MINNEAPOLIS — After waiting a week, the Minnesota Golden Gophers weren’t going to let any more time go by without claiming the MacNaughton Cup.
The Gophers, who were temporarily denied the WCHA regular-season title last weekend because of a sweep by St. Cloud State, outgunned Michigan Tech Friday night for a 3-1 win at Mariucci Arena to finish alone in first place in the league standings.
For Minnesota head coach Don Lucia — who has now won five Cups, including three with Colorado College — and his players, the feeling was partly one of relief.
“Now I can sleep tonight,” Lucia quipped.
The victory gave Minnesota (26-7-3, 18-6-3 WCHA) the outright championship for the second straight year. Unlike last season, when then-captain Gino Guyer was the only Gopher to touch the Cup after carrying it to center ice, the celebration this time around was more standard, including a team photo with the trophy.
“We went the superstitious route last year, and we all saw how that worked out,” said Evan Kaufmann, who scored the game winner, referring to the Gophers’ stunning NCAA tournament loss to Holy Cross. “Superstitions aren’t going to win you hockey games.”
“I was mad at the guys last year,” said Lucia, who thanked the home crowd after the presentation of the Cup to captain Mike Vannelli. “[Friday's display] is how you should celebrate. … I mean, how many people get their hands on that?”
Against stingy Michigan Tech (15-15-5, 10-12-5 WCHA), Minnesota’s offense wasn’t highlight-reel, but it was effective. Apart from Kaufmann’s goal, which was a nifty redirection of a point shot by blueliner Derek Peltier, the Gophers scored on a bounce off a body and a tip-in from the edge of the crease.
“We scored the type of goals we needed to score, tips going to the net,” said Lucia.
With the game tied at 1 late in the second period, a pair of goals 13 seconds apart sent Minnesota to the locker room with a 3-1 lead.
The first of those two, Kaufmann’s eighth goal of the year, made it 2-1 Minnesota at 17:14. Shortly after the ensuing faceoff, Gopher freshman Mike Carman fired a shot-pass just above the goal line for Tony Lucia, who was driving through the slot entangled with a defender. The puck bounced off Lucia and into the net at 17:27 for his seventh goal of the season.
That gave the Gophers a two-goal edge, all the momentum, and eventually the win and the league title.
Michigan Tech was on its game defensively, but the Huskies’ offensive limitations showed. MTU had just two shots on goal in the first period and 17 overall. Minnesota totaled 31 shots on goal.
“I thought we were very tentative [early], very nervous,” said Michigan Tech head coach Jamie Russell. “We looked like a young hockey team, which we are.”
Minnesota dominated at the start, though without making a difference on the scoreboard. Eight minutes into the first, a Kyle Okposo pass found Kaufmann wide-open on the back side, but MTU goaltender Michael-Lee Teslak (28 saves) got over to get a piece of his wrister.
Thereafter, the Gophers’ offense seemed to take a bit of a breather. Shots on goal were 11-2 Minnesota after one period, but the teams combined for just three shots — all by Minnesota — in the last half of the frame.
And indeed, Michigan Tech drew first blood at 3:53 of the second. Collecting the puck in the neutral zone, Peter Rouleau led a two-on-one break and fed Malcolm Gwilliam. The sophomore from Kamloops, B.C., banged a point-blank shot off the left pad of Minnesota goalie Kellen Briggs (16 saves) that trickled into the net.
Minnesota’s second power play came and went — like its first — without a shot on goal, and the Gophers seemed to be slipping into an offensive funk.
Moments later, though, the Gophers tied the game. Blueliner Alex Goligoski’s diagonal pass found Jim O’Brien driving to the net, and the freshman center tipped the puck past a helpless Teslak at 9:34.
With their energy seemingly restored, the Gophers peppered Teslak for the next few minutes, but couldn’t get anything past him. The momentum was slowed by a crosscheck on Mike Carman, but the only decent scoring chance on the MTU power play was by Okposo on a shorthanded bid.
“I thought he [Teslak] played a great game,” said Russell of the league’s reigning co-Defensive Player of the Week, who dropped his first decision in his last eight appearances for the Huskies.
The score stayed 1-1 until the Gophers’ bang-bang scoring to close out the second period, and the hosts coasted home in a largely uneventful third period.
“We’re going to celebrate and enjoy this, but at the same time we have some work left to do,” said Vannelli. He and Briggs will be the two Gophers honored Saturday on Senior Night.
The win gave Minnesota the first seed in the WCHA playoffs, which begin next weekend. The Gophers will host last-place finisher Alaska-Anchorage Friday, Saturday and Sunday if necessary.
For MTU, the loss — combined with Colorado College’s 3-0 win over Denver — ended its hopes of playoff home ice for the first time since 1992-93. The Huskies will not know their first-round opponent until Saturday night.
Before any of that, though, there’s the regular-season finale between these same two teams. The puck drops at 7:07 p.m. CT Saturday at Mariucci.