MINNEAPOLIS — Minnesota coach Don Lucia was impressed with his team’s preparations for its West Regional semifinal game with Mercyhurst on Friday. The Gophers were loose, they were confident and they turned it into a runaway victory.
He wasn’t as confident on Saturday — a little worried even — when he walked into the locker room before the game and saw most of his players wearing headphones and keeping to themselves.
The Gophers’ focus didn’t go to waste. Just 13 seconds into the regional final against Ferris State, they had a lead. Just over six minutes in, they were up 3-0 and rolling toward their second straight Frozen Four, delivered with a 7-4 victory over the Bulldogs at Mariucci Arena.
There were some bumps along the way for Minnesota, but it will go to Buffalo looking to become the first back-to-back national champion since Boston University in 1972.
“I think we’re in a similar situation going into the Frozen Four as we were coming into this weekend,” said Minnesota defenseman Keith Ballard, who scored 1:38 into the first period to up the Gophers’ lead to 2-0 after Matt Koalska put them ahead in the opening seconds.
“We’ve all been there before now. We’ve got a year of experience under our belt and we know a little bit of what it takes. We have to realize, Coach said last year — he always preached about being able to take a punch. That’s something that we know that we’re going to have to do.”
It was one of the players who didn’t take part in the Gophers’ NCAA title last season that delivered the return punch after Ferris State made an effort to get back into it. Freshman Thomas Vanek scored two goals, his 28th and 29th of the season, at critical times to send the Gophers to the national semifinals for the 18th time.
“Well, every goal is important, I think, from now on,” Vanek countered, but his goals came at times when the Gophers needed to reverse the Bulldogs’ momentum.
Hobey Baker Award finalist Chris Kunitz scored twice for Ferris State (31-10-1) despite missing most of the second and third periods with a thigh injury. After his first goal, which cut the Gophers’ lead to 3-1, Vanek followed 39 seconds later by pinpointing a wrist shot past Bulldogs goalie Mike Brown and into the top right corner of the net.
In the second period, Vanek, the regional MVP, sent the Gophers (26-8-9) into the dressing room with a 6-3 lead after scoring with 28.4 seconds left. Again, he picked the top right corner after getting around Bulldogs defenseman Matt York.
The first period was “a nightmare” for the Bulldogs, FSU coach Bob Daniels said. The Gophers held a 5-2 lead and a 25-6 advantage in shots on goal.
After Minnesota took the 3-0 lead, the teams traded goals the rest of the way, with the Gophers never allowing Ferris State to get into a position where it could make a run in the last few minutes.
“That first period there, my hat’s off to Minnesota,” Bulldogs defenseman Troy Milam said. “There’s nothing they could do wrong in that first 10 minutes or so. It seemed like every shot they took found a way to get on net or get in. … It was really tough to try to get back. Every time we thought we did something right, it just turned around on us.”
The Bulldogs, who scored two shorthanded goals, struggled on offense without Kunitz, who was injured seven minutes into the second period when he collided with Ballard — “I didn’t even see him. I feel terrible,” Ballard said.
Kunitz tried to return to the game in the third period, but he was limping badly and caused a too-many-men-on-the-ice penalty on the Bulldogs when he struggled to get to the bench.
“It meant a lot for him even to come back and try,” Daniels said. “I think all the guys on the team realize he’s got a pretty good chance of signing a nice contract when this is done. There was no need for him — realistically, we knew it was a slim shot. He really wanted to get back on the ice. I think that meant a lot to the players.”
It wasn’t enough to lift the Bulldogs out of the hole that had been dug in the opening minutes. The Gophers, who also got goals from Jake Fleming, Matt DeMarchi and Jon Waibel, answered each challenge with a goal and are two victories away from ending the 31-year-streak of falling short for the defending national champion.
“When you play good teams, there’s going to be times when they take the game over,” Lucia said. “You just have to weather those storms and come back and be able to take the play to them. There’s going to be times when the other team’s going to take over the game. That’s why they’re in a regional final, that’s why they won 31 games.”
Because the Gophers weathered those storms and had a lead to fall back on, that’s why they’re going to the Frozen Four.