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Don Lucia steps down from Gophers hockey program

Long-time Gophers head man steps down just a few days after his team misses out on NCAA tournament.

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One of the most decorated coaches in the last two decades of college hockey is stepping down, as the University of Minnesota announced the departure of men’s hockey head coach Don Lucia.

“I want to thank Mark Dienhart for giving me a tremendous opportunity 19 years ago,” Lucia said in a statement. “I came to Minnesota because of the tradition, and I hoped to add to the tradition when I left. I am proud of the 14 banners that have been added to the rafters of 3M Arena at Mariucci.

“I am forever grateful to all the coaches, staff and most importantly the players who have worked so hard to accomplish this over the years.

“Most importantly to me, we did it the right way. Our players all graduate and have always represented themselves to the high standards of Gopher Hockey on and off the ice. It has been a tremendous honor and privilege to be the head hockey coach at the University of Minnesota.”

Lucia put up 14 banners to the rafters in Mariucci Arena, including eight regular season conference titles, four tournament titles, five Frozen Four appearances and two NCAA national championships.

Minnesota won back-to-back titles in 2003 and 2004, just four and five years in to Lucia taking over the program.

However, in recent years the Gophers have had increasing struggles as a program.

This past season was perhaps the most disappointing, as Lucia’s Gophers were just 19-17-2 overall and finished fifth in the Big Ten conference. Minnesota was left out of the NCAA tournament thanks to that mediocre record and one of the craziest scenarios in college hockey history.

Minnesota needed just one or two of six conference finals to go their way and they were likely in. The Gophers wanted to see Air Force, Boston University, Michigan Tech, Princeton, Denver and Notre Dame win their respective conference crowns.

Instead, all six of the results went exactly the other way and Minnesota was left out of the tournament thanks to the needs for other at-large bids to be handed out.

Lucia’s team went from winning six conference titles in a row to finishing fifth in the Big Ten. That could have played a part in Coyle’s decision and discussion with Lucia following the end of the season.

Signs pointed to something happening as late as yesterday, with Lucia skirting around the issue when asked by the Minneapolis Star-Tribune.

“We’ve had a lot of talks, let’s put it that way — just over the last couple years,” Lucia said.

“I don’t plan on coaching when I’m 70, I can promise you that,” the 59-year-old Lucia continued. “We’ll talk. We’ll see what’s best for where he’s at and where I’m at. We’re on the same page right now, and I think we’ll continue to be that way.”

Change had to come for a very proud program, and Lucia stepping aside rather being flat-out relieved of duties was the right thing to do for all parties involved.

Thus ends a 19-year career at the helm of the Gophers and a 31-year career as a college hockey head coach.

While the ending was a slide down the national stage, Lucia brought plenty of glory and plenty to love about Gophers hockey. His legacy is a big one and his presence is going to be hard to fill on the bench and in the Gophers hockey community.

It will be interesting to see where the search by Coyle goes, because this hire has the potential to make or break the future of this program.

Andy Coppens is the Founder and Publisher of Talking10. He's a member of the Football Writers Association of America (FWAA) and has been covering college sports in some capacity since 2008. You can follow him on Twitter @AndyOnFootball

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Buckeyes Hockey

2017 NCAA Hockey Tournament: A Big Ten Primer

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The creation of the Big Ten hockey conference shook collegiate hockey to its core. Some believed the league would be too top-heavy and others believed it would ultimately kill the sport.

If the 2016-17 season has taught us anything, it is that it appears Big Ten hockey is alive and well. Three teams are in the 2017 NCAA tournament, including the once upstart Penn State Nittany Lions.

Penn State earned their way in thanks to a victory in the Big Ten tournament finale, one that PSU didn’t necessarily have to win to get in, but one that made their tournament appearance a lock.

As the tournament draws near, let’s take a look at the details for the three Big Ten teams in the tournament.

