease before wristing one over a fallen Franck at 4:10 of the second.
From there, the rout was on, with Paul Martin and Jon Waibel adding goals 27 seconds apart, and Ballard scoring his second of the night at 13:57 to make it 7-0.
“In a game like that, I don’t think you can lay back,” said Ballard of the Gophers’ options in a one-sided contest. “You’ve got to look at the big picture. … We can’t let ourselves slip, or get lazy.”
“We just tried not to get into any bad habits,” Guyer agreed, “because it could cost us tomorrow.”
At 1:05 of the third, Potulny wrapped up the hat trick off an assist from Guyer, the freshman’s fifth of the night. That tied an NCAA regional record as well as the Minnesota school record.
The Lakers regrouped to get two goals, both on the power play. David Wrigley broke the shutout at 4:33, and Scott Reynolds gave the game its final score three minutes later. The goals, the Lakers said, were important as something to hang their hats on.
“That was the mood in the [locker] room,” said Mercyhurst’s Adam Rivers. “We knew we had to win the third period, and we went out and did that.”
“I’m confident that Mercyhurst College and the MAAC will continue to make strides,” said Gotkin. “I think this [expansion] is great for college hockey.”
Minnesota will face Ferris State in the regional final Saturday at 4 p.m. Central, with the winner advancing to the Frozen Four.
“I was very impressed with Ferris State today,” said Lucia. “They’re a great transition team, and they probably have an All-American goalie.”