After beating the #1 and #2 teams in the country in back-to-back games by a combined score of 12-2 Minnesota begins the second half of the WCHA schedule this weekend when they host the University of Alaska-Anchorage Seawolves. The Gophers are currently...wait sixth in the WCHA? Can that be right? The #1 team in the entire country is in 6th place in its own conference? Yep, sure enough at 6-3-3 the Gophers, with 15 points, are just four points back of first place UNO with 19, and have two games in hand on everyone in the conference except UND, who is currently tied for 3rd with Denver with 17 points. The other two teams ahead of Minnesota are 2nd place St Cloud (18) and 5th place Minnesota State (?!?!) with 16. So if the Gophers were to sweep a conference series for the first time all season this weekend, they'd be at 19 points and tied for first. Of course, Minnesota and UAA aren't the only ones playing this weekend, and there's still a LOT of hockey to go, but just know that if Minnesota plays as well as they're capable they'll be right in the thick of the race for the last MacNaughton Cup that will mean anything
For anyone who's been under a rock or doesn't follow college hockey much, the MacNaughton Cup is given to the regular season champ of the WCHA (the Broadmoor Trophy goes to the winner of the conference playoff tournament called "The Final Five" which, naturally, now has six teams), and this is the last season before Minnesota and Wisconsin go to the B1G, and everyone else except Bemidji, Mankato, UAA and Michigan Tech go to the National Collegiate Hockey Conference. While the WCHA will continue on with what's left of the scraps, this is the last time it's going to be considered a power conference, and the last time we'll get to see Minnesota and Wisconsin face all of these rivals in the same place. So that's why whomever wins the MacNaughton Cup and Broadmoor Trophy this year will get bragging rights for the forseeable ever of who won the WCHA last time it truly mattered.
Those bragging rights would be especially important for Minnesota and Wisconsin, but let's be honest- who the hell cares about Wisconsin? Exactly. For Minnesota, it would carry extra meaning to win this year simply because they're not going to see Denver, CC, UMD and especially North Dakota very much anymore, and certainly never again in-conference. I mean, would you want UND fans ALWAYS bringing up the fact they won the last MacNaughton Cup anytime the two teams play, or as usual, when they're trolling Gopher message boards? Me neither. So obviously if Minnesota can't win it the answer for who else you'd want to see win it would be "anybody but UND." Anyway a little off track here, and we'll have all next week to talk about how much we hate the Fighting Whioux and especially their fans.
The fact is the schedule sets up beautifully for the Gophers for a second half run, as they have nine of their final 16 games at home, and only have to leave the state for one weekend between now and the NCAA tourney. That one trip is for their final WCHA series against Wisconsin February 15 and 17, with one game at the Kohl Center in Madison Friday night and the other a neutral site outdoor game at Soldier Field in Chicago Sunday afternoon. Otherwise, their other roadtrips are St Cloud, Mankato, and Bemidji. Roadtrip? Roadtrip! They also get most of their tough opponents at home including North Dakota (that series next weekend will be bonkers. Trying not to think about it), Duluth, and Denver, and if that's not enough home cookin' for you, the UAA series will be their fourth and fifth of eight straight games the Gophs are playing at home.
So yeah, while Minnesota begins the second half in 6th place, they're set up to move up to the top if they play like they're capable. The one area Minnesota can improve upon in conference play is scoring, as believe it or not, Minnesota is just 7th in the WCHA in scoring with 36 goals in 12 games (even my math says that's 3 goals per game). However, with the 24 goals scored in their past five and at least four in each of those, the offense should be just fine, thank you. Obviously the less time they have to play without leading scorer Erik Haula the better, and the hope is he'll be back next weekend for "The Series to End All Series" against the Fighting Whioux (or maybe more accurately it should be "The Series to End the WCHA"?). Even if that's the case though it's doubtful Haula will be able to take faceoffs, meaning Condon's move to 2nd line center might go on longer than we first thought.
