Lucia shares pre-Frozen Four thoughts

The Daily sat down with coach Don Lucia to get his take on the present, past and future.

Ben Goessling

Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia is taking the Gophers to his third Frozen Four in four years, but this trip might have been the most trying – and most rewarding – of his six-year run with the Gophers.

Fielding a team that includes 10 freshmen and four sophomores and was picked to finish fifth in the WCHA, Lucia drove the Gophers to the top of the national polls in November.

Minnesota’s youth showed in January and February, however, as the Gophers’ 20-game home win streak devolved into a 1-6-1 run at Mariucci Arena that included three losses to Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage.

But after all that – plus a mysterious injury to goaltender Kellen Briggs and an even more puzzling outburst by forward Tyler Hirsch at the WCHA Final Five – Minnesota is headed to the Frozen Four.

The Minnesota Daily caught up with Lucia this week to get his thoughts on his team’s chances, its place in history and the coach’s future at Minnesota.

If you had to predict where this team was going to end up, where would it have been?

Well, you never know at the beginning of the year. That’s the great thing about college hockey. With graduation and guys leaving, it opens doors for other players. We had some guys that really stepped up – Hirsch, Ryan Potulny and Danny Irmen, from an offensive standpoint. The first half of the year, we proved we can compete with anybody in the country. But in the second half, it showed our margin for error is very small. We’re not the most talented team. When one thing gets a little bit off, it’s a struggle for our team.

What has been the thing that surprised you the most about this team?

For the most part, game in and game out, they’ve competed really hard. We haven’t always won, but I can only think of a couple games where we just didn’t play very well. I think this team has talent, but some of our elite players are real young. We don’t have an All-American right now. We’re missing that real high-end player. Whoever advances out of our game (with North Dakota) will probably be the underdog (in the championship game), but that’s fine.

From a coaching standpoint, where does this team rank among the six you’ve coached?

It’s been a fun year, because we didn’t have a lot of expectations. We held out hope, because we did host a regional, and that could maybe put us over the top. But we had good goaltending last weekend. We’ve scored the timely goals. We haven’t been as effective when we just had to rely on Danny and Ryan all the time.

How much different would this team be if you had (NHL departures) Keith Ballard, Thomas Vanek and Jake Taylor?

We’d be a lot better, but North Dakota would be a lot better if they had (Zach) Parise and (Brandon) Bochenski, too. You can’t worry about the guys you don’t have. I’m sure they’re thinking about how they could be here, too. But they made their decision, and they’re not second-guessing their decision, so it worked out for everybody.

When you look at this team, two of your top three scorers are from North Dakota, and your goalie is from Colorado. Is this group the biggest reflection on your decision (to recruit out-of-state players)?

We felt that if we’re going to be on the national stage, we have to go outside our borders. Denver’s got good players from Minnesota, and so does Colorado College. The possible Hobey Baker winner (Colorado College’s Marty Sertich) is from Roseville, (Minn.). All of our fans and our coaches and players want to be playing for championships.

Your contract runs through 2009, and you presumably have job security for as long as you want it. If the NHL ever came calling, is that something you would consider?

If, but, coulda, shoulda, woulda. I’m not thinking about anything like that right now. I’ve got a pretty good situation here. I grew up following the Gophers. But you didn’t have the media attention you have now. I didn’t think about playing college hockey until I was a senior in high school. It was more in a vacuum.

If you win a national championship this weekend, is this one more rewarding than the first or second one?

They’re all rewarding. I don’t know if this one would be any more rewarding than the first or second one. But we’ve got a very difficult opponent in North Dakota, and we’ll see where it goes from there.