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Gophers, Bulldogs Make Way to NCAAs

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The Gopher Women won the national championship in Duluth. Can the Gopher men, or Duluth's own Bulldogs bring home another?
The Gopher Women won the national championship in Duluth. Can the Gopher men, or Duluth's own Bulldogs bring home another?

Those who might argue against the notion that Minnesota is the "State of Hockey" might want to look at this year's NCAA Tournament bracket for ammunition.

The 16-team field, announced Sunday, includes just two Minnesota-based teams. Among the entities that can match or exceed that are Michigan (four teams), Colorado (two), Massachusetts (three), New York (two), and the city of Boston (two).

Minnesota and Minnesota Duluth are the proverbial last men standing in the state as the tournament opens with regional games Friday.

The Gophers are in the tournament for the first time since 2008.

Yes, 2008. Four years ago.

Hard times struck the Minnesota program, at least by its lofty standards. After back-to-back championships in 2002 and 2003, the Gophers were eliminated from the tournament by rival UMD in 2004, then got knocked out in a historic upset by Holy Cross in 2006. In 2008, Minnesota headed east and was one-and-done, losing to Boston College.

The following year, UMD beat Minnesota in the WCHA Final Five play-in game, ending the Gophers' season. Minnesota then lost in the first round of the WCHA playoffs in 2010 and 2011.

Don Lucia was on the hot seat -- at least in the eyes of the large Minnesota fanbase, but stuck around long enough to see the Gophers through the tough times.

Now, he reaps the benefits, as the Gophers are back in the tournament.

The bad news? Minnesota plays in the West Regional at XCel Energy Center in St. Paul. Yeah, that might seem like a solid proposition on paper, but Minnesota hasn't won a game in the "X" since the 2008-2009 season, when the Gophers beat Minnesota State 6-3.

Minnesota lost to UMD in the Final Five that season, then lost to North Dakota in Friday's WCHA Final Five semifinals.

Meanwhile, top regional seed North Dakota is 8-1 in its last nine games in the building, including three straight WCHA playoff titles. In two of those three years, the Fighting Sioux team out of North Dakota won three games in three days to claim the title.

This Gopher team could be an underdog in the regional -- and the X is far from "home ice" anymore -- but don't count them out. Minnesota possesses three big-time offensive threats in forwards Erik Haula, Nick Bjugstad, and Kyle Rau. Senior goalie Kent Patterson struggled in the third period of Minnesota's loss to North Dakota Friday, but more often than not, Patterson responds to a rough outing with a really good one.

The Gophers take on a Boston University team Saturday that struggled down the stretch. The Terriers finished 8-8 after a great start to the season, thanks in large part to legal issues that caused distractions and departures, as well as the departure of sophomore Charlie Coyle, a Wild draft pick who left school to play major junior hockey in Canada.

BU captain Chris Connolly is from Duluth, and is the older brother of UMD captain and Hobey Baker finalist Jack Connolly. The younger Connolly and UMD will open defense of their national championship Saturday in the Northeast Regional in Worcester, Mass., against Maine.

Connolly had some struggles down the stretch, as teams focused more on slowing him down. That said, Connolly played a very strong game last week in the Final Five against Denver, scoring a third-period goal that completed a comeback from a 3-0 deficit.

UMD needs more out of his supporting cast against Maine. The Black Bears and coach Tim Whitehead aren't stupid. They are fully aware that Connolly is the straw that stirs the drink, and they will be ready. That means UMD's line of Travis Oleksuk centering Caleb Herbert and JT Brown will be called on to make more plays than they did against Denver. It's a group that usually follows a quiet game up with a big one, and the spot doesn't get much bigger than the NCAA Tournament.

The Bulldogs got a tough draw, facing a solid Maine team Saturday and potentially the tournament's top overall seed, Boston College, on Sunday. The Eagles might be the deepest team in the country, and they have a 15-game winning streak as the tournament opens.

There might not be a better example of a tournament anyone can win than this one. Since the tournament was expanded to 16 teams (four regionals of four teams apiece) in 2003, four of the nine championships have been won by teams that weren't No. 1 regional seeds. Two No. 4 regional seeds have made NCAA title games (0-2 record). UMD won last year as a No. 3 regional seed, and Notre Dame made the Frozen Four as a No. 3 seed.

While the "experts" will pick mostly No. 1 seeds to win and advance, upsets are commonplace in the tournament, and no seed -- not even the top overall seed -- is immune to them.

Just getting in the tournament is the hard part. Now, it's time to see how everything plays out. That's the fun part.