March 29, 2003
NCAA West Regional
Gophers Earn Their (Buffalo) Wings

NCAA Tournament Coverage

Brackets | Info
The Dean's List

By Jess Myers

MINNEAPOLIS –
When I think of Keith Ballard's hometown, I always think of cars. Ballard, a sophomore defenseman for Minnesota, hails from the tiny hamlet of Baudette, Minn. In addition to being home of Willie the Walleye (which is likely the largest concrete depiction of a fish in the 218 area code) Baudette is the county seat of Lake of the Woods County, which just happens to be the most sparsely populated of Minnesota's 87 counties. That might have something to do with the fact that roughly one-third of the county is a lake, but that's another matter.

One reason for the connection in my head between Baudette and cars is that in the summer of 1985, my mother drove me the 36 miles from my hometown to Baudette to take my drivers' license test. I scored a 76 (out of a possible 100) to become a licensed driver in Minnesota. I still offer proof of my success that day now and then when I enter bars and the bouncer says, "I.D., please."

Minnesota 7,
Ferris State 4
Team Goal Str
Time Assists

First Period

1-MN Matt Koalska (9) EV
0:13 T. Vanek, M. DeMarchi
2-MN Keith Ballard (12) PP
1:38  
3-MN Jake Fleming (10) EV
6:09 G. Smaagaard
1-FS Chris Kunitz (34) EV
12:02 P. Meyer
4-MN Thomas Vanek (28) EV
12:41  
2-FS Chris Kunitz (35) SH
17:48 D. Nesbitt
5-MN Matt DeMarchi (7) PP
18:54 T. Hirsch, B. Tallackson
Second Period
3-FS Derek Nesbitt (20) SH
12:43  
6-MN Thomas Vanek (29) EV
19:31 M. Koalska
Third Period
4-FS Phil Lewandowski (15) EV
2:04 N. Field
7-MN Jon Waibel (8) EV
10:31 G. Smaagaard, J. Fleming
Goaltending
FS: Mike Brown, 60:00, 42 saves, 7 GA
MN: Justin Johnson, 20:00, 4 saves, 2 GA; Travis Weber, 40:00, 12 saves, 2 GA
Penalties: FS 10/28; MN 4/8
Power Plays: FS 0-3; MN 2-8
Attendance: 9,622
NCAA All-West
Regional Team
G: Mike Brown, Ferris State
D: Keith Ballard, Minnesota
D: Matt DeMarchi, Minnesota
F: Thomas Vanek, Minnesota (MVP)
F: Chris Kunitz, Ferris State
F: Grant Potulny, Minnesota

Another reason for the connection is that I remember coming out of a movie at the Baudette Theater one night on a date when I was in high school and it was approximately 261 below zero (not an uncommon thing when you live on the Canadian border). I promptly flooded my red and white 1980 Citation, killed the battery, and had to call my parents to come give the girl and me a ride home. I had better dates. I'm guessing she did too.

Ballard and his Gopher teammates spent much of this past season performing like my old Citation in cold
weather. Namely, getting them started was a chore. Barely a month ago, in their final regular season home
series at Mariucci Arena, the Gophers found themselves trailing Denver by three goals in the second period on two consecutive nights. That they came back for a tie and a win in those two games is a testament to the talent and drive that Don Lucia has assembled.

But lately, there have been no comebacks necessary in Gopherland. In the WCHA Final Five title game versus Colorado College (then ranked #1 in the nation), it was 3-0 for Minnesota 5:25 into the game. In the NCAA West Regional opener versus Mercyhurst, it took 65 seconds for the Gophers to get a lead. And Saturday in the Gophers bid for a return trip to the Frozen Four, it was 1-0 after 13 seconds, and 2-0 after 98 seconds.

Ballard was named to the All-Regional team after scoring three goals and adding an assist this weekend. He says that the rapid change from slow starting to first-minute explosions has been a matter of self-education.

"It might be one of those situations where you learn from your mistakes," Ballard said. "We're ready to play, finally."

According to Thomas Vanek, the regional's MVP, the quick starts have been the best way to get a persistent coaching staff off of the players' backs.

"We kind of got sick of the coaches yelling at us, so we picked it up right away," said Vanek, with a laugh.

For Lucia, it's not a matter of persistence. His feeling is one of relief and of the growth that his team has experienced since opening the season on October 12 versus Ohio State.

"Halfway through the WCHA season, I think we had 12 goals in the first period, which was last in the league," he said. "We've developed a lot from where we were in the fall to where we are today."

Remembering those trips to Ballard's hometown when I was a teen, I could say the same about myself. One certainly develops a little bit between the ages of 16 and 33. But in that time, I've learned some of the same things that the Gophers have learned over the course of the 2002-03 season. Namely, that no matter what the Shell Answer Man says, a jackrabbit start beats a cold weather start anytime.

BAD MOVIES, GOOD HOCKEY

Envision the plot of a really bad revenge drama. You know, something starring Patrick Swayze in one of those grainy VHS flicks that's next to "Ishtar" and
"Timecop" on the near-empty shelves of your neighborhood Mr. Movies late on a Friday night when there's a blizzard coming. In this film, a young hotshot sniper seeks to revenge something bad that happened years ago to a member of his family that he never knew.

Sounds bad, right? For Ferris State, a version of that plot amounted to a nightmare.

