First things first:
• Lo and behold, we finally picked a first-place finisher right. We — myself and the WCHA’s coaches — have been notoriously wrong about that subject when polled before the season but a preseason favorite finally came through with Minnesota’s first outright MacNaughton Cup championship since 1992.
• Wisconsin was at “rock bottom” after being embarrassed twice at Minnesota State last weekend. The Badgers had better hope that was the bottom. St. Cloud State wouldn’t mind making the hole a little deeper this weekend in its effort to earn another home series.
• Minnesota State scored seven goals against Wisconsin last Saturday. David Backes and Travis Morin, the Mavericks’ top two scorers, had a grand total of zero points. That’s not a one-line team.
Long Time Coming
Yes, Don Lucia remembers the MacNaughton Cup. But this one snuck up on him.
It has been 10 years since he last won it, as part of three straight WCHA titles with Colorado College in the mid-1990s. Minnesota, meanwhile, had gone 14 years since its last outright regular-season title.
And Lucia didn’t expect this year’s title to come 2,500 miles from home, with two games left to play in the season. But it happened when the Gophers swept Alaska-Anchorage, Wisconsin was swept at Minnesota State and Denver only split against North Dakota.
“It was strange this time,” said Lucia, who became the first coach to win the MacNaughton Cup with two different schools. “This is the fourth time for me, personally, but the other three times we won it at home so we had the buildup. This year was different because I don’t think we gave much thought about it, worried about it until we were playing Denver and all of a sudden, now maybe we have a chance at this thing if we do well this weekend.
“Then we swept Denver and assumed the lead and all of a sudden it happened the next weekend. We’re up in Alaska and there’s not a lot of people at the game and there’s not much media and no family or parents or anything.”
The Gophers will get the MacNaughton Cup after Friday’s home game against Minnesota-Duluth. It’ll be the first time it’s presented to Lucia since 1996, when his Tigers team won the league by 12 points over Minnesota.
His second team at Minnesota, in 2000-01, was in the mix until the final weekend, when it was swept by St. Cloud State and took third behind North Dakota and the Huskies.
“To win that thing, you have to be good, obviously, but you have to be a little bit lucky and healthy and things have to break your way,” Lucia said. “We’ve got such a good league over 28 games. I always said for Minnesota, it’s difficult because we have so many rivals that it always costs us a few games over the course of the year, and so that’s maybe why you end up second, third or fourth. We’ve been knocking on the door but we haven’t been in that position.”
They are now, thanks to 12 victories in their last 14 WCHA games. In that span, junior forward Ryan Potulny has 14 goals, including five last weekend against the Seawolves.
The Gophers have been able to deal with injuries to forwards Danny Irmen and Kris Chucko, the nearly-season-long absence of defenseman Nate Hagemo and the early-season departure of Tyler Hirsch, who’s seeking a medical redshirt.
Through the last stretch, Minnesota got solid goaltending from Kellen Briggs and help from a dedicated supporting cast.
“I think it’s been fun because guys have accepted their roles and done a good job with that, our seniors especially,” Lucia said. “Some of them had to relinquish some of their ice time to young guys and they did it.”
Now, with their regular-season finish locked up, with their first-round opponent known to be the same Alaska-Anchorage team they just swept, with the No. 1 spot in the PairWise Rankings and with a No. 1 seed all but locked up, the Gophers must try to keep their focus. That starts with a series against Minnesota-Duluth this weekend.
“It’s all about keeping them mentally and physically fresh right now so they’re excited to play on the weekend,” Lucia said. “We haven’t had much luck with Duluth the last few years, and there’s a carrot for our guys. The other carrot being that we want to stay No. 1 in the PairWise if we possibly can. Not that it probably makes that much difference, but if at all possible you’d obviously like to stay there and you want to play well going into the playoffs. We’ve had a good run here in the second half.”
An amateur team from what city was the first to win the MacNaughton Cup, in 1913? Answer below.
Three For Two
Going into the final weekend, Colorado College has 23 overall victories but doesn’t have home ice for the first round of the WCHA playoffs wrapped up quite yet.
