MINNEAPOLIS — The reminders of Minnesota’s proud and rich hockey history are everywhere at the rink, big trophies and bigger names that have defined the Gophers for generations.
One of the most driven and talented teams to take the ice for Minnesota in decades has hardly felt any pressure from playing for such a prestigious program.
Motivation is more like it.
“We look around and see the banners and see a lot of success and history,” senior defenseman Ryan Johnson said. “At the same time there’s five national championships. It’s a lot, but you see the last one was 20 years ago. So what’s going on? We know we have the talent every year to win it.”
That just shows the competitiveness of the major college game, with only 60 schools fielding Division I men’s teams. Thirteen of Minnesota’s 40 appearances in the NCAA Tournament have come since 2003, when the Gophers won their second straight title and fifth all time. This is the fifth time they’ve reached the Frozen Four in those 20 years, too. The annual expectations exceed that, though.
Some of Minnesota’s most bitter rivals are ahead on the all-time national championship list that’s led by Denver and Michigan with nine each. North Dakota has eight, and Wisconsin has six.
“There’s obviously a lot of eyes on us and a lot of attention, but we just try to be more focused on what’s going on with us in the locker room versus all that noise outside,” Johnson said.
The Gophers have caused quite a ruckus this season. They played in front of nine sellouts at 3M Arena at Mariucci, with an average crowd of 9,156 that’s an increase of more than 20% from last season.
The No. 1 overall seed in the tournament, Minnesota (28-9-1) cruised through the Fargo Regional by beating Canisius 9-2 and St. Cloud State 4-1 to make the Frozen Four for the 23rd time.
The Gophers have two of the three Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalists in freshman Logan Cooley and sophomore Matthew Knies, with Cooley’s 57 points ranking second in the country and his linemate Knies leading the nation with seven game-winning goals including three in overtime.
The 26-player team the Gophers will take to Tampa, Florida, next week for the national semifinals will feature 14 NHL draft picks. They play fellow powerhouse Boston University on April 6, followed by the Quinnipiac-Michigan game. The winners advance to the championship on April 8.
The Gophers got to the Frozen Four last season, too, but lost their first game to Minnesota State.
“It’s something you learn from, something you go to bed thinking about,” junior defenseman Brock Faber said. “We’re excited to hopefully play a lot better this time around.”
If the Gophers get their sixth title, there’s a good chance Cooley will be a big part of it.
The third overall pick in the 2022 NHL draft by the Arizona Coyotes, Cooley has the most points for a Gophers freshman since Thomas Vanek (62) in 2002-03 on the most recent championship team. He’s on a 15-game streak with at least one point, with 30 points over that span.
“When he gets the puck, the whole rink, the other team, coaches, players and the fans, there’s a pause and everyone waits to see what’s going to happen,” coach Bob Motzko said.
There are 20 natives of Minnesota on this team, including 16 players who grew up within 40 miles of the Minneapolis campus. Motzko, who was hired five years ago away from St. Cloud State, is one too. He was also an assistant coach on those Gophers teams that won NCAA titles in 2002 and 2003.
“You don’t take the job,” Motzko said, “and not know the expectations at Minnesota.”