Frozen Four preview: Offensive streakiness a season-long theme for young Minnesota

Minnesota was in the Frozen Four in 2012, but the Gophers take a young team to Philadelphia this season (photo: Jim Rosvold).

This is Minnesota’s 21st Frozen Four appearance and the team’s second in three seasons, but collective experience doesn’t equal actual experience for a team that regularly plays half a dozen freshman forwards and a total of a dozen freshmen and sophomores, including second-year goaltender Adam Wilcox.

“I don’t care how many times you go to a Frozen Four,” said coach Don Lucia. “It’s always new and exciting.”

2014 Frozen Four

Follow all of USCHO's coverage at Frozen Four Central.

Much has been made this season about how different this Minnesota team looks from past teams with its youth and balanced scoring. Lucia has characterized the Gophers as far from dominant in spite of their position at or near the top of the polls all season and their capturing of the first Big Ten regular season championship.

But heading into Philadelphia, what sets this team apart from teams past is its streakiness in scoring.

In 2013-14, there were weekends when the Gophers played well and yet had difficulty scoring goals. Minnesota is averaging 3.51 goals per game, sixth in the nation, but Lucia cautioned that even an excellent overall team effort doesn’t translate into wins.

To illustrate, he pointed to Minnesota’s weekend against Wisconsin Feb. 6-7, a pair of 2-1 losses and the only time the Gophers were swept this season.

“From our standpoint, even though we lost, we played well and I think sometimes that’s how you judge your team,” said Lucia. “You can play bad and win but you can play well and lose in this game when every goal matters. We were disappointed obviously to lose two games to Wisconsin but to go on the road and give up two goals each night, we just didn’t score and that can be our team at times.

About Minnesota

Coach: Don Lucia, 15th season at Minnesota, 27th overall

Record: 27-6-6 (14-4-3 Big Ten, first)

How they got to the Frozen Four: Beat Robert Morris 7-3 and St. Cloud State 4-0 at the West Regional

Regional seed: First

Last Frozen Four appearance: 2012

Best NCAA finish: Champion in 1974, 1976, 1979, 2002 and 2003

Why they’ll win the national championship: Minnesota has balanced offense, youthful enthusiasm, veterans peaking at the right time and Adam Wilcox in net.

Why they won’t win the national championship: Minnesota’s balanced offense can be inconsistent and sometimes comes up short, and inexperience won’t help if the Golden Gophers find themselves behind.

“We can go through stretches where it is a struggle to score goals, especially when you have six freshman forwards playing most nights.”

That Wisconsin weekend followed a road weekend against Michigan State during which the Gophers netted three goals, for a total of five goals in four games. Then there were weekends in which the Gophers netted five on a Friday and two on a Saturday.

In their loss to Ohio State in the Big Ten tournament, the Gophers managed one second-period power-play goal and nothing more.

That offensive inconsistency translates into players that have scored in batches. Fortunately for Minnesota, said Lucia, the upperclassmen on whom the team relies have played their best hockey in recent games.

Senior captains Nate Condon and Kyle Rau led by example in St. Paul. Condon had two goals in Minnesota’s 7-3 win over Robert Morris and two assists in the Gophers’ 4-0 win over St. Cloud State. Rau has a three-game goal-scoring streak entering the Frozen Four and has netted seven of his 14 goals for the season in his last nine games.

“Both Nate Condon and Kyle Rau were outstanding, and as we all know, this is the time of year where you have to have your leadership really step forward,” Lucia said. “They were able to do that and guide a group of young kids throughout the season and past a very good Robert Morris and St. Cloud State team.”

Condon said that even though he’s a veteran of the Frozen Four, this year will feel different for him and his classmates. He added that the combination of experience and youthful enthusiasm is a big plus heading into the weekend.

“The last time, being a sophomore [there were] a lot of older guys, a lot of guys to look up to,” said Condon. “We really are led by a really good senior class. I think this time it’s a little bit different for me this time around because I’m in one of those leadership roles and I’m kind of expected to produce and really bring my ‘A’ game every night.

