The NCAA Frozen Four has been a showcase for the superiority of the WCHA over the years, but this year, the 2012 NCAA Frozen Four appears to be a showcase for the parity in college hockey. After all the turmoil and upsets in league and regional playoffs, the four major conferences each are contributing one team -- their regular-season champions -- to the Frozen Four.
Union (26-7-7), the surprise winner of the ECAC, will face Ferris State (25-11-5), the bigger surprise champion of the CCHA, in Thursday's first semifinal. After those two Cinderella's meet, the two heavyweights collide when Minnesota (28-13-1), the WCHA champ, takes on Boston College (31-10-1), winner of Hockey East's season and playoff titles.
The extinguished hopes of Minnesota-Duluth, North Dakota and Denver at three of the four regionals leaves only the Golden Gophers as WCHA hope, and Golden Gopher coach Don Lucia says his team is ready.
"I watched BC against UMD, and against Air Force, and I'd seen them play BU in the Beanpot earlier," said Lucia. "They're fun to watch. They have a lot of skill and they're big, which is a tough combination. They have 20-goal scorers on every line, and nobody else in college hockey can make that claim. BC has scored first a lot and we've scored first a lot, so that should make it interesting.
"We've got to win the puck battles. The outcome may come down to who takes care of the puck better. I've had conversations with Scott Sandelin and Frank Serratore, but they didn't have much success against BC."
Boston College beat Air Force Academy 2-0, then blanked UMD 4-0 in the Northeast Regional, so presumably UMD coach Sandelin and Air Force coach Serratore couldn't give Lucia any tips on any goaltending weaknesses.
The Gophers have a late-season upsurge because their third and fourth lines have come alive to contribute key goals, just about the time that the top scorers seemed to be running dry. "Everyone's chipping in," said Nick Bjugstad, who scored his 25th goal into an empty net against Boston University in the West Regional. "It's important for the scorers to score, but everyone is pitching in. They're the No. 1 team right now. I think we're equal in talent, and both have great goaltenders. It depends on who comes to play."
True enough, Minnesota's 11 goals in the two regional victories came from 10 different players. In the 5-2 victory over North Dakota, the three members of the Golden Gophers third line all scored consecutively to turn a tight 2-1 game into a 5-1 Minnesota lead. But one of the key goals of the whole season for the Gophers came in the regional semifinal, when little-used fourth-line center Nico Sacchetti may have reached the pinnacle of his four years with an enormous goal against Boston University. And he could be playing a bigger role in Gopher hockey history than he realized.
Sacchetti was unaware that the University of Minnesota's NCAA hockey championship heritage has always featured Northern Minnesota players in key roles. In one weekend, Sacchetti, a senior from Virginia, MN., will go from learning Golden Gopher history to living it -- as the only Northern Minnesota player on the team, when Minnesota participates in this year's NCAA Frozen Four.
When Herb Brooks coached the Golden Gophers, their first-ever NCAA title came in Boston, when Mike Polich of Hibbing intercepted a pass and scored a short-handed goal that defeated Boston University in a heated semifinal, before Minnesota beat Michigan Tech 4-2 in the final. Polich also had an assist in the final, on a goal by fellow-Hibbing native John Perpich. Joe Micheletti, also of Hibbing, Cal Cossalter from Eveleth (and more recently mayor of Eveleth), Buzzy Schneider -- the "Babbitt Rabbit" -- and brothers John and Robby Harris of Roseau, and back-up goaltender Bill Moen of Proctor also were on that 1974 title team.
In 1976, when the Gophers again won the NCAA championship, Joe Micheletti was still on the team and was joined by fellow Iron Rangers Bill Baker and Don Madson of Grand Rapids, plus Duluth East grad Phil Verchota, and Bob Fish of Warroad, and Tony Dorn of Thief River Falls. In 1979, Brooks won his third NCAA crown, with pivotal performances by Verchota, Bill Baker, Don Micheletti of Hibbing, goaltender Jim Jetland of Grand Rapids, Brian Zins of Aurora-Hoyt Lakes, and a freshman center named Neal Broten, of Roseau.
