Gophers go for national title tonight
This would be Minnesota's first national championship since '79
By Dave Campbell
ST. PAUL -- When Don Lucia became Minnesota's coach in 1999, the state's legions of hardcore hockey fans were frustrated with the Golden Gophers.
Playing in the NCAA championship for the first time in 13 years and looking for its first title since 1979, Minnesota has a chance Saturday to reward everyone for their patience.
The Gophers will have plenty of people to thank, too, because it's practically a home game.
Minnesota (31-8-4) plays Maine (26-10-7) in the Frozen Four finals at Xcel Energy Center, less than 8 miles from campus. A tournament-record crowd of 19,234, most wearing maroon and gold, showed up for the Gophers' 3-2 win over Michigan in the semifinals Thursday.
Minnesota will be counting on the same advantage against the Black Bears.
"I'm hoping they can give us that big boost again on Saturday," Lucia said. "When we scored that first goal, it was electric in there."
Lucia replaced Doug Woog, the program's winningest coach who resigned amid criticism for two straight losing seasons and giving money to a player.
Last year, the Gophers finished third in the WCHA and returned to the NCAA tournament after a three-year absence, losing to Maine in overtime in the East regional.
Thanks to a strong push down the stretch, Minnesota is finally back in the title game. The Gophers, who have won 10 of 11, lost to Harvard in overtime in the 1989 championship in St. Paul.
For their three seniors, goalie Adam Hauser, defenseman Jordan Leopold and forward John Pohl, the season has been especially rewarding. In Woog's last year, the Gophers went 15-19-9.
"It was a tough one our freshman year," said Leopold, who received the Hobey Baker Award on Friday. "We didn't really expect it to come together that fast, but we got together a group that really gets along and supports each other."
When Lucia took over, that wasn't the case.
"I felt a lot of the guys were most concerned about themselves," he said. "Nobody cares who's getting the glory now."
The players are concerned, though, about getting another championship banner to hang in Mariucci Arena. Minnesota has three national titles.
"A big part of our state's pride is Gopher hockey," center Jeff Taffe said. "We haven't won a title since 1979. That's a little too long."
Maine hasn't had to wait nearly that long for a title, but the Black Bears endured a tough road in returning to the championship game. Their coach of 17 years, Shawn Walsh, died the day before practice began.
A title would be a nice tribute, but it can't bring him back.
"He was like a father figure to me," said defenseman Peter Metcalf. "The grieving process is still going to continue long after this year."
Walsh led Maine to two titles, including one in 1999. The Black Bears won in overtime that year against New Hampshire, the same team they beat 7-2 Thursday in the semifinals.
"To beat the best team in the nation by five goals, it's a blast," said forward Paul Falco. "But we have some unfinished business."
So do the Gophers, still mindful that Maine ended their season last year.
"Hopefully this year we can give them some payback," said forward Grant Potulny, the first non-Minnesotan on the Gophers roster in more than a decade. "We owe them one."
The crowd will be loudly against them Saturday, but the Black Bears say "bring it on."
"I'd much rather have that situation than a half-full arena," said interim coach Tim Whitehead. "What a tremendous situation it's going to be."