Where would Haula play then? Oh you know, just the top line with Bjugstad and Rau. No big deal. Wouldn't be the most dangerous line in college hockey or anything. But seriously, I'm hearing that if Condon proves he can handle 2nd line duties with El Capitan Zach Budish and Sam Warning (thus far mission accomplished. At least against Notre Dame), and since we already know Travis Boyd and Seth Ambroz have the third line locked down, then Don Lucia would load up that top line with his three best forwards. Haula, Bjugy and Rau together not just on the power play, but every shift they're out there? How much fun would THAT be for the UND series and beyond? Yes please. Sign me up for some of that!
As we've been saying all year, Minnesota has been fantastic defensively and especially in goal, where rookie Adam Wilcox has been, as the kids would say, simply redonkulous. He's played in 19 of the Gophers' 20 games and his 1.60 GAA and .929 save % are both top 3 in the conference. Somehow as a true freshman, #32 has been a rock for the Gophers in goal, and has seemed to make every big save when they need it. In front of him, a cavalcade of quality defensemen have done a great job of limiting shots and trying to clear traffic in front of their goalie, and with their skating and puck-moving abilities have done an excellent job getting the puck out of the zone. Lucia quite literally has 8 good defensemen for only six spots, and while that's a problem every coach would love to have, there's a possibility that too much juggling of his pairings will throw off the chemistry or rhythm of the group. He did an excellent job of playing things right in the first half, and it'll be interesting to see if he goes with a firm top 6 for the second half, or if the situation remains fluid. It would seem the top four of Nate Schmidt, Ben Marshall, Mike Reilly and Brady Skjei are in and Justin Holl is the odd man out (he's also been excellent playing up on the wing and you haven't heard a peep of complaint from him about the position switch. Gotta love Holl). Mark Alt and Seth Helgeson both give the defense some size and tenacity while Jake Parenteau has done everything asked of him and more, playing both D and wing all season. Part of me feels like Parenteau has earned a place in the top six, but then again, I don't know who I'd take out to make room for him.
The Gophers are playing their best hockey of the season, and the challenge this weekend will be to not get caught looking ahead to UND. UAA is struggling this season as they're dead last in the conference with just five points and a 1-10-3 record (3-11-4 overall), but wouldn't you know one of those ties came against Minnesota earlier this season? The Seawolves are only 3-6-1 against Minnesota going back to 2010, but always seem to play them tough. The Gophers notched a win and a tie up in Anchorage before Christmas, and while the U swept all four meetings last season, it was UAA who took 3 of 4 in 2010-11, including a first round playoff sweep that still makes me throw up in my mouth a little just thinking about it. Anchorage already looks way out of the playoff hunt, but you know they'd love nothing more than to spoil Minnesota's weekend. Not that Minnesota isn't always used to having a target on their back, but with their shiny new #1 ranking, teams will be extra motivated to knock them off.
The stats certainly don't favor the Seawolves, who are yet to win on the road this season, and have the worst offense (just 1.71 goals per game in conference play), 3rd worst defense (they've given up 44 goals in 14 games. Minnesota by contrast has given up just 30 in 12) and are 11th on the power play (just 5 goals in 45 chances) and 10th on the PK (78% kill rate). All of these numbers SHOULD mean a Minnesota sweep, yet it's never that easy in the WCHA, especially the last WCHA season schools like UAA will get to beat the Gophers. Minnesota is yet to sweep a conference series this year, and if they want that sought-after MacNaughton Cup, they need to have four point weekends as often as possible, especially at home against the bottom of the conference.
Sure, sweeping UAA or winning the regular season crown don't guarantee the Gophers any kind of post-season success but the higher they finish, the better matchup they'll get for the 1st round of the WCHA playoffs, and that absolutely does have a bearing on what they hope is a long playoff run all the way to Pittsburgh. The Gophers start the second half in sixth place, but as long as they takes care of business with a schedule geared to help them do exactly that, they'll be right in the thick of the race for the last MacNaughton Cup that matters.