The fourth-place Tigers have 31 points, three ahead of St. Cloud State and North Dakota. They can finish anywhere from second to sixth, the biggest window of the seven teams that are left playing for positioning this weekend.
It’s confirmed that Minnesota will finish first and Alaska-Anchorage will take 10th, meaning those teams will meet at Mariucci Arena next weekend in the first round.
Minnesota State will finish seventh and will travel to the fourth-place finisher.
Otherwise, it’s up for grabs. The battle for fifth place may be the most intriguing, with St. Cloud State and North Dakota tied at 28 points and the Huskies holding the head-to-head tiebreaker. It’s still possible that both will pass Colorado College (31 points) and host first-round series, but it’s more likely that either St. Cloud State or UND one will host the other next weekend.
Wisconsin (33 points) needs to do two points better than Denver (34 points) to take the second seed. CC needs to sweep Denver to clinch at least third.
Near the bottom of the standings, ninth-place Minnesota-Duluth (15 points) needs to sweep at Minnesota and have eighth-place Michigan Tech (18 points) lose both games at North Dakota to earn the eighth seed in the playoffs.
Work Pays Off
Minnesota State players took a lap around the ice at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center after last Saturday’s game to salute the fans at the final home game of the season.
The way they played, they might as well have been taking a victory lap. The Mavericks proved once again that hard work will take you places, and they proved that whoever gets them in the playoffs is in for a challenge.
The Mavericks closed their regular season with an emphatic sweep of Wisconsin, 6-4 and 7-3. They’ll go into the playoffs on a four-game winning streak but after a week off.
“Playing the way we are right now, I don’t want it,” Mavericks coach Troy Jutting said of the break.
A day before the series, Minnesota State players talked about the leaguewide perception of their team as a hardworking bunch, and then they went out and cemented it.
“I think that’s a good reputation to have,” Mavericks sophomore center Ryan Carter said. “A lot of times with skill guys and talented teams, if you’re not going out there and working hard, you don’t get anything out of it. Hard work, I think, is more consistent than talent or skill. In the long run, I think it is good.”
That doesn’t diminish the Mavericks’ talent. With David Backes and Travis Morin leading things up front, they’ve got their share of top-end ability.
But on nights when those two players don’t score — take last Saturday, for example — the hard work needs to come through. And it did.
“For most nights, we’re not the most talented team on the ice,” Mavericks senior center Rob Rankin said. “But with effort, I think you can make up for that. We’ve got some guys that have a great amount of skill, but that’s the way a team with less talent wins games, by working harder than the other team.”
With nine freshmen having played over 30 games this season for North Dakota, you’d figure they would have a big role in a lot of games.
That proved true last weekend, when rookies accounted for eight of the nine goals the Sioux scored in a series split with Denver. Jonathan Toews had three, T.J. Oshie had two and Ryan Duncan, Andrew Kozek and Taylor Chorney each had one.
The freshmen may be finding success late in the year thanks to a break in the schedule three weeks ago, coach Dave Hakstol said.
“When I look at our team as a whole, probably the biggest benefit was for some of the young guys,” Hakstol said. “It was a nice mental break for all the veterans, but mostly I think it was a great mental and probably most importantly a physical break for some of the young guys, especially the guys that were at the World Junior tournament.”
After they hit rock bottom last Saturday, Wisconsin players held a 20-minute meeting without the coaching staff inside their locker room at the Midwest Wireless Civic Center, hashing out what needed to be done to escape their free fall before it’s too late.
The Badgers have just three wins from their last 11 games and went from a MacNaughton Cup lock six weeks ago to needing a win just to clinch a top-three spot.
“Some emotions ran in there,” Badgers defenseman Jeff Likens said after emerging from the locker room. “We can’t really dig ourselves much deeper than we already have. One of the things we talked about was just forgetting the past and getting back to those things we did, getting back to that close group of guys that we started out with at the beginning of the year.”
They don’t need to be told that there’s not much time left to make a turnaround. Last season, they slumped down the stretch and tried to right the ship in the playoffs to no avail.
Now they hope that meeting and the poor results it followed provided the wake-up call the Badgers need.
Wisconsin senior captain Adam Burish called it the best meeting the team has had in his time with the team.
