ST. PAUL, Minn. — Minnesota’s talented group of freshmen certainly didn’t seem fazed by their first exposure to the bright lights of the NCAA Tournament.
The Gophers’ first-year group came into the West Regional as the nation’s highest-scoring rookie class, with 52 goals in 37 games this season. That trend continued in St. Paul as they accounted for five of Minnesota’s 11 goals.
"They grew up in a hurry (this weekend)," Gophers head coach Don Lucia said of his seven-member freshmen class. "They’ve performed all season long, but I think they learned this weekend the way that you have to play."
Leading the way was forward Justin Kloos, who paced all players at the West Regional with three goals, including two in Sunday’s 4-0 regional clinching win over St. Cloud State to earn him Most Outstanding Player honors.
Forward Hudson Fasching may be the Minnesota frosh that garners the most hype, and he’s certainly deserving of that, but Kloos — a former Mr. Hockey winner from Lakeville South — has had every bit as impressive a season. After his three-goal regional performance he now leads Minnesota with 15 goals to go along with 31 points in 39 games this season.
Kloos’s line with senior Nate Condon and fellow freshman Taylor Cammarata was arguably the Gophers’ best this weekend, combining for five goals and ten points.
"I think that right now it’s probably the best we’re playing," Condon said of his line. "Kloos and (Cammarata) are really working hard and anytime Kloos can put up two goals it’ll help our team."
"They were really working hard and it’s paying off for us."
Though, according to Kloos, he and his fellow freshmen wouldn’t have found success this year without veteran leaders like Condon to guide them.
"We’ve been blessed with a group in front of us that’s full of great leaders," Kloos said. "We’ve been able to feed off of them all year and we’re just happy that we’ve been able to step in and help the team win."
In total, the Gopher freshmen accounted for five goals and nine points in Minnesota’s two regional wins. Cammarata had three assists, Fasching scored a goal and Michael Brodzinski had a goal and an assist.
After last season’s mass exodus from its program to the pro ranks, Minnesota knew that it would have to rely on a number of freshmen straight out of high school to fill the gaps. So far they’ve done so admirably and their play has the Gophers two wins away from their first national championship since 2003.
"We knew going into this season that we’d have to bring in a number of (freshmen) and they’d have to play important roles for us," Lucis said. "We put them in those roles right away in hopes that it’d prepare them to play at the end of the year."