Frozen Four 2014 preview: Minnesota makes triumphant return to college hockey's big stage

Hannah Foslien

The Minnesota Golden Gophers suffered a tough loss in the first round of last year's NCAA tournament, but have bounced back this season en route to the Frozen Four. They're the favorite going in; will they leave Philadelphia with a title?

We asked Nate Wells, who covers Gophers hockey at SB Nation College Hockey, to help us get to know the nation's top-seeded team.

University of Minnesota Golden Gophers

No. 1 overall, West Regional champion
Record: 27-6-6 (14-3-3, No. 1 in Big Ten)
Home: Mariucci Arena, Minneapolis, Minn.
Enrollment: 30,000
Head coach: Don Lucia
Leading scorer: Kyle Rau (14 G, 23 A, 37 P)
Starting goalie: Adam Wilcox (36 GP, 1.89, .934)
Path to Philly: def. Robert Morris, 7-3; def. St. Cloud State, 4-0

SB Nation: What has been Minnesota's key to success this season?

Nate Wells: Although there might not be one key for Minnesota's success this season, a big part of the team's success has to do with the play of its 8 freshmen. Head Coach Don Lucia and his assistants Mike Guentzel and Grant Potulny, along with the team's junior and senior leaders, have done a great job to a team that lost 4 of its top 5 scorers from last year's team to the pros.

All the departures, which include current NHLers Nick Bjugstad and Erik Haula, have caused several freshmen to placed to be placed in high-profile roles. Half of Minnesota's top-six is consisted of freshmen with Justin Kloos and Hudson Fasching (Buffalo Sabres prospect) scoring 30 and 39 points, respectively. Kloos, a 5'9", 178 lbs forward, was named the West Regional Most Outstanding Player after recording 5 points (3G-2A) in wins over Robert Morris and St. Cloud State. That success and development has turned what could have a rebuilding season into one where the Gophers have reloaded.

What will lead the Gophers to a loss in Philadelphia?

Two ways for a team to defeat the Gophers are special teams and running into hot goaltending.

Along with a defense that is 2nd in the nation averaging 2 goals per game, Minnesota's forward depth has been a major strength this season. At several different points this season a different line has taken over the scoring load. It has paid dividends because few teams can shut down all three lines, however, there isn't one big line to rely upon like several of the other teams. A hot goalie can always steal a game this time of year.

At the same time, teams have also found success against the top overall seed in games that feature a lot of penalties. Most notably was a 6-2 loss to UMD in November were the Bulldogs scored 4 power play goals and added a fifth goal shorthanded. The Gopher PK has vastly improved over the last few months, but getting Minnesota, which due to its speed and puck possession abilities do draw a lot of penalties, out of a rhythm even-strength has been a way to win.

Describe the type of game Minnesota plays.

The Gophers are a very fast and skillful team that loves to move the puck. While Wells Fargo Center is not an Olympic-sized sheet like Minnesota's home rink Mariucci Arena, where the team went 15-1-3 this year, Lucia's squad still is able to use collective speed and force opponents to play its game.

That starts from the defensemen on the blue line and works its way up to the forwards. It seems like every series this year has ended with an opposing head coach raving about the skill and speed coming from the blue line. At the same time, Minnesota is able to do so because of Adam Wilcox. The sophomore goaltender is second in the nation in save percentage, third in goals against average and one of the favorites to win the inaugural Mike Richter Award given to the best goalie in college hockey.

Who are the NHL prospects on the Minnesota roster that fans should keep on their radar?

Minnesota has 14 NHL draft picks from 12 teams (New York Islanders and Columbus Blue Jackets have 2 apiece) on its roster, which means are several players for fans to watch. Specifically, three sophomores are Big Ten player and goaltender of the year Adam Wilcox (Tampa Bay Lightning), Big Ten defenseman of the year Mike Reilly (Columbus Blue Jackets) and 2012 first round pick Brady Skjei (New York Rangers).

Finally, predict the Frozen Four for us.

I stated back in October after seeing Minnesota-BC play one of the best regular season games I've ever seen that these were the two most talented teams in college hockey and am going to stick with Minnesota defeating the Eagles for the title.

Obviously, that doesn't always translate to a match-up in the national championship game. The past has shown several top teams be defeated in a single elimination tournament and both Union and North Dakota are highly deserving of being in Philadelphia. In Union's case, it's almost criminal how underrated the Dutchmen are entering this weekend.

***
Our thanks to Nate for answering our questions. You can follow along with his coverage live from Philadelphia on Twitter at @GopherState, and catch him over at SB Nation College Hockey as well.

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