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Three keys for Gophers vs. Nebraska Omaha in NCAA tourney opener

SIOUX FALLS — Christmas Day for college hockey fans has arrived as the NCAA Division I men's tournament drops the puck at four regional locations. One of those is Sioux Falls, where the second-seeded Gophers meet No. 3 seed and host Nebraska Omaha at 7:30 p.m. at the Denny Sanford Premier Center.

The winner meets the winner of the first regional semifinal at 4 p.m. between top-seeded Boston University and No. 4 seed Rochester Institute of Technology on Saturday for a trip to the Frozen Four, which will be played April 11 and 13 at Xcel Energy Center.

Here are three things to the Gophers need to do to beat the Mavericks and take the first step toward advancing to their third consecutive Frozen Four:

1. Get off to a fast start

The Gophers need only look at their last game, a 2-1 loss to Michigan in the Big Ten tournament semifinals, for evidence that starting slowly is not a recipe for success. The Wolverines scored 3:12 into the first period, stretched their lead to 2-0 late in the second and controlled play throughout. Against NCAA tournament teams this season, the Gophers are 6-6-3 but only 2-4-2 when the opponent scores first.

2. Be better on faceoffs

You need only look to last year's national championship game to see how crucial winning a faceoff can be. The Gophers lost the decisive faceoff to Quinnipiac in overtime, and 10 seconds later, the puck was in the back of the Minnesota net. Against Michigan in the Big Ten semifinals, the Wolverines won 36 of 56 faceoffs (64.3% to the Gophers 35.7%). Coach Bob Motzko has made faceoffs a point of emphasis this week.

3. Use their speed to frustrate Nebraska Omaha

The Gophers are brimming with speed, with players like leading scorer Rhett Pitlick leading the way. Motzko has described Nebraska Omaha as a "hard, heavy team'' that is tough to knock off the puck. The Mavericks want to impose their physical, structured game on Minnesota, and to combat that the Gophers must rely their skating ability to provide separation and to drive offense.