There comes a time when the effort isn't there. A game when everything goes wrong, or in the words of University of Minnesota junior Nick Bjugstad:
"We're college kids so every once in a while we need a kick in the butt."
Honestly, it can be easy sometimes to forget that they are just that - college kids. Bjugstad, a first round pick of the Florida Panthers, is one of the top NHL prospects currently playing in the NCAA yet is also four months from legally being able to order a drink in a bar. They aren't professionals and are still expected to be at times.
Not every game will be perfect but it's how players respond which defines them a team. For Minnesota, that game was a 2-0 loss to Denver March 2nd in which they were lifeless and acting after it like there was a death in the family. The Gophers responded the next night with a 5-1 win that includes four goals in the third period. They haven't looked back since, winning five straight.
More importantly they haven't lost two straight games this season and are 7-0-0 after a loss.
Still it hasn't been easy. Their first-round series against Bemidji State prepared them for both a hot goalie and other challenges that test a team. Despite out-shooting the Beavers 51-18, Andrew Walsh made 49 saves in an overtime loss Friday while Saturday saw the Gophers come back from 3-1 to win in the final minute.
Seeing how college hockey teams and players respond to adversity and grow is one of the great things about the sport. Some teams fade and others, like Minnesota, use it to turn things around. That's been the case so far as they enter the WCHA Final Five.
Same challenge for a different team
When Colorado College defenseman Peter Stoykewych scored the overtime winner last night against North Dakota, it put a damper in the chances of fans who wanted to see one final game between UND and the Gophers before the two leave the WCHA.
"North Dakota's probably, I'd say, our biggest rival. Those games, as everyone knows, are pretty heated," said Gophers junior Erik Haula Wednesday. "Whoever we play, I don't think it'll be about systems, really. It'll be about who worked harder, who wanted it more."
He's right. Minnesota's offense leads the nation in both the power play (25.16 percent) and goals per game with 3.61. They have six forwards have scored more than 30 points, led by Haula's 49. He's one point away from the fifth Gopher in the last 10 years to hit 50.
To get that and advance to the WCHA Tournament championship, they'll have to solve Colorado College goaltender Joe Howe. The senior has returned to his freshman form during the postseason, frustrating opposing forwards throughout the league. He isn't the only defensive player that deserves credit as the Tigers' penalty kill shut down the potent North Dakota power play in their win Thursday night. UND failed to score on six power play chances.
The Gophers, meanwhile, have gotten stellar goaltending of their own from freshman Adam Wilcox. The Tampa Bay Lightning draft pick has a .923 save percentage while allowing under 2 goals per game. Minnesota's defense has only been out-shot 3 times all season, which shouldn't be an issue for a Tigers team that was heavily out-shot at times during their four WCHA postseason games.
Plus there's the matter of what happened the last time the two teams played. In that game, which occurred last November in Colorado Springs, the Tigers erased a three-goal lead in the third period for a 4-4 tie. Alexander Krushelnyski scored two goals in that game and has the ability to make aggressive teams like the Gophers pay.
"I have to give credit to (Schwartz). He looks for me. We just try to use our speed and our brains and pick our head up before icing it to see if one guy is open to make a play before dumping it,"Krushelnyski said about his mindset while looking for a shorthanded opportunity.
Kyle Rau (#7) - Nick Bjugstad (#27) - Christian Isackson(#26)
Nate Condon (#16) - Erik Haula (#19) - Zach Budish (#24)
Tom Serratore (#14) - Travis Boyd (#22) - Seth Amrboz (#17)
Jake Parenteau (#6) - A.J. Michaelson (#15) -Justin Holl(#12)
Brady Skjei (#2) - Nate Schmidt (#29)
Seth Helgeson (#4) - Ben Marshall (#10)
Mike Reilly (#5) - Mark Alt (#20)
Adam Wilcox (#32)
Michael Shibrowski (#1)
-Forward Sam Warning is week to week with a lower body injury.
Follow Nate on Twitter @gopherstate.