Chase for MacNaughton Cup intensifies with Minnesota-St. Cloud State series

One team will look to prove it’s worthy of its No. 1 ranking and put itself back in position to challenge for the WCHA regular season championship by winning in a tough environment.

The other team sits in first place, and will hope to hang on for its first MacNaughton Cup and garner respect as an elite Division I program.

Those are some of the themes going into the Minnesota-St. Cloud State series at the National Hockey and Event Center this weekend.

“In the past, I really enjoyed playing the Gophers because it’s always a competitive game,” Huskies forward Nic Dowd said. “It’s going to be intense and we’ll be ready for that. We approach this game the same as any other but it is different than playing an out-of-state team or a nonconference team.”

Dowd plays a significant role in SCSU’s high-skilled offense and is part of the Huskies core leadership group.

The nation’s leader in assists, Drew LeBlanc (8-30–38), and Ben Hanowski (12-10–22) share captain status. Defenseman Nick Jensen (3-18–21) wears an “A” and Dowd (12-17–29) is a leader minus the title.

“I think at times you have to step up and be a leader and if you’re not wearing a letter, that doesn’t mean anything,” Dowd said.

The Gophers have to look at this series as make-or-break as far as the WCHA race goes since Minnesota trails SCSU by five points in the standings. Even with two games in hand on the Huskies, it would be hard to overcome more points than that in eight remaining games if the Huskies come away with more than two points.

“It’s a huge series, obviously,” Gophers forward Erik Haula said. “They’re playing really well right now. They have a good group of guys and also this weekend is huge in the standings.”

Minnesota’s top line of Haula, Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau has taken a little time to get back to its normal form in the four games since Haula returned from injury for the North Dakota series.

Haula has two goals in the last four games; both were empty-netters.

Freshman Adam Wilcox has remained solid throughout with the nation’s sixth-best goals against average (1.70) and a .926 save percentage.

“Having Adam back there [helps], knowing that he’s backing us up and playing really well,” Gophers defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “He’s been seeing the puck well and we’re trying to move guys out of his way as much as possible.”

Buzz building for Omaha’s outdoor game

This Saturday marks the first of two straight weekends with an outdoor game, with No. 7 North Dakota visiting No. 14 Nebraska-Omaha at TD Ameritrade Park, the home of the College World Series.

On Feb. 17, No. 11 Notre Dame takes on No. 3 Miami and No. 1 Minnesota plays No. 19 Wisconsin at Chicago’s Soldier Field.

And while the novelty has worn off for a few fans, it hasn’t for the players involved.

“It brought up a lot of good memories of hanging out with buddies on the pond back at home,” UND goalie Zane Gothberg told the Grand Forks Herald after Monday’s 45-minute outdoor scrimmage in Grand Forks (minus-10 with wind chill). “This is a new chapter with a new group. It was pretty exciting.”

Ultimately, the weather won’t matter to most.

“I’m not cold, not one bit,” UND freshman Coltyn Sanderson said. “I’m from Saskatchewan.”

CC taking it one game at a time in Gold Pan rivalry

The cliché is that in a rivalry series, records matter little. But no one at Colorado College is suggesting it will not be quite difficult for the ninth-place Tigers to beat No. 9 Denver twice this weekend. DU was swept for only the first time in league-record 60 series three weeks ago.

“We are certainly focusing on Friday and putting together a good road effort,” CC coach Scott Owens said. “It would be great if we could win Friday and come back [home] with a chance to win the Gold Pan. We need to continue playing better defense.”

Denver is focused on this weekend’s home-and-home series but also has the big picture in mind. Its road sweep of Minnesota-Duluth last weekend has the Pioneers tied for third with No. 1 Minnesota and No. 7 North Dakota and very much in the MacNaughton Cup race.

“Once you get to February you can start to see the light at the end of the tunnel,” DU associate head coach Steve Miller said. “This is the time where you need to keep getting better every day. We need to keep building as we come up to the playoffs. We had some good practices leading up to the Minnesota-Duluth series [last weekend] and this is another weekend for us to keep building.”

Don’t mistake that for the Pioneers not taking this series seriously.

“You learn very quickly that we don’t like each other and we want to beat them every time,” Pioneers senior Chris Knowlton said. “It’s going to be a fun weekend.”

Mersch will play Friday

Wisconsin forward Michael Mersch will suit up this weekend against Bemidji State.

With one minute left in Wisconsin’s 4-1 loss to North Dakota last Saturday, Mersch hopped off the Wisconsin bench, dropped the gloves and helmet, apparently with intentions to fight UND’s Stephane Pattyn.

Mersch, the Badgers’ leading scorer, received a game misconduct but not a disqualification, which would leave Mersch suspended for one game.

The NCAA rule book states “A player may not leave the players’ bench or penalty bench at any time during an altercation.” The result of this infraction is a disqualification.

A look at the video shows Mersch leaving the players bench, but as Eric Burton of the Goon’s World blog reported, WCHA supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd said Mersch didn’t enter the altercation and therefore wasn’t worthy of a suspension.

It’s puzzling because Mersch left the bench “during an altercation,” which the rule book says is not allowed, but the league made a decision not to disqualify Mersch Friday night.

The Badgers have been hit by the injury bug lately. Center Derek Lee missed the UND series because of a reported concussion but skated Wednesday wearing a no-contact jersey, according to Andy Baggot of the Wisconsin State Journal.

Badgers coach Mike Eaves said in his Monday news conference he still wasn’t sure about defenseman Jake McCabe, who injured his right ankle late in Saturday’s game when he landed awkwardly on top of another player near the boards.

Turnovers keep Bemidji State winless since holiday break

It’s been a frustrating second half for a Bemidji State squad that has gone 0-8-2 since returning to action Dec. 30 at the Ledyard Classic.

It must prove especially troublesome to have lost three games by one goal, especially against teams like No. 4 New Hampshire, No. 14 Nebraska-Omaha and Massachusetts.

BSU lost 4-0 and 4-1 last weekend to WCHA leader St. Cloud State. That was the only weekend during this skid when the Beavers were blown out.

Costly turnovers have led to untimely goals.

“The bottom line is you have to play 60 minutes of hockey,” coach Tom Serratore said during his weekly news conference. “You cannot make many mistakes and if you do, the goalie has to bail you out. We have to better manage the puck.”

Quick hits

• St. Cloud State wasn’t called for one penalty all weekend in its sweep of Bemidji State. The Huskies are the least penalized team in the nation at 8.5 penalty minutes per game.

• SCSU freshman Jonny Brodzinski’s 13-game scoring streak is the longest running in the WCHA.

• Chris Chelios, who played on Wisconsin’s 1983 NCAA title team, will drop the ceremonial first puck Friday when the Badgers host Bemidji State. Wisconsin will honor its 1977, 1983 and 1990 national championship teams Friday.

• Michigan Tech’s Pheonix Copley has the nation’s fourth-best save percentage since Christmas at .952.