PHILADELPHIA – Viewed on an historical basis, this is a matchup that in and of itself should be incredibly lopsided. The No. 1 overall seed is the same team it has been for most of the season, and that's mighty Minnesota. The Golden Gophers have knocked down five NCAA titles in their time, sent scads of players to the NHL and other professional leagues, and in doing so become perhaps the most storied hockey program in NCAA history.
In the other dressing room is Union, which has until recently been a team which often struggled to even make it to .500 for the season. Only in the past four years have they really established themselves as being a program worth revering, as they've sent very few players to the NHL, and have won no national hockey titles.
The University of Minnesota is huge. Huge enrollment, huge sports and academic programs, huge every thing. Union is small. Small enrollment, liberal arts college, little in the way of national recognition.
This game might change all that.
The fact of the matter is that there's very little indeed separating these two schools where it matters: on the ice, right now. For the first time since at least 1997, the Nos. 1 and 2 teams in the country are playing for the national title. In a bit of a twist, Union is the No. 1 in the polls, though the math has them No. 3. Meanwhile, Minnesota is ranked second, and sits first in the Pairwise. In short, there's not much the one can do that the other can't; Union is second in goals per game (3.7) to Minnesota's sixth (3.43). Minnesota is second in team defense (1.95 allowed per game) and Union is fourth (2.08).
Both are teams that rely very much on depth, but this might actually be the case more for Minnesota than Union. Not to say they aren't talented, because boy are they ever, but they perhaps lack the premium talent they had even a year ago. It's unfamiliar territory for Minnesota in a lot of ways – their top scorer has 39 points, compared with Daniel Carr's Union-leading 49 – and yet here they are.
"Last year our team was top heavy," said Minnesota senior forward and captain Nate Condon. "We had a lot of talented guys that are playing regularly in the NHL now. A lot of really skilled guys. I think we leaned on them heavily, where as this year it could be anyone. It could be [Nos.] 1 through 4 on our lines, or any of our defensemen, that gets our team going on any night. So, I think maybe the team aspect has really helped us this season, and really, you know, pushed us to get here to the national championship."
In many ways, too, it seems as though Minnesota has been something of a measuring stick for Union, as it logically should be to most college hockey programs. Its success is the type to which all should aspire; you don't win six national titles accidentally. Interestingly, though, it seems that the last meeting between these two teams is something that might have given Union coach Rick Bennett a bit of a reason to believe his team was going in the right direction. That game, played in 2010-11, was a 3-2 overtime win for Union, at Minnesota's Mariucci Arena, which has traditionally been a cauldron, packed with screaming, chanting fans against an almost impossibly difficult opponent. Bennett was just an assistant then, behind now-Providence coach Nate Leaman, but he remembers the feeling of beating Minnesota for the first time very well, especially because their previous trip out there, in 2005, when the program hadn't yet begun its transformation, was an 8-0 bloodbath loss.
"It was a monumental win for us, because we went out there a few years previous; I'm not even sure what the score was," Bennett said. "It was like 9-1 or something like that. So it wasn't pretty. I know one of our defensemen at the time, one of our better defensemen, Lane Caffaro, found his way through the crease and ran their goalie over. I think we had to put him in a stick bag to get him out of there because it was pretty hostile. It was one of those things. To come back and have that win in overtime was really special. Who knows, maybe it sets the tone at that time for where they are today."
But the seeds for that win had been sewn for a years . Leaman had pulled the program out of the swamp, and this being the team's fourth straight NCAA tournament appearance and second Frozen Four in three years, it seems Bennett has it flying even higher. For Minnesota coach Don Lucia, the difference in the program that now stands between him and his third title with the Gophers and the one that his side once reamed for a touchdown and two-point conversion is obviously rather stark.
"Talent," Lucia said of what he saw from the Union team that beat him three years ago. "I mean, they were a very talented team. They were on the cusp at that point in time. Obviously with the coaches that have been through there, Coach Bennett's taken it to a whole new level, but they had some very good players on that team. I think there were some guys that turned pro. I think there was another Bodie on the team, if I remember correctly. But, I was impressed by their talent level. They skated well. They were an older team back then, but that's their way of doing things."
Union's "way of doing things" now has less to do with older players – there are just two kids north of 24 on the team – and more to do with active defense, making teams chase them in the offensive zone, and relying on their mobile defensemen to get the puck through the neutral zone in a hurry. Minnesota saw plenty of that against a very good North Dakota team on Thursday, but Union operates at a higher level. They're a cut above, and if the Gophers play with the lack of urgency they brought early on in the semifinal, they're going to have a big problem on their hands. North Dakota can't hurt opponents like Union can.
"It was one of those things where our team has always been balanced all season," Condon said of the semifinal win, which was sealed by a game-winner that came with 0.6 on the clock, shorthanded, from a forward-turned-defenseman who hadn't scored all he year. "When one line has a tough night, another line has a good night, so I think it doesn't really matter who on our team, there is always going to be someone that's going and someone that's having a good night. We'll see who that is on Saturday."
That's not the kind of thing you'd hear from the captains of star-studded Minnesota teams of years past, but then again, it's gotten them this far in the season. They'd just better hope the more talented, favored upstart program which has learned so many lessons about itself in the last few years, against so many more teams than just them, doesn't make it two in a row versus Minnesota.
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