Sometimes nine miles can seem to be a world away from relevance.
After a two-year absence, the University of Minnesota has made the nine mile trek back to St. Paul for the WCHA Final Five and a chance to win the Broadmoor Trophy. They play Friday night against the winner of St. Cloud State and North Dakota in front of what will surely be a sellout crowd of over 18,000 at the Xcel Energy Center.
The fact that a conference tournament semifinal can sell out a NHL arena is only one of the reasons why the Final Five is one of the premier events in college hockey but for the Gophers it's more than a chance for them to win another trophy. It's an opportunity many thought they wouldn't have.
Last Saturday, Minnesota head coach Don Lucia reiterated in his postgame remarks that despite being picked them to finish sixth this year, he thought his team was not that far away from winning last year. Lucia's positive outlook was not shared by many at the time - this year's team lost its top three scorers and defensemen from a season ago - however after being the first Gopher coach to miss the NCAA Tournament three seasons in a row, they've shown it so far by winning the regular season title and dispatching Alaska-Anchorage in the first round.
There are many reasons for Minnesota's success but the biggest is getting back to what worked before and seeing players develop throughout their four seasons. Throughout the "dark years," seeing a player continue to overachieve as they became upperclassmen felt like the exception rather than the rule. Instead of getting 3 or 4 years out of guys like Paul Martin and Jordan Leopold, heralded recruits either went to the NHL after a season or two or floundered in college like Patrick White.
White, a first-round selection by the Vancouver Canucks in 2007, had his highest point total his freshman year, lowest as a senior and ended up being unsigned by San Jose (who traded for his draft rights).
This year, however, has seen a variety of players step up on the ice and score sheet. Only one of the eight sophomores who regularly play for Minnesota saw their point totals drop from freshman to sophomore year (and that Tom Serratore going from 4 to 3 points) with many of them stepping up into leadership roles. While forwards Nick Bjugstad (Florida Panthers) and Erik Haula (Minnesota Wild) were able to step up in goals (24 for Bjugstad and 19 for Haula), they also improved at little things like face-offs and back-checking.
The biggest jump, meanwhile, is defenseman Nate Schmidt. As a freshman, Schmidt could not crack the Gopher blue line and was a liability when he did. This year he's developed into one of the top offensive defensemen in the WCHA - his 33 assists lead all defensemen in college hockey - and along with defensive partner Jake Parenteau have been two of the more consistent players on Minnesota's blue line.
And the list goes on.
Whether it's a goalie like Kent Patterson (Colorado Avalanche) who had a .914 save% and recorded a school-record 7 shutouts after 0 last year or forwards like Nate Condon (Avalanche) and Taylor Matson (Canucks) who found a niche in the Gopher penalty kill (it improved from 11th to 5th in the WCHA) everyone has moved in the right direction. There is still work to be done but Lucia and his staff of Mike Guentzel and Grant Potulny deserves credit for getting the most out of his players, finding scoring and improving defensively.
A year ago, Minnesota looked to be closer to mediocrity than being worthy of called the Pride on Ice. Now they are NCAA Tournament bound after missing three consecutive seasons sitting on the outside - the Gophers can advance as third-overall and be as low as a three-seed depending on this weekend - and two wins away from a second trophy.
Regardless, it's nice to see Minnesota hockey and Don Lucia back to where it should be.