Mother Nature sent a little present to the Twin Cities last Saturday, a winter storm that dumped enough snow on the area to slow down even the North Star State’s denizens, who are used to such things even in late February.
Perhaps not coincidentally, another storm was brewing inside Mariucci Arena that evening. With Minnesota seemingly on the verge of claiming the WCHA regular-season title, St. Cloud State found its own spirit of giving — handing Gopher fans an unwelcome present as they watched SCSU put together a spurt of four unanswered goals for a 5-3 win and a weekend sweep.
So although further inclement weather has hit the area midweek, the forecast for the Huskies is sunny, with a fair chance at the MacNaughton Cup.
Of course, Minnesota still needs only one point next weekend against Michigan Tech to share the title, and one win in two games would make the Gophers the outright champions no matter what SCSU does against visiting North Dakota.
Though Minnesota is still in the driver’s seat, head coach Don Lucia wasn’t interested in taking comfort in his team’s three-point lead in the WCHA standings.
“We haven’t done anything yet,” Lucia said.
Obviously, he’s right in the sense of earning hardware, though to be fair the Gophers have done quite a bit already. Their winning percentage of .757 is still second in the nation, and lofty PairWise numbers suggest a clear path to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament despite the disappointing results against SCSU.
The St. Cloud players and coaches weren’t patting one another on the back too much, either. Asked if the two wins proved the Huskies were a better team than the Gophers, head coach Bob Motzko agreed only that they were better for one weekend.
In fact, the only thing Motzko and his charges were celebrating was the lack of a Gopher celebration.
“We said, ‘Let’s make [WCHA] Commissioner [Bruce] McLeod fly back next week,” Motzko quipped, referring to the commissioner’s role in handing the MacNaughton Cup to the league champion.
“I don’t mind doing it,” laughed McLeod, who let on that Motzko had told him as much before the game.
Goaltender Bobby Goepfert was the linchpin in the win Saturday, refusing to give any more ground once Minnesota had established a 3-1 lead midway through the game.
“He’s on a mission at the end of his college career,” said Motzko of his senior netminder. “At the end of the game, I pointed right at him. There was nobody more fired up than him.”
Indeed there wasn’t. When the final horn sounded moments after Matt Stephenson’s empty-net goal assured the Huskies the win, Goepfert went into a leaping celebration as he left his crease to join his teammates.
“We got the wind knocked out of us [early],” said Goepfert, “but we stood in there and took some more blows.”
Goepfert himself blunted the impact of the Gophers’ offensive punch, making 17 straight saves to end the game as SCSU rallied. The Hobey Baker candidate is sixth in the nation in goals against average and third in save percentage.
The role of netminding in the stretch run and into the playoffs was hardly lost on Lucia, who tipped his cap to Goepfert and then acknowledged the Gophers’ troubles in that area. The combination of Jeff Frazee and Kellen Briggs permitted the Huskies nine goals (plus the empty-netter) on 57 shots as SCSU scored five each night.
“We have to be better there too,” Lucia said. “We can’t give up nine goals in a weekend.”
Neither team will have it easy this weekend. UND is playing strong despite the end of its 11-game unbeaten streak, and Michigan Tech has lost just one of its last nine games to make the league’s other Huskies an NCAA tournament contender.
Regardless of the outcome, though, the obvious winner is the WCHA, which has enjoyed another week of attention regarding its playoff and title races. None of its postseason matchups is set with only one weekend of regular-season play remaining.
And with an outside shot at getting six teams into the NCAA tournament, and two No. 1 seeds as of now, the conference is in an enviable position to try to win a sixth straight national championship.
Three teams — Minnesota, Denver and Wisconsin — have won the last five. Is it St. Cloud’s turn to raise a banner to the rafters?