It took 31 years for a team to win back-to-back championships in Division I college hockey. But Saturday’s championship game — one that saw Minnesota win, 5-1, to take home the hardware for the second year in a row — wasn’t even over when the talk of a three-peat hit the Minnesota bench.
“We were talking about it with two minutes left in the game,” said Minnesota rookie Thomas Vanek, the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player.
The reason for is simple. The Gophers lose just one senior — defenseman Matt DeMarchi, who was a physical presence but leaves Minnesota with only 48 career points.
What returns was described by DeMarchi as “unstoppable.” Vanek, as a freshman, is one of the most decorated players Minnesota’s seen. In addition to Saturday’s MOP award, Vanek was MOP of the West Regional, and also took home the WCHA Rookie of the Year award.
But stats alone are not what will leave other coaches sleepless at night. The Gophers have experience. The Gophers have been to the big dance twice and taken home the trophy each time. This team won with superstars last year and as a complete team this year. This team simply knows how to win.
Still, that’s not enough to convince coach Don Lucia.
“From year to year, that are no guarantees,” said Lucia, who was quick to remember the 1997 Michigan juggernaut, similarly said to be unstoppable after winning the year prior, only to fall in the national semifinal a year later. “Just because the puzzle is complete at the end of the year doesn’t mean that it starts there the following year.”
Lucia is right, as putting the puzzle back together once again could be difficult. Though DeMarchi is the only departing senior who played regularly, Vanek is an almost-certain high draft pick, and depending on which team takes him, the offer to jump ship for the NHL could be too good to turn down.
At the same time, rumblings exist that defenseman Paul Martin, a 2000 draft pick of the New Jersey Devils, could be an early departure as well.
Still, it’s impossible not to look ahead and feel sorry for the opponents that will get in Minnesota’s way next year.
The Gophers are set to return two 50-point scores in Vanek and Troy Riddle, a 40-point defenseman in Keith Ballard (Martin finished with 39) and one of the nation’s most underrated goaltenders in Travis Weber.
Coming into the tournament, Weber was the least talked-about of the four ‘tenders, with New Hampshire’s Mike Ayers and Cornell’s David LeNeveu stealing most of the headlines. This weekend helped Weber earn respect and, most importantly, silenced critics.
“It can get frustrating when people look at you and say you’re the weakest link to the team,” said Weber, whose week earned him a spot on the Frozen Four All-Tournament team. “I took it as a challenge and used it as motivation to prove some people wrong. I think I did that this weekend.”
And as critical as it is to have the playing pieces of Lucia’s puzzle in place, the Gophers should truly be happiest to have successfully silenced their critics.
Saturday, the Gophers set the record straight once and for all. After winning the title last year on virtual home ice when the Frozen Four was played in near St. Paul, Minn., many cited the enormous local advantage, almost seeming to discredit the Gophers’ great accomplishment.
But winning this year in Buffalo, against a tough New Hampshire club that brought a more-than-impressive, vocal following, it’s impossible to take away from the Gophers.
“It was a much different feeling this year,” said Lucia, admitting that he even felt the need to read his players the riot act Friday for not having the focus that he thought his club needed. “It almost felt like a Christmas tournament because we weren’t involved in the commotion of downtown St. Paul.”
Critics silenced, puzzle pieces together, and three-peat in sight, the quest begins for the Gophers in two weeks. Dry-land training will be the first step to next year’s title quest, one that at least right now seems like it will be Minnesota’s to lose.
And if, in fact, the Gophers can win next year in Boston, the talk of three-peat will be replaced by one simple word: dynasty.