NCAA Hockey Tournament West Regional: Gopher leadership shines in 7-3 first round win

Nate Condon (16) scored twice Saturday - Matt CHristians

Minnesota's co-captains combined for three goals while three freshmen also lit the lamp against Robert Morris.

ST. PAUL- This time of the year is not one for the faint of heart. Single game elimination makes for great stories and memories...if you're the one making them

It's a feeling Minnesota knows all too well. Last year, the Golden Gophers went out in the first round against Yale after Pittsburgh native Jesse Root scored nine seconds into overtime for a 3-2 win. Faceoff won, pass, bad pass, behind the net, pass and shot past Adam Wilcox in a style that brought up memories of Tournament losses to Holy Cross (2006) and Michigan (1996).

That last sentence took longer to read than overtime in Grand Rapids last season.

"It's definitely with us -  especially now that we look back at the end of the year. It was a tough way to go out," Minnesota forward Travis Boyd said about the Yale loss Friday before his team faced Robert Morris.

Of course, two seasons ago at Xcel Energy Center was happier. There the Gophers won twice to head to the 2012 Frozen Four in Tampa. It's there Boyd, playing on a line with then-senior captain Taylor Matson and then-sophomore Nate Condon, scored his first collegiate goal after coming in on his own towards the end of his freshman year.

So at a time of the year when head coach Don Lucia busts out his championship ring, a not-so-subtle reminder to what he has been able to get done in 2002 and 2003, and the junior class decided to grow beards (Boyd believes he has the best one of the six), is when those lessons are gleaned from a year of work.

"You can't prepare for this weekend in one week. This preparation began in the weight room in the summer time and in practice and all the games that you play," Lucia said. "If you have to change everything this time of the year, you're not going to go very far. I think the preparation has been good all season long and that preparation is what gives you the confidence to play this time of year whether you are a freshman or senior."

Both happened Saturday.

Condon, now a co-captain, scored both the first and second-to-last goals in Minnesota's 7-3 win over the Colonials. Fellow co-captain Kyle Rau also scored as did three freshmen playing in their first NCAA Tournament game.

"It was the type of game we needed to have tonight," Lucia said Saturday about getting past what he called the most difficult in terms of pressure. "We were led by our captains; both Nate and Kyle had outstanding games tonight. When you get to this point of the year, your leaders have to step up and do the job of leading the way. I thought both of them set the tone."

One of those  freshmen stepping up was defenseman Michael Brodzinski. The freshman had spent most of his time since coming back from a lower body injury last month splitting time in and out of the lineup with Jake Bischoff.

That didn't matter Saturday. Right after RMU goalie Dalton Izyk saved a tipped shot of his from the point, Brodzinski scored on the ensuing face-off to make it 2-0 Minnesota late in the first. All the hard work in practice and work to make the lineup paid off for him.

What about those nerves? They were there although getting the second goal and not the first helped.

"I think those nerves actually worked in our favor tonight after seeing Nate Condon work hard and get that first goal," Brodzinski said. "It really boosted our team and our game."

Condon's goal - the first of three for the Gophers in the opening period - happened with 3:47 remaining. The senior took a pass from Brodzinski, skated from one end of the Xcel ice sheet to the other end, shot through a screen and beat Izyk for his eighth goal of the season.

"It's great. Obviously our coaches are always telling us to lead and we expect a lot out of our older guys," he said. "So for our upperclassmen to go on and get a jump like that just helps overall.

"I think the best part of the whole thing is that we had everybody contributing. Any time we get every guy going in a big tournament like that, that kind of lays a foundation and lets the team get more successful."

That was the case Saturday. Not everything was perfect against the Atlantic Hockey champions, though. Robert Morris made it a 4-2 game late in the second and the Colonials' top line of Zac Lynch, Cody Wydo and Scott Jacklin made things tough in a game where head coach Derek Schooley noted his team didn't quit and hoped "everybody in Minnesota now realizes our team and how hard we play."

However, . Condon, who was congratulated at first intermission before his assist on Justin Kloos' goal was taken away, became the 81st Minnesota player to reach 100 career points (and second this year after fellow co-captain Kyle Rau did in January) when his shorthanded empty net goal gave the team a 6-3 lead. (Mike Reilly would add another goal for the final score.)

It's a testament to the Wassau, Wisconsin native. After missing a game early in his freshman year, Condon has played in over 150 straight over his four year career. Hitting that milestone meant a lot.

"It's great. I played a lot of games here and expect a lot out of myself so I think that's just a milestone which really shows me how long I've been here and how hard I've worked to get to this point," said Condon.

As for Brodzinski, he gets to once again play his older brother Jonny, a St. Cloud State forward; a chance he was hoping would happen. Still, for today the freshman defenseman was one of several Gophers to be the next Boyd, the next class to step up and take the good and bad and (in the case of several junior beards) ugly.

Because at the end of the day, teams need leaders to show up and inspire the troops in order to make good memories. And for Minnesota, that was the case Saturday.

--

Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter --

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