Matt Koalska took just 13 seconds to put his Golden Gopher teammates up 1-0 on Ferris State in the waning light of a Saturday afternoon in Minneapolis. In doing so, Koalska nearly broke a NCAA regional record for quickest goal at the start of a game, a mark set Friday by New Hampshire's Colin Hemingway, who scored 10 seconds into the Wildcats' win against St. Cloud State.

But here's where it gets really interesting: Koalska's effort one-upped Michigan's Brendan Morrison who, a few weeks before he won the 1997 Hobey Baker Award, set the record by scoring 33 seconds into a NCAA regional game versus Minnesota. The final score that day for Michigan, the defending NCAA champs in 1997, was 7-4.

The Wolverines stormed into Milwaukee that year and most thought them repeating as NCAA champs was a foregone conclusion. That's before Boston University derailed the Berenson Express 3-2 in the Frozen Four semis, in one of the greatest hockey games ever played.

So for all of the die-hard Gopher fans out there, congrats on a return trip to the Frozen. But don't print those "2003 NCAA champs" T-shirts just yet.

SEEN AND HEARD AT MARIUCCI

• How about this stat: In two games at the NCAA West Regional, the Gophers put 105 shots on goal, and 16 of them went in. Either Al Montoya or Curtis McElhinney should be ready for a busy afternoon in Buffalo in 10 days.

• Despite their 9-2 loss in the opener, the members of Mercyhurst's team (and about a dozen Laker fans) were in the audience on Saturday afternoon for the regional final.

Not so for North Dakota, which has been known to flee the scene of the crime shortly after a loss. The Sioux left Minneapolis not long after their loss to Ferris State and were likely tucked into their dorm rooms on the banks of the English Coulee before the puck was dropped between the Gophers and Bulldogs. That's par for the course for Dean Blais, who celebrated the 1997 NCAA title by loading his team back on the bus shortly after the championship game for an 11-hour bus ride to Grand Forks.

INCH's West Regional
Three Stars
3. Mike Brown, Ferris State
He stopped 44 to beat North Dakota and stopped 42 in the loss to Minnesota. Never has a goalie looked so solid giving up seven goals.
2. Gino Guyer, Minnesota
He's not among those who scored the team's 16 goals, and got so
frustrated at one point on Saturday that he slammed his stick to the ice in anger. But his five Friday night assists stand as a regional record. Not bad for a freshman.
1. Thomas Vanek, Minnesota
Goalies aren't concerned with stopping the Austrian sensation's
shots. They're hoping just to see them. In his rookie year, and especially in Minnesota's playoff tour de force, Vanek's recent trend of launching rockets at opportune times has been the biggest factor in
Minnesota's return to the Frozen Four.

• How concerned is Don Lucia about providing bulletin board material for the opposition? Concerned enough that he's willing to throw the notion of "free speech" out the window, at least in regard to his players.

In the press conference after the Ferris State game, Keith Ballard and Thomas Vanek were asked if they would prefer to open the Frozen Four versus Michigan (which beat the Gophers 3-1 on Dec. 1) or Colorado College (against whom the Gophers were 2-2-1 this year). Before either player could respond, Lucia leaned into his microphone and said, "Don't answer that!" His exclamation was greeted with laughter by the media, but the players were dismissed without answering any more questions.

• After being blitzed by Minnesota to the tune of 5-2 (out-shot 25-6) in the first period, what did coach Bob Daniels tell his Ferris State team in the locker room? Nothing. At least not right away. "I waited outside for a while, and had to take a few minutes to collect myself," said Daniels. "After that, I reminded the guys that we're not that bad, and they're not that good. We just ran into a pretty good hockey team in the first period. They jumped us pretty good."

PLUSSES AND MINUSES

To the two guys in Section 22, Row 4 who decided to have a little fun with their game day togs. Anyone can put on a Gopher sweater when heading to Mariucci, but to get together with your buddy and make a statement is the extra effort we like come playoff time. The gentleman in Seat 2 wore the home white of the Charlestown Chiefs. Seat 1's occupant donned the road orange of the Syracuse Bulldogs. Waiting for these neighbors to drop 'em and go was more exciting that anything on the ice.

To Doug Woog, for proving once again that he knows a little bit about pucks. Before the game a friend was saying how impressive Ferris State looked versus North Dakota and what a good game the Bulldogs would give Minnesota. Woog said he wasn't as impressed with Ferris as others, and predicted that Minnesota would storm them from the start. Perhaps the 389 college games Woog won weren't all flukes.

To the selectors of the All-Regional Team. Gino Guyer sets a NCAA record with five assists, and he's not one of the top six in the tourney? What's a guy gotta do?

To the Ferris State band. Thanks for making the trip. You added some nice atmosphere and some new tunes to the rink. But launching into your school song 10 seconds after the Gopher band starts playing its own school song just creates a musical mess.

WHAT'S NEXT

Whoever faces Minnesota in Buffalo should devise a slowdown game plan. And pay special attention to the game's first two minutes. After being a slow-starting team for much of the season, the Gophers are exploding out of the blocks as of late.

The Gophers have 12 days before their next game. But not all of the players are looking for a little time to rest and relax before shuffling off to Buffalo.

"I wish it was tomorrow," said Vanek. "Well, maybe a day or two off, but we're ready to play now."


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