ST. PAUL- Speaking Friday afternoon with Notre Dame sophomore forward Mario Lucia, it was hard not to notice the elephant behind him. Or more specifically, the animal logo that adorned the Minnesota Wild locker room.
Lucia, a 2011 second round pick selected by the Wild in the same building, was across the hall from his future home. In the three years since draft day, he twice left his hometown of Plymouth, MN (about 15 miles west of St. Paul) to improve his craft. First was a year of juniors in Penticton, BC where Lucia scored 94 points in 56 regular season games while leading the Vees to a Canadian Junior A championship.
The past two have been spent away from the "State of Hockey" in South Bend, Indiana. Following a broken leg that pushed his collegiate debut back until November, Lucia came back to score 23 points (12G-11A) in 32 games as a freshman.
This year, the 6'3", 200 lbs forward has grown on and off the ice. Lucia put on close to ten pounds in the off-season, uses his size to his advantage shielding the puck and setting up teammates. He also has improved his skating. Both have led to an improvement on the scoresheet as Lucia enters this weekend tied for the team lead in goals with 16 despite playing on what is Notre Dame's third line.
In a year where ND joined Hockey East after decades in the CCHA, he has been one of several other young players stepping up alongside a senior core that reached the Frozen Four at Xcel Energy Center in 2011.
They've been through everything. They've been to a Frozen Four, they haven't made it," said Lucia about the seniors. "It's one thing we have left to accomplish by winning a national championship."
That road back begins in St. Paul where the second-seed Fighting Irish play third-seed St. Cloud State in the second West Region semifinal.
"Our first half was a little rough," Notre Dame head coach Jeff Jackson said. "We had a number of key guys out of the lineup for several week, and it was a little bit challenging. I think the jump into Hockey East was a double threat for us. We had an adjustment period playing teams we've never faced before. We can prepare as much as we like, but until you actually play teams, it's always a little different.
"The second half, I thought we started to turn the corner," he added, as ND defeated Boston College three times in a month stretch. "We started to have some real success when it came February and March."
To continue that run will require a victory over the Huskies, who defeated Notre Dame in the Midwest Region final last year.
Of course, there is another homecoming for the young Lucia. Mario's father Don is the head coach of Minnesota, which plays Robert Morris in the first semifinal. While the two regularly talk and Facetime - chirps are exchanged, according to Mario - hockey isn't regularly brought up.
Still, the possibly is there in what Don called "the greatest time of the year for college hockey." The two teams played against each in South Bend this season (Notre Dame and Minnesota split) and in Minneapolis last year. That doesn't change any luster.
"I think this one's a little different just because if we get the opportunity it's in the playoffs and a whole different mentality in the West Regional," Mario said about the potential matchup. "If we win, it's good, but it doesn't really make a difference and for both it's do-or-die. We both want to win, but hopefully if not the other is cheering each other on."
(Minnesota could also have a brother vs. brother match-up with Gopher freshman Michael and Huskies sophmore Jonny if the Gophers win and St. Cloud State advances.)
Whether or not that happens, Mario still gets a chance to shine in front of his hometown. It won't be the last time, but for him and the Fighting Irish, Lucia would like to see this trip to St. Paul ends up with a run to Philadelphia.
"It's exciting just for my family and friends and stuff. It's just nice for them to come down and be able to watch. It's a good venue because they draw good crowds in the State of Hockey," he said. "Last year we went out to Toledo and got 200, 300 fans. Not that too limited here. This will be good because it'll be fun hockey.
"We're playing good teams and it'll be a good crowd, which makes it a lot better."
Nathan Wells is a college hockey columnist for SB Nation. You can also follow him on Twitter -- Follow @gopherstate