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After heartbreak last year, can U deliver an NCAA title in St. Paul?

Saying the Gophers men's hockey team had an emotional hangover at the start of this season after last year's overtime loss in the NCAA title game doesn't quite seem accurate.

This is closer to reality: The Gophers were going to need to recalibrate regardless of how last year ended, given that many of their top players for a loaded team headed to the NHL (and are in fact excelling right now at the next level).

They navigated the early stretch of the season reasonably well, with only a home sweep at the hands of Wisconsin standing out as eye-opening at the time (though not as much now).

What seemed like muddling along dangerously close to the bubble of the 16-team NCAA tournament field for much of the season has turned into far surer footing as the Gophers have leaned into the identity of this year's team: not quite as much star power but plenty of balance on offense to go with the stingy goaltending of Justen Close.

Add it up — as Randy Johnson and I did on Wednesday's Daily Delivery podcast — and you have a team that is now No. 8 in the Pairwise Rankings and very likely to earn either a No. 2 or No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament.

If we want to get way ahead of ourselves — a trip I already started by talking about the NCAA tournament when the Gophers still have two regular-season Big Ten series and the conference tournament before then — we can jump two months into the future and think about the Frozen Four in St. Paul on April 11 and 13.

If the Gophers can get there — a huge if, of course — they will of have a tremendous home crowd advantage.

It is worth noting that a Minnesota team has won the last three NCAA titles during Frozen Fours hosted at Xcel Energy Center: The Gophers in 2002, then Minnesota-Duluth in 2011 and 2018.

The Gophers appear to be Minnesota's best hope of keeping that streak alive in 2024. St. Cloud State is the only other school from the State of Hockey in the Pairwise top 16 right now (tied for 11th), and nobody else is above No. 25.

Minnesota hasn't given up more than three goals in any game since Jan. 7, a span so long it was the same day the Vikings were eliminated from playoff contention. The Gophers are starting to play their best at the right time.

We'll see if they can keep it going into March and maybe April.

Here are four more things to know today:

We also talked plenty on Wednesday's podcast about the P.J. Fleck-to-UCLA speculation that flared up and died down quickly over the weekend.The Wolves put together a big four quarter run to knock off Portland on Wednesday. Their focus is surely on the here and now as they carry the West's best record toward the All-Star break. But if you want to think about the summer, The Ringer has some speculation about Karl-Anthony Towns' future.If you can't get enough mock drafts, Field Yates has one at ESPN. He has the Vikings taking edge rusher Jared Verse of Florida State at No. 11, which frankly wouldn't be a bad idea.Star Tribune columnist Chip Scoggins will join me on Thursday's podcast to talk about a number of subjects, including Gophers football and the Wolves.