The Minnesota Gopher hockey program clinched their first MacNaughton Cup, given to the regular season champion of the WCHA, since 2006-07, and in the process claimed the #1 seed in the upcoming conference playoffs. They also finished tied for 6th in the all-important Pairwise Rankings, securing a #2 seed in the NCAA tourney that is almost guaranteed to put them in St Paul at the X. The #1 seed could quite possibly go to UMD, who despite a one point weekend in St Cloud still finished in a 3-way tie for second in the Pairwise. As you may remember, the Gophers swept UMD up in Duluth earlier in the year. They could possibly play them for a spot in the Frozen Four in what would essentially be a home game for the Gophers, although it's possible half the city of Duluth shows up to even balance the crowd out a bit.
That's what the Gophers set up for themselves with a weekend split against Wisconsin. The way they did it was both concerning and encouraging all at the same time- which is par for the course this season. The Gophers continue to be, um, let's call it "inconsistent at best" on Friday nights, but Friday's 4-1 loss to the Badgers took it to a new level- or a new low. Ryan Cardinal of GPL sums it up:
Also, the Gophers lost 4-1 to an average-at-best Wisconsin team and looked as bad and lifeless as they have all year.
One game does not make a season, but Friday’s effort – or lack thereof – in a game against one of the team’s top rivals with a chance to outright clinch the regular season title is a little disconcerting.
Sure, the Goph's were without their top player Nick Bjugstad, but that shouldn't excuse a lifeless and uninspired effort in front of the home fans with the MacNaughton Cup on the line. There's really not much else to say. It was concerning that with so much at stake they came out and played so poorly, and yet, because St Cloud continued their dominance of UMD at the National Hockey Center, the Gophers were able to clinch no worse than a share of the regular season title and the outright #1 seed in the WCHA tourney.
Saturday's effort in a 2-1 win was, well, a typical Saturday effort, but it almost wasn't meant to be. The Gophers outplayed the Badgers through two periods, outshooting them 23-13, yet trailed 1-0 as they were unable to solve Sconnie goalie Joel Rumpel. The turning point in the third came on...a penalty-kill? About 3 minutes in, Bjugstad drove hard to the net after a loose puck, and made contact with Rumpel, who was out of his crease. The results was a good ol' fashioned donnybrook (well ok a good ol' fashioned donnybrook results in fights. In college hockey, there was just a lot of pushing and shoving but still) that ended up with three guys (said in your best Jacques Lemaire voice) from each team being sent off. Oh, and an extra two for Bjugstad for goalie interference. Um what? It's a penalty to battle for a puck and make contact with the goalie when he's well outside the crease? Ridiculous, but it worked out.
Erik Haula, yes THE Erik Haula, picked off a pass at center ice and went in on a 2-on-1 with Jake Hansen. Using Hansen as a decoy, Haula made a brilliant move and scored the tying goal. Two minutes later, defenseman Nate Schmidt scored a beauty of his own by saving a Badger clearing attempt, deked a Sconnie defender, then wired one top shelf. Mariucci went ballistic, and the inspired Gophers would hang on for the win.
The celebration that ensued wasn't what you'd expect from a Gopher program with a history of winning, but when you consider the very un-Gopher hockey like past three seasons this program has been through, the celebration makes all the sense in the world. Winning the conference is a first step in getting the program back to where it belongs atop the college hockey world, and you could tell by the dog-pile on senior captain Taylor Matson just how much it means to the players.
The hope now is that exuberance and passion carries over to the playoffs. UAA was the worst team in the conference this season bar none, but if the Gophers come out with their "typical" Friday effort, the Seawolves are absolutely capable of pulling off the upset. You know, just like they did last year. If we get the first-game effort we saw in their two previous series with Friday night wins over Bemidji State and UNO then the Gophers should sweep their way into the Final Five. And from there, they won't have to leave the Twin Cities for the Final Five, or first and second round of the NCAA tourney on a Frozen Four run.
Everything's in place for the Gophers to get back to the top of the college hockey world. Now it's up to them to make it happen.