“It’s a little bit of a different experience for me, but it’s also a lot more fun working with the younger guys. Really seeing them grow this year … had a really good effect on our team here at the end.”

Lucia said that the job he and his coaching staff face is to keep the Gophers “fresh” and “excited” as they play for a national championship.

“You’ve got to enjoy this experience,” said Lucia. “I don’t care how many times you go, it’s an amazing experience. For our kids, we have some kids who were there a couple of years ago but for our freshmen and sophomores, it’ll be a whole new experience and we want them to enjoy this. We’re going to do everything we can to get them as ready physically and mentally as we can for next Thursday.”

22 COMMENTS

  1. Interesting how so many in the media, columnists and/or announcers both, are playing the “young” card for Minnesota… North Dakota is just as young (8 freshman, 6 sophs) and BC is even younger (10 frosh, 5 sophs)… In reality, they’re all young except for Union, without question the far more experienced team.

    • I believe Minnesota has the top scoring freshman class in the country and is a huge reason for their success this season. In BC’s case, it is not their youth that has necessarily got them here, but that stellar upper class top line. For ND, not sure their youth has had quite the impact as Minnesota’s. Any way you slice it, all three teams should be scary good in the years to come (assuming they can keep their guys for a few years).

      • I think you’re right in your analysis of why so many people think of MN as the “young” team. It’s the impact the frosh have had.

        As far as future success, though, I have my doubts. Anymore, it seems the big name schools are loaded with big name talent in the freshmen class. But they don’t stick around. And when it comes to sustained success, experience and maturity are paramount.
        Just think how amazing college teams would be if almost all players stayed 4 years. But it’s just not happening, and I’m not sure there’s anything for it.

          • I know. WI and UML have taken some hits.
            I’m pretty sure we’ll see a big wave exits after this weekend, too.

            But those are just the ones who’ve already made the decision. In the following month, facing the prospect of completing all the course work for another semester (most of which they’ve been putting off) and feeling the pressure from the NHL to sign before the rights expire, we’ll see a bunch more departures.

          • WI also had 10 seniors this year, so it’s not like everyone is leaving after a year or two.

          • Recently, the most consistently successful top ten teams have been able to keep their best players for no less than two, and mostly 3 years (BC, Notre Dame, Wisconsin are some of those teams). They accept it, embrace it, and recruit for it.

            I think ECACH, going for two straight titles, will continue to stay in the hunt for that reason, and for the reasons you suggest. They tend to have senior dominated teams because they go to those schools more or equally for the education and to get, or set themselves up to get a degree. They’ll lose more people also, particularly when the NHL expands to two more teams, but just not as many as a North Dakota, Minnesota, or BU will.

          • I heard or read somewhere that Don Lucia was going to start recruiting more of the “good college players” and not just the top talent to MN. Anyone else catch this? (I think of Kyle Rau vs. Nick Bjugstad, perhaps?) I dunno. Seems a tricky philosophy to truly put into reality (i.e. passing up on a Nick Bjugstad, Erik Johnson, Thomas Vanek…) but its an interesting concept nonetheless. Is there a brand of hockey player that makes a really strong college performer, but won’t be as likely to jump ship early for the NHL?

      • Maybe so, especially for scoring and at forward… But BC skates 2 sophs (Doherty, Matheson) and 3 freshman (McGoshen, Santini, Savage) as regulars on D, with a freshman goalie… That’s pretty good impact from their youth if you ask me… Just sayin’.

      • Actually, BC has the highest scoring freshman class (using USCHO’s page for each team). Minnesota’s frosh have scored 129 pts, whereas BC’s have 132, although BC has a bigger class (10 compared to 8). Minnesota has had gotten bigger production at the top with guys like Kloos, Fasching, and Cammarata, but BC’s production has been overshadowed by that first line. Adding in that Demko is a freshman, obviously both teams’ freshman classes have had a major impact on this season. Any way you slice it, a lot of youth in this Frozen Four, which could make for even better hockey than it’s already shaping up to be!

  2. Its Frozen Four week and I am still waiting for Paula to make her first complimentary comment about the Gophers this year.

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