Minnesota Golden Gophers

Seed: No. 1 seed in Northeast Regional (No. 4 overall seed)
1st Round Matchup: vs. Notre Dame
When: Saturday, March 25; 3:30p.m. ET
TV/Streaming: ESPNU/watchESPN

Other Teams in Regional: Cornell and UMass Lowell
Regional Championship: Sunday, March 26; 3:30p.m. ET (ESPNU/watchESPN)

You would think the Big Ten regular season champion would get some more love. However, off to New Hampshire are the Gophers. No matter, because there isn’t a more dedicated group of hockey fans in the country (sorry, not sorry, North Dakota). There’s also the fact that Minnesota is the last of the No. 1 seeds in the tournament. You aren’t going to get your choice of places to play in that scenario.

That said, the Gophers are also in the second-most loaded regional in the tournament. Blue blood names like Notre Dame and Cornell is bad enough, but UMass Lowell are quickly becoming a powerhouse and a mainstay in the NCAA tournament over the past 6-7 years.

Getting out of this group likely makes the winner a favorite to take home the national championship.

As for the Gophers’ chances, well they haven’t seen any of the teams in its regional yet this season. They are 7-4-1 against fellow NCAA tournament teams though, while first round opponent Notre Dame is just 7-6-1 and come out of the equally loaded Hockey East. However, the Golden Domers come in to the tournament having gone 5-1-2 over the last 11 games of the regular season before dropping a game to UMass Lowell in the Hockey East semi-finals.

It will also be a matchup of future Big Ten teams, and one that will likely come down style of play. Minnesota and Notre Dame are both averaging over three goals a game and come in with top 25 defenses as well. Something is going to have to give and it could be the most intriguing of the first round matchups in this year’s tournament.

Ohio State Buckeyes

Seed: No. 4 in West Regional
1st Round Matchup: vs. No. 1 Minnesota Duluth (25-6-7 overall record)
When: Friday, March 24; 6:30p.m.
Where: Fargo, North Dakota; Scheels Arena
TV/Streaming: ESPNU/watchESPN

Other Teams in Regional: Boston University vs. North Dakota
Regional Championship: Saturday, March 25, 6 p.m. ET, ESPNU/watchESPN

When you are one of the last at-large bids, draws like Ohio State got are what will happen. Being unable to play in Cincinnati was a big blow, but there wasn’t a whole lot of choice for the selection committee.

As a result, the Buckeyes are off to the hostile confines in Fargo, where they must face UMD. Get past that and there’s a likely date with home-state UND in the following round. To say the deck is stacked against the Buckeyes in this regional isn’t an understatement.

Minnesota-Duluth is battle-tested this season, winning a rough NCHC tournament title and coming in at No. 3 in the latest USCHO.com national poll. Oh, and that NCHC title? It came over fellow West regional squad North Dakota.

Ohio State loves to bang and loves to score goals, but this is going to be a tough regional to get through. In fact, it is arguably the toughest quartet to predict a winner out of.

Penn State Nittany Lions

Seed: No. 3 seed in Midwest Regional
1st Round Matchup: vs. No. 2 seed Union
When: Saturday, March 25; 4:30p.m. ET
TV/Streaming: ESPN3

Other Teams in Regional: Denver and Michigan Tech
Regional Championship: Sunday, March 26; 6p.m. ET (ESPNU/watchESPN)

Penn State didn’t need the Big Ten tournament title win, but it got it. Sure, it took two games of double-overtime to achieve it, but here are the Nittany Lions as Big Ten title holders in the NCAA tournament for the first time in program history.

Unfortunately it will happen in a regional with the No. 1 overall seed and against a team that historically hasn’t been kind to the Nittany Lions. Union is 4-0-0 all-time against Penn State, but they haven’t met since the 2013-14 season.

Let’s just say the Nittany Lions are no longer a building program like they were back then, while Union is back in the NCAA tournament for the first time since winning the national championship that same season.

Penn State comes in to this tournament as one of the best offensive teams in the country. The team is tied for second nationally, averaging 3.97 goals per game. Defensively the team is just 22nd and gives up 2.68 goals per game as well. Union features a Hoby Baker Award finalist in Mike Vecchione, and he too can score — notching 29 goals alone this season.

Doubting the upstarts has been a bad idea most of this season, but this is one of the harshest spots the Nittany Lions could find themselves in. Can they make a run like they did last weekend and rep the Big Ten in Chicago for the Frozen Four? That certainly will be interesting.

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