It ever there was a great time for a WCHA series sweep for your Minnesota Golden Gophers, this would be it. Yes, Duluth will come in fired up because they hate us and they're the REAL University of Minnesota and Marcia! Marcia! Marica! The Bulldogs have also shown at times- rare that they may be this season- that they can play with the best in the conference. But Minnesota is better on paper in every conceivable statistical category- seriously just pick one, any one and the Gophers are better- and the Bulldogs are mired in a six game winless streak and five losses in a row during that stretch before a tie last Saturday against Bemidji State. There's blood in the water, the Gophers are circling their prey and yet...all of this was true last week against Wisconsin and the Gophers came out with a split. Granted, terrible ice conditions that played perfectly to Bucky's Rosanne-Barr-in-a-bikini ugly and unsightly style of play were a factor in the loss, but it always seems to be something against WCHA foes that trips them up and keeps them from dominating a conference opponent for two straight games.
Simply put, this weekend provides a prime four point opportunity, and getting their second conference sweep of the season would keep their slim hopes of winning the regular season crown alive, and put the pressure on everybody else in the race for #2. Two teams neck-and-neck with Minnesota for one of those spots are UND and Denver as they face off this weekend in the Mile High City. Let's hope for a tie both nights, or just out of spite, a tie and then a 19-0 Denver win. Basically for the Gophers, just keep winning and see what happens. I know winning this last MacNaughton Cup would be a nice feather in the cap for the Gophers and their fans on the way out the door to the B1G, but it would really just be icing on their proverbial cake. It's also not very likely considering how well St Cloud has been playing, as well as who they play in their final six games: 3 points up on Minnesota, even if St Cloud just splits their remaining six games for 37 points, it means Minnesota, currently with 28, would need nine just to tie, or an AVERAGE of three points per weekend the rest of the way. It's certainly plausible for the Gophers to do that, but with how well SCSU is playing and considering their remaining opponents are @ CC, home Tech, and @ Wisconsin, I'm betting St Cloud finish with more than 37 points. Per Roman:
SCSU goes 5-1, the MacNaughton Cup goes to the Granite City. Even 4-1-1 assures SCSU a tie for first. ... If Huskies go 4-2, Gophers would have to finish 5-0-1 to tie them.
So yeah. Very tough to catch the Huskies, but as Don Lucia told Roman earlier this week, thanks to the Gophers' perfect non-conference record they're still very likely to get a top seed in the NCAA tourney without winning the conference, which is the opposite of what happened last year:
"The best thing that happened to us is what we did nonconference, being 8-0," said Lucia, whose Gophers have just one sweep in 11 conference series. "It certainly put ourselves in great shape for the NCAAs. A year ago ... we came back from Denver after losing two and we were first in the WCHA , but we were a bubble team for the NCAA tournament. That certainly not the case this year."
The Don is not wrong, and Minnesota can conceivably not sweep any of their final three series and still be well positioned for a top 3 seed in the WCHA playoffs and a potential #1 in the NCAA tourney. Still, you want to be playing well at this time of year heading into the playoffs, and at least for me, not sweeping Duluth this weekend would be not playing well.
UMD comes in tied for 8th in the conference with CC with 20 points, but CC has the all-important 2 games in hand. While the Bulldogs mathmatically have a shot at 5th, they're most likely not going to be able to move up more than a spot or two and are basically assured of going on the road in the first round of the WCHA's. If they swept their remaining four games they'd have 28 points, the same as Minnesota and UND in fourth currently, but because those two share a common opponent in DU- who is ahead of UMD with 25 points AND holds the tiebreaker thanks to their sweep of Duluth a couple of weeks ago- even if both the Gophers and Whioux somehow lost all six of their remaining games, that would automatically give the Pioneers four wins and eight points for 33. DU's other series is with UAA at home, so even if, say, DU themselves were swept by the U and UND, they're still likely to pick up the three points necessary to tie UMD in the standings. The two other teams between them and fifth place- Wisconsin who's in 6th with 27 points but just four to play and CC with 20 with six left- are passable. CC hosts St Cloud then Mankato before finishing on the road at Tech, and it's entirely possible (and would be totally awesome) that Wisconsin could lose it's last four WCHA games home at UNO and home St Cloud.
Still, even if they were locked into 9th Duluth wouldn't have any motivation problems coming to Mariucci as they're always up for beating the Gophers. They hate The U, Little Brother Syndrome, Marcia! Marcia! Marica! You know the drill by now. As much as this series looks like it should be four points for the Gophers, the fact the front of the visiting team's sweaters will say UMD makes me very, very nervous. They've been very good the past few years and the last time these two met in 2011 was an epic time with tons of offense, chances, and drama, but this group has not played great hockey this year, and especially lately. Sure, they've up to the task at times, and can absolutely, positively pull off an upset if Minnesota doesn't play well- UMD went up to Grand Forks in mid November and took the Whioux to OT both nights. They have also notched wins against St Cloud and Notre Dame. That's been the good: the bad has been everything else, as they are winless in February, losing five of six games against Denver, Minnesota State, and Bemidji, with the only tie coming in their last outing at BSU.
Looking at conference stats, they've been pretty consistent, and not consistently good- ninth in goals for (2.46 per game) and tied for eighth in goals against (3 per), and also eighth on both the power play and penalty kill. One thing they've been pretty good at all year is taking penalties, which is not so good. The other shows what a strange season they've had as they're tied with Mankato for most first period goals scored with 25 (that's cumulative, not average, as UMD has two games in hand on Minnesota and most everybody else) and have given up only 19, which means in most games they're getting out of the first period with a lead. And in hockey, the team that scores first wins the majority of the time.
Except that UMD hasn't been winning. In fact, it seems like after the first period is when the wheels start to fall off as their 15 second period goals are tied with UAA for the least of any WCHA team. They've only given up 19 second period goals which isn't bad, but then we get to the third: they've only scored 19 third period goals, yet have given up a whopping 30. That would be the opposite of the cardiac kids, as they seem to start fast and then fade late and play worse as the game goes on. A certain UND play-by-play broadcaster might even use the phrase "choke job". But of course, and stop me if you've heard this before, it's a Minnesota school playing the mighty and hated Gophers, so all of that goes out the window. They have split their past three series with Minnesota State, St Cloud and Wisconsin, all but one of which were on the road, and get back to some home cookin' the next two weeks hosting Duluth then Denver.
Both games are at 7pm with Friday night on FSN+ and Saturday on BTN. If you're scoreboard watching, there's only two other WCHA series this weekend but both have major impact on the Gophers. UND's at Denver, and while Saturday night's game isn't televised in the Twin Cities, tonight's game starts at 8pm on NBC Sports Network. The other series is St Cloud at CC, so we'll hope the Tigers can help out the Gophers in at least one of those games.