Men’s hockey top seed in West region

Adam Fink

Earlier in the year it seemed unthinkable.

After starting the season 5-3-2, Minnesota’s men’s hockey team looked like anything but the defending national champions.

But in their past 20 games the Gophers are 14-2-4, including a 4-2 victory over top-ranked Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five championship game Saturday.

Sunday evening, the Gophers players gathered at a local restaurant and watched as Minnesota was revealed as a top seed in the West Regional.

The Gophers earned a No. 1 seed for the second consecutive season.

“We are very happy,” junior Matt Koalska said. “Everyone was excited. We just need to stay focused and not worry about the other stuff.”

With the start to the season a distant memory, Minnesota now turns its attention to its Friday opponent, Mercyhurst. The two teams square off at Mariucci Arena, the host site of the West Regional.

Although there was excitement among the players after hearing the news, many experts predicted the Gophers would take the top seed after defeating the Tigers.

And Gophers coach Don Lucia, known to be skilled at interpreting the Pairwise Rankings (a computer model that mimics the NCAA selection process) and possible scenarios, wasn’t surprised by how the seeding looked.

“I was pretty sure this was how it was going to be laid out,” Lucia said. “We taped Mercyhurst’s game (Sunday) and we are ready to start evaluating them.”

In the Friday afternoon game at Mariucci Arena, second-seeded Ferris State faces third seed North Dakota. Friday’s winners play Saturday night, with the champ advancing to the Frozen Four in Buffalo, N.Y.

Overall, the WCHA sent five teams to the NCAA Tournament. Colorado College also garnered a top seed and will play Wayne State in Ann Arbor, Mich. Minnesota State-Mankato will play a top seed when it faces Cornell in Providence, Rhode Island.

And then there is St. Cloud State.

The Huskies face top-seeded New Hampshire in Massachusetts. However, St. Cloud State finished sixth in the conference and failed to advance to the WCHA Final Five.

It was the team’s strength of schedule that put it into the tournament and left another WCHA team scratching its head.

Minnesota-Duluth took third in the conference tournament and defeated the Huskies in the first round of the playoffs, yet will not see postseason action.

“I question how deserving (the Huskies) are for the tournament,” Bulldogs coach Scott Sandelin said. “Teams that improve and are playing well should be rewarded.”

For the first time, the selection committee chose 16 teams – up from 12 last year.

The additional teams didn’t bother the selection committee. Committee member Ian McCaw told ESPN he was satisfied with how the brackets turned out.

In addition, McCaw explained the main determinant in the process.

“We went strictly by the data,” McCaw said. “We agreed before hand that’s what we would do.”

The committee’s decision is fine with the Gophers, who entered the weekend as a projected No. 2 seed. In that scenario, Colorado College, a team Lucia calls the best in the country, would likely have been placed in the West Regional with Minnesota.

Now the Gophers control their own destiny. Instead of looking back at their early season’s struggles, Minnesota might be better off looking a little farther back on the calendar: to April – when the team won the national championship.

“We have come a long way,” Koalska said. “We are back and still the defending national champions.”

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]