“After a loss like that, I don’t want to talk to anybody, I don’t want to see anybody,” Burish said. “I don’t want to talk to my parents or anybody. I walk out of here disappointed, but I have a good, positive feeling in my stomach right now. After a loss, I’ve never had a feeling like that. But after that talk and how open guys were — laid it all out there, everything on the line, maybe put themselves in an uncomfortable situation talking about things — I can leave the rink right now with a positive feeling.”
The Badgers got back to basics in practice this week and are trying to build back up.
“Everybody’s writing us off because [they say] we’re a bad second-half team,” Likens said. “You know what? We want to take those comments and prove them wrong. That’s unbelievable. We just haven’t taken that to heart. We need to start taking that to heart as a team here.”
New Arena Closer
Minnesota-Duluth is one step closer to having a new place to play after Duluth voters approved adding 0.75 percent to the city’s food and beverage tax in an advisory referendum Tuesday. That extra money would help the city pay its share for a $67 million expansion of the DECC.
Over 60 percent of those casting a ballot voted yes for the proposal, which would include a new, 6,630-seat arena to open in the fall of 2008 for the UMD men’s and women’s teams. The current DECC arena, opened in 1966, is the oldest and third-smallest building in the WCHA with a capacity of 5,333.
“Anything that’s new, that’s a change, is exciting. It could do a lot for this program to attract new recruits,” Bulldogs captain Steve Czech told the Duluth News Tribune. “There’s great atmosphere at the DECC now, it can be very loud, and I hope they’re able to transfer that old-school feeling to the new rink. The next few classes of players can start their own tradition there.”
It seems there’s a first time for everything.
Denver coach George Gwozdecky was ejected from a game for the first time in his coaching career last Friday after he stood on top of the boards to yell at referee Todd Anderson.
According to accounts of the game, it appeared North Dakota’s Mike Prpich speared Denver’s Geoff Paukovich in the groin in the third period, leading to Gwozdecky’s stance.
“I’m not proud of taking that action, but I felt at that point something needed to be said,” Gwozdecky told the Rocky Mountain News. “I’m not going to sit back and watch what happened take place on the ice and not say anything about it. I fully expect I won’t ever have to do that again. There was a method and purpose behind it.”
You just knew that if former North Dakota defenseman Matt Greene ever had a run-in with an SUV, the SUV would lose.
It turns out that happened when Greene was struck by a Jeep Cherokee while walking in Edmonton early last Saturday, according to the Edmonton Sun. The newspaper reported that the collision sent Greene, who plays for the Oilers, off the hood and into the windshield. He was hospitalized with bumps and bruises but was later released.
He joked that the SUV was totaled.
“That’s the hardest hit I’ve taken in awhile,” Greene deadpanned to the paper.
In Other Words
• League players of the week were Minnesota’s Potulny on offense, the Gophers’ Alex Goligoski and Colorado College’s Matt Zaba sharing the defensive honor and North Dakota’s Toews as the top rookie.
• Former Minnesota player John Mayasich is the 2006 recipient of the Lou Lamoriello Award for his career after college hockey.
• Alaska-Anchorage didn’t get a shot on goal in the second period of its 4-0 loss to Minnesota last Saturday. It had 10 shots on goal for the game.
• St. Cloud State is one away from tying the school record for overtime games in a season. The Huskies have played nine; they played 10 in the 1999-2000 season.
• Wisconsin’s Robbie Earl has 11 points in an eight-game point-scoring streak, while Colorado College’s Chad Rau has 10 points in a seven-game point-scoring streak.
• Alaska-Anchorage’s 13-game winless skid is the team’s longest since going 35 games without a win in the 2002-03 season.
• Ryan Dingle scored his first collegiate hat trick and recorded his national-high seventh game-winning goal in Denver’s 7-3 victory over North Dakota last Saturday.
• Andrew Gordon recorded his first hat trick for St. Cloud State in last Friday’s 6-1 win over Michigan Tech.
• Trivia answer: Cleveland.
Why can’t I get The Bouncing Souls’ “¡Ole!” out of my head? I guess 13 plays — once after each Minnesota State goal last weekend — will get that catchy tune branded into your brain.