Defending champs post routs on way to second Frozen Four

Adam Fink

As day gave way to night Saturday, the four gold NCAA championship banners hanging from Mariucci Arena’s rafters glowed from the receding sunlight and shined over Minnesota’s men’s hockey team as a reminder of past excellence.

After working their way through the NCAA West Regional over the weekend, the Gophers are two wins closer to adding to the team’s storied tradition.

Minnesota, the top seed in the West, played like defending national champions in its 7-4 win over second-seeded Ferris State on Saturday afternoon in front of 9,622 at Mariucci Arena.

Along with Friday’s 9-2 blowout of Mercyhurst, Minnesota (26-8-9) now travels to Buffalo, N.Y., for the team’s second consecutive trip to the Frozen Four – and a chance to claim a fifth championship sun-catcher.

Minnesota will play Michigan on Thursday, April 10 at 5 p.m. CST.

In their only meeting of the season, Michigan defeated the Gophers 3-1 in the College Hockey Showcase on Dec. 1.

“I am proud of these guys,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “The growth of this team has been as good as any team I have ever coached.”

Earlier in the year, Minnesota struggled to field four competitive lines. On Saturday, fourth-liners Garrett Smaagaard (two assists), Jake Fleming (goal and an assist) and Jon Waibel (one goal) highlighted an all-around effort on offense.

Included was a fast start that

produced a 3-0 lead barely six minutes into the game. From that point on, the Bulldogs and Gophers matched each other goal for goal, hit for hit.

Thomas Vanek – named the regions MVP – continued to impress, notching two goals and an assist against Ferris State. The freshman from Graz, Austria, scored both his goals after the Bulldogs cut the deficit to two at 3-1 and 5-3.

And the three-goal hole was too much for Ferris State to climb out of – especially without Chris Kunitz, Hobey Baker finalist and the nation’s second-highest scorer (79 points).

Already with two goals on the evening, the all-tournament selection left the game with a left thigh injury midway through the second period and after two failed comeback attempts.

“It meant a lot that he tried (to return),” Ferris State coach Bob Daniels said. “Every time we would get to within two, they would answer. We just couldn’t sustain any momentum.”

Mercyhurst coach Rick Gotkin knows the feeling.

Minnesota took an 8-0 lead midway through the second period Friday night and never looked back. Grant Potulny continued his postseason magic with a hat trick.

In 18 postseason games, the captain has tallied 19 points, of which 17 went for goals.

“This is Grant’s time of year,” Lucia said.

The one concern heading into the Frozen Four is goaltending.

Travis Weber returned from a finger injury to start Friday and allowed two goals on 18 shots. Justin Johnson earned the starting nod Saturday but was relieved by Weber following the first period after allowing two goals on six shots.

But after an impressive offensive performance where the Gophers scored 16 goals, Minnesota’s confidence heading to the Frozen Four is higher than any banner hanging in Mariucci Arena.

“There are going to be four good teams in Buffalo,” Keith Ballard said. “But we are playing well now and we know what to expect.”

Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and

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