ST. PAUL, Minn. — For years in the early days of the WCHA, Minnesota wouldn’t put Denver on its schedule. Differences between legendary coaches John Mariucci and Murray Armstrong in the recruiting wars put a rift between the teams that took plenty of time to heal.
Things have cooled significantly since, but with that in mind, what more could the WCHA ask for in this, its 50th anniversary season, than a game between the Gophers and the Pioneers, two of its most storied programs, for the Broadmoor Trophy?
That pairing of WCHA cornerstones was clinched with Minnesota’s dominating, 4-1 victory over St. Cloud State in a Final Five semifinal game Friday night.
The 18,523 fans that packed the Xcel Energy Center, setting a record for attendance at a college hockey game in Minnesota, saw the Gophers eliminate the Huskies’ offense while getting some timely goals and strong goaltending.
Jordan Leopold, Troy Riddle each had a goal and an assist and Johnny Pohl had two assists for the Gophers, who will return to the WCHA championship game for the first time since 1997.
“The seniors and myself, we’ve had a tough three years,” Leopold said, “and this year, we’re looking to do something special.”
The Gophers will play Denver, a 3-0 winner over Colorado College in Friday’s first semifinal, in Saturday night’s title game. Denver has the most playoff championships with 12; Minnesota is tied for second with Wisconsin at 11.
The teams, however, have never played a single game for the playoff title. They last met for the playoff championship in 1986 in Denver, when the Pioneers won a two-game, total-goals series 6-2.
“Look at the tradition Denver has, and of course Minnesota has the unbelievable tradition,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “It should be a tremendous matchup.”
On this night, the Gophers scored goals early in the first period, late in the second period and early in the third to take a commanding lead. Their defense made the night relatively easy for goaltender Adam Hauser, who won his 10th straight game.
“Doogie Hauser is playing very good,” St. Cloud State coach Craig Dahl quipped.
Doogie’s coach was equally impressed.
“I think he’s fresh, I think he’s excited, I think he’s happy right now,” Lucia said. “You see a smile on his face at this time of year that maybe you haven’t seen in the previous few years. When he’s on, he looks big in the net.”
Minnesota, which won its eighth game in a row, had its Hobey Baker Memorial Award finalist capitalize on a big rebound for the lead just 55 seconds into the game.
Defenseman Jordan Leopold scored his 20th goal of the year, jumping up into the play to take a rebound in the high slot and sneak a wrist shot under the right arm of Huskies starting goaltender Jake Moreland.
It was an objective, the Gophers admitted later, to score the first goal. This was beyond their wildest imaginations.
“We didn’t really expect to score that quick,” Leopold said. “Our main objective was to weather the storm in the first five minutes of the game because we knew St. Cloud was going to put out their best effort in the first five minutes.
“That had a tremendous effect on our team when the puck went by. It really got us going, and we never stopped from then.”
While the Gophers didn’t add to their lead until late in the second period, they were able to neutralize the Huskies offense, which couldn’t capitalize on four power-play chances in the first two periods.
They held St. Cloud’s Hobey Baker finalist, Mark Hartigan, to just three shots and kept the nation’s top power play scoreless until late in the game.
Dahl and Huskies forward Ryan Malone both used the word “panicky” to describe their offense.
“They did a good job of keeping us to the outside,” Malone said of the Gophers’ penalty killers, “giving us the bad-angle shots where Hauser, he’ll usually stop it.”
Troy Riddle extended the Gophers’ lead to 2-0 with 16.2 seconds left in the second, but Pohl made the play happen. Pohl drew the Huskies’ defenseman to the right circle, then dropped a pass behind his back to Riddle, in the left circle.
Riddle unleashed a one-time slapshot that blew past Moreland.
That, combined with the Gophers’ third goal 35 seconds into the third period, made for a devastating blow to the Huskies.
“The second goal was a real tough goal to swallow,” Dahl said. “We had three chances to get the puck out of the zone, we did not get it out. … That was real disappointing. I mean, holy buckets. They know they’re supposed to get the puck out, and they didn’t get it out.”
With the way Hauser and the defense were playing, Jeff Taffe’s goal effectively put the game away.
Taffe scored his team-leading 32nd goal of the season, wristing a shot into the high right corner from the left circle.
The teams traded power-play goals later in the third — Minnesota grabbed a 4-0 lead on a Matt Koalska score and Malone cut into the lead for St. Cloud.
By then, though, it was a foregone conclusion that Minnesota would win its third straight game against St. Cloud State.
That’s a complete reversal from last year, when St. Cloud won three late in the season against Minnesota, including the Friday night semifinal at the Final Five, en route to a first-round bye in the NCAA tournament.
And it’s something that doesn’t sit well with Dahl.
“Anybody that hangs around me very long knows it’s tough to lose to Minny,” he said. “We like to beat Minny. It’s like a big brother and a little brother.”
Score one on this night for the big brother.