Gophers carve odd path to NCAAs

Ben Goessling

For someone who has spent most of the week trying to determine whether two-fifths of his power play will be available for the NCAA Tournament, Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia walked into Mariucci Arena in a surprisingly good mood Thursday.

Lucia arrived in sweats and sandals – a stark departure from his normally tidy prepractice garb.

But the coach’s high spirits probably had more to do with coffee than charisma.

“I’m so tired, there’s not much I can do about it,” he said. “I’ve just got enough caffeine in me to keep going right now.”

Give Lucia this: The Gophers’ entry into the 2005 NCAA Tournament has been noticeably more hectic than in the last three years.

Minnesota is a No. 1 seed for the third-straight year (four if you count its No. 2 seed in the two-region 2002 tournament). But unlike the last three years – when March surges produced three trips to the WCHA Final Five title game and two Broadmoor Trophies – the Gophers are about as messy as Lucia’s Wednesday wardrobe.

Minnesota’s top seed came mostly because of wins in the first half of the year, and largely in spite of an uneven second half.

The Gophers played just six games against NCAA Tournament qualifiers after the first of the year, winning two, and have the worst second-half record of any team in the West Regional.

Minnesota will also have game-time decisions to make on forward Tyler Hirsch and defenseman Alex Goligoski, as well as on a goaltender battle between Kellen Briggs and Justin Johnson.

Nonetheless, the Gophers are plenty confident their past experiences will carry them through against Maine in the West Regional semifinal Saturday.

“We’ve got so many freshmen that we all went through a slump at the same time,” center Gino Guyer said. “But right now it’s playoff time, and we’ve got enough veterans that have been through it.”

Minnesota isn’t putting a great deal of stock in its two losses at the Final Five during the weekend.

Friday night’s game turned when Mike Howe’s goal was disallowed, and after Tyler Hirsch’s emotional outburst and subsequent absence from Saturday’s loss to North Dakota, hockey took a backseat.

“After the game on Friday, we were concerned for him,” center Ryan Potulny said. “He’s part of our family. But now, we’ve gotten a lot of closure, and the only thing on our minds is winning two games this weekend.”

The Gophers’ first task will be getting past a Maine team that played in the national title game last year and isn’t likely to be intimidated by the Mariucci Arena faithful.

The Black Bears are 5-2-1 in their last eight games and have given up three goals or more only three times in their last 10 contests.

If the Gophers resemble their first-half selves, they’ll probably have enough to fight through the distractions and win.

But if Minnesota performs like it has for much of the second half, it could be in trouble.

All that’s left to do is choose a path.

“It’s time to drop the puck and find out (which team we are),” Lucia said. “Two weeks after last season, we started preparing for this. You don’t want to go down looking at the third strike.”