It took 23 years of ever-increasing expectations and crashing frustrations before the Golden Gophers won another NCAA title. By then, Don Lucia had taken over as coach, and the tradition of key Northern Minnesota players continued with goaltender Adam Hauser from Greenway of Coleraine, Nick Angel and Chad Roberg of Duluth, Travis Weber of Hibbing, Keith Ballard and Jon Waibel of Baudette. Ballard had the first goal, and Angell assisted on two tallies as Minnesota beat Maine 4-3 in an overtime thriller at Xcel Center for the 2002 title. One year later, the Gophers stunned the hockey world by repeating as 2003 national champs, with Weber, Roberg, Ballard and Waibel joined by Gino Guyer and Andy Sertich of Greenway.
When the Golden Gophers took off Tuesday, in their chartered jet for Tampa, Fla., to participate in this year's NCAA Frozen Four, Nico Sacchetti had been informed of the distinct imprint made by between six and eight Northern Minnesota players on all five past Minnesota NCAA champions. Yet he stands alone as the only Northern Minnesota skater on this team, as it tackles No. 1 ranked Boston College in the Thursday night semifinal of the Frozen Four.
"I hope you don't jinx me," he said, after learning of the heritage. He was assured it was the opposite, that he may be the required good-luck charm if the Gophers are going to get anywhere at the Frozen Four. He did recall being a kid on the Iron Range, watching Minnesota win the 2002 title.
"I remember when the Gophers beat Maine," said Sacchetti. "I was watching the game with a friend of mine in his basement, a couple blocks away from my house in Virginia. I still remember running around the room when the Gophers won in overtime."
Sacchetti went from Virginia High School to the Omaha Lancers of the USHL, and was drafted on the second round of the NHL amateur draft by the Dallas Stars. When he was a freshman, NHL scouts questioned why he wasn't playing regularly for the Gophers. At 6-feet and 199 pounds, he showed good speed and considerable hockey skills, but he appeared to be a victim of the Gophers' ability to recruit so many top-flight players that finding slots for them to play regularly is the biggest chore for coach Don Lucia.
After scoring 4-3--7 in 36 games as a freshman, things didn't change much through the years. He recorded 4-11--15 in 38 games as a sophomore, and 3-4--7 in 30 games as a junior. "I never say anything," he said. "I just try to stay positive, go as hard as I can in practice, and make sure I'm in good condition and ready whenever I get a chance."
Sacchetti acknowledged this has been a frustrating year, because he had counted on a more prominent role as a senior than being out of the lineup nearly half the season, and fourth-line center when he did dress, getting only rare shifts game after game. But he is not a whiner, and never has complained.
"I was raised believing that as a player, you trust the coach's decisions," Sacchetti said, recalling his days playing for Keith Hendrickson at Virginia High School, where he was a teammate of Matt Niskanen, who is now playing defense in the National Hockey League. "I talk to the coaches, and I've got good, open communication with the coaches, but I've never gone in asking why I'm not playing more."
Somehow, Sacchetti has kept his confidence level up. "I make sure I have good practices," he said. "And scoring a goal against Kent Patterson in practice keeps me going, because he's as good as they get."
Going back to the West Regional at Xcel Center, Minnesota had broken a 2-2 tie to go ahead 4-2 against Boston University. But early in the third period, BU scored to cut it to 3-2, and some haunting memories returned quickly. This was the first game after Minnesota had blown a 3-0 lead and lost 6-3 when North Dakota scored five unanswered goals in the third period of the Final Five semifinals. Another goal by BU might have let all the air out of the Gopher balloon.
But Nick Sacchetti, getting a rare shift, suddenly sped up the right boards after pouncing on a loose puck, and he turned the corner on the Terriers defense, cut across the front of the net, getting goaltender Kieran Millan to commit to his deke before deftly pulling the puck to his backhand and scoring at 8:08. The Xcel Center crowd roared to its feet, and after the Gophers scored two empty-net goals, the game ended 7-3.
Jake Hansen, who had scored the fourth Gopher goal on a power play and the sixth into an empty net, was invited to the post-game press conference. "We played hard from our first line to our fourth line...and our top-end guys have done a great job all year," said Hansen, "but when Nico scored that breakaway goal, that was huge."
Coach Lucia said: "I didn't play that 'blue' line a lot tonight, but Nico's goal was huge. You can't always rely on your top players; you've got to have others step up."
Sacchetti is the opposite of that. He has been almost the forgotten man on the roster, but when called upon, he proved the Golden Gophers could more than just rely on him. He could even add another chapter to Northern Minnesota's impact on Gopher NCAA hockey success.
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