In theory, the idea of the Hockey City Classic played outdoors between two arch rivals in Chicago was great. When it actually played out, the poor ice conditions shouldn't have decided two points in the WCHA standings, but it did. I know, that sounds whiny- just know that, whether you believe me or not, this was the sentiment early in the scoreless first period, not after the Gophers were down 3-0 in the second or lost 3-2. Full credit to Wisconsin for doing what they needed to for the victory and earning the split in the series. The bad ice was absolutely perfect for their defense-first, offensively-challenged system, and if they could create ice conditions like that everywhere they played they may never lose a game. To see the poor outdoor ice conditions grind this game to a crawl was a shame, and something that definitely affected the style of play, and essentially killed Minnesota's advantage in speed and skill. It felt like an exhibition game which is what it should have been instead of a WCHA league game. When Minnesota plays an outdoor game again, I can just about guarantee it will NOT be against a conference opponent, at least if Don Lucia has anything to say about it.
Again, this will sound like nothing but whining after a loss, as I'm well aware UND and UNO played outdoors two weeks ago and Michigan and Ohio State played a CCHA game outdoors
earlier this last season, so it's not like Minnesota is the only one to play a conference game outside. This isn't the only time it's happened, or likely will happen as the outdoor hockey craze continues, but it doesn't mean I'm wrong. Minnesota outshot Wisconsin 38-19, and maybe had this game been played at the Kohl Center the result still would have been the same as Badger goalie Joel Rempel was outstanding, but it also had the feel of a quadruple-overtime playoff game where you just know the next goal scored is going to be a lucky one or a bad bounce, which is essentially what happened on all three Wisconsin goals. Credit them for throwing the puck at the net and getting the bounces during that three minute stretch in the second, but Minnesota had little hope of mounting much of a comeback when the puck won't even stay on their stick on a rush because of the ice.
As it stands, the Gophers split the series and leave the weekend tied for 4th place in the WCHA with North Dakota with 28 points, and Wisconsin is just a point back all alone in 6th. SCSU is still well out in front with 31 points, UNO is second with 30 and Minnesota State-Mankato is a point ahead of the Gophs with 29 (think MSU coach Mike Hastings will be in the running for Coach of the Year?). Of that group of six SCSU, Minnesota and UND all have two games in hand having only played 22 conference games thus far, so certainly the Gophers remain poised to move back into the top three. However, catching St Cloud will be difficult as they finish @ CC, home Tech, @ Wisconsin, and if they even just split those remaining series for 6 more points that would give them 37. Minnesota would need nine points in their final six games just to tie them, and while that's not out of the question, that's also assuming SCSU does't sweep Tech or pick up more than two points against either CC or Wisconsin, both of which are very possible. The real battle will come down to Minnesota v North Dakota as they share two common opponents in their final three series in Denver and Bemidji. UND's other opponent is @ Mankato State the last week of the season, and I would hope we'll all be cheering loudly for the Mavs in that one. Minnesota looks to have an advantage as they have two home series remaining- hosting Duluth and Denver the next two weeks- before closing at BSU while UND's only home series remaining is with those pesky Beavers.
While it's now a longshot for Minnesota to defend their regular season title, they're still very much in contention for a top 3 finish in the conference and to hang onto a #1 NCAA tourney seed, but it looks like much of that will come down to the Final Five. Certainly this past weekend could have gone better, but Minnesota did well to get the W Friday night knowing the conditions yesterday would likely strongly favor Wisconsin- or any team capable of commiting everything to defense and whose only hope to score was throwing the puck on net and hoping a lucky bounce went their way. Thankfully the rest of the Gopher games will be played indoors where the conditions favor skill and speed and playing to win instead of clogging the neutral zone and playing not to lose, and Minnesota controls their destiny with three weeks to go in the regular season.