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Minnesota headlines first Big Ten hockey tournament

by Dan Myers

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Other than the Minnesota Wild, who call the facility home, few teams at any level have played more games at Xcel Energy Center than the University of Minnesota.

The Gophers, the nation's top-ranked team, are 2-0 this season at the arena, which is located seven miles from campus this season and where they've played 33 times. Minnesota will headline the inaugural Big Ten Tournament beginning with first-round play Thursday afternoon in downtown St. Paul.

"It's been cool all season, playing in new rinks and against new teams," Gophers captain Nate Condon said. "It's setting the groundwork for what are going to be some really good rivalries and hopefully one of the best leagues in the country."

Minnesota is more than just a local pull to get people through the doors. The Gophers are perhaps the best team in the country, and an interesting case study in how to find success in different ways. Coach Don Lucia, in his 15th season at the helm of the Gophers, has a reputation for icing teams that are explosive from an offensive standpoint. His national championship teams from a decade ago featured 50- and 60-point scorers, a Hobey Baker Award winner and a young Thomas Vanek, the fifth player taken in the 2003 NHL Draft.

This time, though, the Gophers are led by sophomore goaltender Adam Wilcox, a finalist for the Mike Richter Award as the top goaltender in Division I. Minnesota has allowed the fewest goals in all of college hockey.

Meanwhile, their leading scorer, junior Kyle Rau, has barely cracked the 30-point plateau and their leading goal-scorer, junior Seth Ambroz, has all of 13 goals this season.

"We're not a great offensive team. We need to be an efficient offensive team," Lucia said. "When we're at our best and at our most successful, it seems like it's a different guy [every night]. We're not the type of team to rely on just one line or one guy. We need a different line every night."

That hasn't stopped the Gophers from being atop the college hockey rankings for most of the season. Generally regarded along with Boston College as favorites to compete for the national championship next month in Philadelphia, Minnesota has been ranked No. 1 in at least one national poll 18 weeks this season.

For now, the Gophers will simply look to add a Big Ten playoff crown to their regular-season championship, the first one awarded since the 1950-51 season. It was Minnesota's third straight conference regular-season title after winning the Western Collegiate Hockey Association in each of the past two seasons.

The current group of juniors and seniors are the first in the prestigious history of Gopher hockey - one that dates to 1920 - to win three consecutive conference championships.

"It's a credit to our guys," Lucia said. "College hockey is way deeper than it was even 10 or 15 years ago. When you look at conferences even back in the '90s, there was a top half and a bottom half. Now, the depth of the conferences, you see other programs really emerging and competing."

While being rewarded with a banner after a grueling six-month regular season is certainly satisfying, this year's class of seniors would prefer to forget about their playoff legacy. Despite being the top-seed in the WCHA Final Five the last two years, Minnesota lost its Friday opener both times. Three years ago, when these seniors were freshmen, they didn't even get to St. Paul after they were upset in the first round of the playoffs.

It's a legacy these players don't want to leave behind.

"It's a big thing for me and for our seniors," Condon said. "This is the one game we have never won and it'd be nice to get a win there. We want to show that we can play in this tournament. And at the end of the day, you want to win another trophy and keep going strong."

This is a group that seems built for playoff success. Wilcox has a goals-against average (1.91) and save percentage (.934) that are among the best in the country.

It's a group that doesn't take many penalties (9.1 minutes per game, sixth-best in Division I), and when they do, they routinely kill them off (their penalty-kill percentage of 82.6 is second-best in the Big Ten). Their speed is also a potential game-changer.

"We've been here 12 years and they're the fastest team we've seen," Wisconsin coach Mike Eaves said. "With the speed that they have and the skill that they have, you have to play at tempo. You want to take time and space away from them because nobody likes to have less time and space. That's actually what they do their opponents."

The Big Ten Tournament itself is unique from its counterparts from around the country. It is the only conference championship tournament without a play-in round. Without a best-of-three series to weed out contenders from pretenders, teams that finished at the bottom of the league will have a chance to keep their seasons alive by getting hot this weekend.

"Anybody can win a one-game series," Michigan coach Red Berenson said. "Typically, the better team will win a best of three, especially if they have home ice. But in a one-game series, we've seen it in basketball, it's very exciting."

Two teams in the Big Ten, Minnesota and Wisconsin, know they will be playing in the NCAA Tournament, which begins next week. Six teams will be awarded automatic bids into the tournament. Those auto-bids will be decided in conference tournaments around the country beginning Thursday. The other 10 spots will be at-large bids. Of those 10 spots, it's likely that six are already near-certain locks.

"History shows, this time of year in these tournaments, the desperate teams, you can tell," Lucia said.

That makes this weekend's Big Ten Tournament critically important to four teams.

Michigan, the No. 3 seed, is an NCAA bubble team. Currently ranked No. 11 in the all-important Pairwise Rankings, the Wolverines likely need at least one win to secure a spot in the NCAAs. Michigan and No. 6-seeded Penn State will open the Big Ten Tournament at 2 p.m. Thursday.

The Nittany Lions, playing their second season of Division I hockey, went 7-25-2 this season, winning three games in Big Ten play. But two of those victories came against Michigan, including a 5-4 win Feb. 21 in Ann Arbor, Mich.

"We know that Penn State can beat anyone on a given night and they have nothing to lose," Berenson said. "Certainly we have a lot of respect for them because of the way they played against us in all four of the games. They are a team to fear in a format like this."

The winner of the first game Thursday will play Wisconsin on Friday afternoon. The Badgers enter the weekend winners in six of their last seven games and eight of their last 10. Wisconsin is assured of an NCAA Tournament spot, but could rise as high as a No. 1 seed if it can win the Big Ten championship. Wisconsin is 17-2-1 at home this season but 5-8-1 away from Madison.

Eaves said he sees some similarities between his team this year and his 2006 and 2010 teams that advanced to the national championship game, a game they won in 2006.

"They're knocking on the door," Eaves said. "I think even on those teams, we grew going into the playoffs and I think this group can do that as well. In those two years, we got onto a roll around this time of year. I hope that continues and we need it to happen if we're going to be successful."

The other semifinal Thursday matches No. 4 seed Ohio State and No. 5 seed Michigan State. Both teams' seasons, along with Penn State's, will continue past this weekend only if they win the Big Ten's automatic bid. The Buckeyes and Spartans played four of the tightest games of the season, with three of the four going to a shootout.

"The teams are pretty similar," Buckeyes coach Steve Rohlik said. "Their goalie has played well all year and now they're starting to score more. They're a dangerous team this weekend."

The Michigan State-Ohio State winner will play Minnesota in Friday evening. The Friday winners will play Saturday for the Big Ten Tournament Trophy and the league's automatic NCAA bid.

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