One of the nation’s most sought-after recruits last year, Thomas Vanek said the main reason he chose to play hockey at Minnesota was to win a national championship.
And without the freshman, Minnesota would still have only four titles to its name.
Vanek earned the Frozen Four’s Most Outstanding Player after notching game-winning goals against Michigan in overtime last Thursday and against New Hampshire on Saturday evening.
“I came here to win a championship,” Vanek said. “Whether we are tied or down, I just look at my linemates and tell them we need to step it up.”
Vanek, the first European ever to play for Minnesota, led all scorers with eight points in the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers’ leading scorer this season with 62 points, Vanek was the difference Saturday night against the Wildcats.
Vanek scored the game-winner with a patient rush at the 8:14 mark.
He waited for both defenseman Mick Mounsey and goaltender Mike Ayers to commit before scoring past the backstop’s outstretched glove.
In addition, Vanek set up Jon Waibel’s goal with a centering pass from the corner at 11:25.
These two plays turned a tie game into a 3-1 lead.
“He’s a difference maker,” Gophers coach Don Lucia said. “That’s why you work hard to recruit players like that.”
Vanek impressed New Hampshire coach Dick Umile with his ability to turn the game.
Until Vanek’s goal, Umile felt the Wildcats were stealing the momentum Minnesota had built since the first period.
“A great player made a great play,” Umile said. “Unfortunately it came late in the game and we never were able to recover.”
Vanek’s game-changing ability has been evident all season.
Seventeen of his 31 goals have come in the third period or overtime.
And in scoring that many goals, the native of Graz, Austria, fell one tally short of tying John Mayasich’s 51-year-old record for goals by a freshman.
Travis Weber, who faces Vanek in practice regularly, was equally impressed by his teammate’s exploits.
“Sometimes I just sit there in awe and I can’t believe what he just did,” the sophomore said. “He has some of the greatest hands.”
But typical of Vanek’s team-first approach, he quickly said, “Don’t believe him.”
But it is those hands, quickness and potential that has scouts drooling over the WCHA rookie of the year.
Vanek is currently projected to go anywhere from fifth to 15th in the NHL Draft, according to Hockey’s Future.
Although Vanek said he will return to Minnesota next year, his draft position in the NHL Draft on June 21 in Nashville, Tenn., could determine whether he takes the millions dangled before him or returns for another shot at a title.
“This isn’t back-to-back titles for me,” Vanek said. “Hopefully next year we will have won two in a row with me here.”
Adam Fink covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected]