There is no defending champion at the Frozen Four this season. At least not if you ask Minnesota coach Don Lucia, whose team took home the national title last season.
“It’s a completely new team,” said Lucia of his Golden Gophers. “And they have to forge their own identity.”
Minnesota lost seven players after last year’s storied run, including Hobey Baker Award winner Jordan Leopold and the nation’s top scorer in John Pohl. As if that wasn’t enough, the Gophers also lost a four-year starter in goal in Adam Hauser and the nation’s second-leading goal scorer in Jeff Taffe.
With all that turnover, Lucia said he didn’t expect to back at the Frozen Four. After Minnesota started the season 5-3-3, many people might have agreed with him.
“We had a whole host of injuries the first half of the season,” Lucia said. “So a lot of people kept asking me how good we were, and I kept saying, ‘Well, I don’t know.’ We just hadn’t had an opportunity to put our full team out on the ice, just to play some games to find out where we were at.”
Once the Gophers did get going, they were a force – winning 16 of their last 22 games. In the WCHA Championship, Minnesota held off Colorado College 4-2 to earn a top seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Part of the resurgence was due to the surprising production of freshman Thomas Vanek. The first European-born player to suit up for Minnesota, Vanek led the team in scoring with 29-29-58 totals. The Graz, Austria native finished second among all freshmen in the nation in scoring behind North Dakota’s Zach Parise.
“I thought he’d be a good player and have a really good year,” Lucia said. “I don’t think I anticipated that he’d score 29 goals at this stage of the season.”
“He’s just an unbelievable player,” said Michigan defenseman Danny Richmond, who played against Vanek last year in the U.S. Hockey League. “If you watch him skate on tape, it doesn’t look like he’s moving that fast. But he’s so strong and powerful … he’s the real deal.”
Michigan and Minnesota last met on Dec. 1 of this season in Minneapolis – a game the Wolverines won 3-1. Goalie Al Montoya was the star, stopping 38 of the 39 shots he faced.
The Gophers also eliminated the Wolverines from last year’s tournament with a 3-2 win in the national semifinals.
“Personally, I love to play Michigan,” Lucia said. “They play the game the way I think it should be played; they recruit offensive players that are highly skilled, and they allow those players to go out and play. Red (Berenson) has said it before, they go out to win games and so do we.”
Richmond is also familiar with another of Minnesota’s freshmen. Defenseman Chris Harrington, who played last season with the Omaha Lancers, eliminated Richmond’s team from the postseason.
“I’d like to give him that taste in his mouth,” Richmond said.