Monday, April 14, 2003
Gophers eyeing hockey three-peat
By John Wawrow
The Associated Press
BUFFALO, N.Y. - If Minnesota was to regain its place as an NCAA hockey power, coach Don Lucia knew he would have to begin looking outside of his state's borders to find talent.
How quickly Lucia's philosophy panned out.
Led by Austrian Thomas Vanek, the Golden Gophers became the first to successfully defend their championship in 31 years with Saturday night's 5-1 victory over New Hampshire.
Vanek, the first European to play at Minnesota, capped a phenomenal freshman season. After scoring the winner in Minnesota's 3-2 overtime victory over Michigan in the semifinals, Vanek got the winner against New Hampshire, putting Minnesota up 2-1 with 11:46 remaining.
Of his 31 goals this season, 17 have come in the third period or overtime, with five of them winners.
"He's a difference maker," Lucia said. "He's just a great player, who seems to step up when the game is on the line. But that's what great players do."
In four seasons since leaving Colorado College to take over the Gophers job, Lucia has brought a fresh perspective to a program that appeared to rely too much on its past success in strictly recruiting Minnesota-raised talent.
Lucia began searching beyond the school's traditional borders, citing the increasing competition to recruit Minnesota players with the emergence of other state-based programs.
"I just felt that if we wanted to compete with the top programs throughout the country that we had to have the same ability to go out and recruit those kids," Lucia said. "As long as they're recruiting all over North America or Europe, then we better, too."
Curiously, it was Grant Potulny, of Grand Forks, N.D., who scored the winner in last year's championship, a 4-3 overtime victory over Maine.
"You need those couple of players to get you over the hump," Lucia said.
Now, there's talk of a three-peat, considering the Gophers stand to lose only one senior - defenseman Matt DeMarchi - this summer.
"It's looking very good," DeMarchi said. "The future for this team is pretty much unstoppable."
New Hampshire (28-8-6), despite its edge in experience and goaltending, proved no match against the Gophers (30-8-9), who scored four times in the final 12 minutes.
Minnesota won the school's fifth hockey title, joining Wisconsin and Denver, who also have won five. Michigan is first with nine, followed by North Dakota with seven. Boston University, which won in 1971 and 1972, was the last to defend its title, while Michigan, from 1951-53, is the only school to have won three straight.
New Hampshire coach Dick Umile, who's yet to win despite leading the Wildcats to four final fours in six years, gave the early nod to Minnesota, saying: "Everybody better look out next season."
What's remarkable is how quickly the Gophers jelled after losing a large core of last year's squad, including Jordan Leopold, last season's Hobey Baker award winner. Minnesota also lost John Pohl and Jeff Taffe, the nation's first- and second-leading scorers, and senior goalie Adam Hauser.
And when the Gophers opened this season 5-3-3, coach Don Lucia acknowledged he was more concerned about gaining home-ice advantage in the playoffs than the chances of his team repeating as champions.
The turnaround came in early February, during a two-game series at Colorado College. After losing the first game 6-2, the Gophers bounced back with a 3-2 victory and finished the season on a 14-1-2 roll.
"I'm really proud of this team because of how far they came," Lucia said. "Without question, we're playing our best hockey and that's what has to happen at this time of year."
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