Minnesota head coach Don Lucia said before his team's practice Friday afternoon at HSBC Arena that he did not know if his hockey club was a great team.
After the Golden Gophers' performance Saturday night in the NCAA Championship Game, the only thing Lucia did not know was who was going to carry the National Championship trophy to the team bus.
It could be argued that after Barry Tallackson scored to put the University of Minnesota up 4-1 on New Hampshire with 6:26 left in the third period, how to transport the trophy to the team bus was Lucia's toughest remaining decision. Tallackson eventually scored an empty net goal to put a cherry atop the Gophers' second-straight title, a 5-1 thumping of the University of New Hampshire before 18,759 fans at the HSBC Arena. An hour or so later, Lucia was the last man left in the dressing room debating with an assistant coach over who was going to carry out the hardware - neither wanted to do it.
Perhaps it's superstition, as a national title will now be an expectation at Minnesota. Chants of three-peat went up from the Gopher fans as the game came to a close. Minnesota is only the first team to repeat as champions in 31 years.
The title, however, was not as easy to earn as the 5-1 score would indicate. The teams came into the third period tied at one and tensions were high among the second largest crowd to ever watch an NCAA championship game.
Minnesota looked to their leading scorer, Thomas Vanek, to break the tie and score another clutch goal. The NCAA West Region MVP responded by breaking the tie with 11:46 to go in the third period.
Vanek made a hard cut across the front of the net in the high slot, eluding UNH defenseman Mick Mounsey, and was one-on-one with goaltender Mike Ayers. Vanek glided across the front of the net with the puck until Ayers lost his patience and committed to the ice. Vanek moved around him and slid the puck into the net under a sliding Mounsey, who had gotten up and tried to come back into the play.
"He is so tough to beat," Vanek said. "He comes out and plays the angles well and moves well laterally so I just tried to be patient. I tried to fake the shot a few times and go around him and I had the open net so it was an easy goal at the end."
"He made a great play, he was very patient," Ayers said. "When I went down I thought he had a lot less room on the short side."
Vanek's 31st goal of the season turned out to be the game-winner, his fifth such goal of the season. The freshman was later named as the tournament MVP.
"(Vanek) is a difference-maker, that's why you work hard to go out and recruit players like that because if he plays at Michigan or some other program maybe they are sitting here," Lucia said.
The floodgates opened after Vanek's goal. Minnesota's Jon Warble ripped a shot into the top corner of the net less than three minutes later, beating Ayers high to the glove side. Tallackson scored his first goal of the game a little over two minutes later, at 13:34 of the period, and the game was essentially over.
Travis Weber, who came into the tournament as the least heralded goalie of the four and was considered a "weak link" by some analysts, made 27 saves in the victory. Weber was essential in keeping the game locked at one midway through the second period when New Hampshire's No. 2 scorer Colin Hemingway was foiled on a rebound opportunity and then a deflection chance.
Ayer made 40 saves in net for UNH, and was the key to holding his team in the game. Had he stopped Vanek and went on to win the game, it is likely that he would have been the tournament MVP instead of Minnesota's dynamic freshman.
Minnesota drew first blood on a goal by an unlikely scorer at 10:58 of the first period. Matt DeMarchi, a defensively focused defenseman for the Golden Gophers, scored just his eighth goal of the season to give his team a 1-0 lead.
DeMarchi's goal was countered with 18.9 seconds left in the period by a power play goal from New Hampshire's Sean Collins.
The attendance mark was the largest crowd to ever see a hockey game at the HSBC Arena. In addition, the three-day attendance total was the second-highest in NCAA history - only last year's tournament in St. Paul, Minn., drew more fans.
For the record, Lucia never said after the game that he thought his team was a great team, even when asked directly.