The University of Minnesota
Well this should be fun. It's the last ever regular season series between two in-state rivals with a claim to #1- the Gophers are the #1 team in the polls while SCSU is in the top spot in the WCHA standings. Gopher Hockey may be hated more in St Cloud than anywhere else except scenic Grand Forks, which should create quite an atmosphere.
Let's hope the Minnesota Golden Gophers enjoyed the week off and got plenty of rest and health, because they're going to need everything they've got this weekend. That's because their "Everybody in the WCHA Hates Minnesota" farewell tour stops in St Cloud this weekend, where the Gopher Hate is always turned up to 11. No home-and-home, as Minnesota will have to play two at the National Hockey Center, which is rowdy and raucous anytime of the year, but should be even wilder this weekend. In the past five seasons Minnesota is 3-2 in St Cloud and 10-4 overall against the Huskies since 2008-09 season, although much of that record is helped by going 6-0 vs SCSU in 08-09, including a first round playoff sweep.
While over the entire season Minnesota has better numbers than SCSU across the board, the Huskies have saved their best for conference play, and it's why they're first in the WCHA right now. Just looking at conference games, St Cloud and Minnesota look almost identical on paper: they're 2nd and 3rd in goals per game (SCSU 3.40, UM 3.39), 1st and 3rd in goals allowed (SCSU 2.00, UM 2.33), 1 and 2 on the power play (UM 26.5%, SCSU 22%), and penalty kill (SCSU 86.5%, UM 86%). Both teams have one player each with at least 30 points (SCSU senior Drew LeBlanc has 38 points in 28 games, including 30 assists, while Erik Haula has 31 in 23) and six players each with at least 20 points. In goal these teams are even as well: Adam Wilcox has better numbers than SCSU sophomore Ryan Faragher overall, yet just in conference games the numbers are reversed as Faragher is tops in GAA (1.89) and third in save % (.927) compared to Wilcox who's 5th in GAA (2.09) and 7th in save % (.910).
So if they look to be so even, besides the advantage in games played, why are the Huskies ahead of the Gophers in the standings? Because they've swept four series while Minnesota, as we've probably pointed out once or 100 hundred times already, has swept just one WCHA opponent. And it's not like SCSU is just sweeping cupcakes, as they've taken four points in a weekend on home ice against Denver, Mankato, and Colorado College, and also just swept the Beavers in Bemidji last weekend. Minnesota's only four point conference weekend came at home against UAA coming out of the Christmas break, and of their five remaining series, there's maybe only two where I'd look at it and say "yeah they should get four points there" which is Duluth at home in a couple of weeks and the last weekend up in Bemidji. And as we all know, Duluth may be having a down year but they and BSU are always a handful against the Gophers, and it will be amplified in this final WCHA season. While I'm hoping for three points this weekend but expecting a split, there's no real gimme's left on the schedule, which means if the Gophers want to win the last MacNaughton Cup that means anything, they're likely going to need to sweep a series or two after this and hope they get help from SCSU and UNO's opponents. Personally, while I'd love for Minnesota to win a final WCHA trophy, my main concern is a top 3 seed in the WCHA and a #1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and if they end up taking a trophy I'd say it's more likely they win the Broadmoor at the Final Five.
But we shall see. When playing at the top of their game, this is the best team in the country, and they should have their full lineup back this weekend. Per Roman, the Gophs' leading scorer Erik Haula should be back at center and fully healed (or close enough) from a broken finger suffered against BC. Haula played wing on the top line for the past few weeks because he was having trouble taking faceoffs due to the injury, but with him back at center it sounds like Nate Condon, who has played all three forward positions this year, will get a turn with Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau. Condon has great wheels and could be potent on the top line, and we'll see if Lucia shakes up the third or fourth lines at all.
This rivalry is always intense, and while SCSU and their fans always bring more hate, I have zero worries about the Gophers not being ready for this one. They've had a week off and Lucia will make sure they fully understand what's at stake here this weekend. The final regular season gauntlet begins, and the Gophers control their own destiny to put themselves in position to win the WCHA and the NCAA's. I believe at their best they're better than anybody, but St Cloud is a team who during conference play has been every bit as good, and in their barn with their fans it may be the biggest challenge Minnesota will face in the regular season.
Both games are on FSN+ TV and 1500 ESPN radio, with Friday night's puck drop at 730 and Saturday night's at 7pm.