Gophers enter North Star Cup with something to prove

After beginning the year as the preseason No. 1-ranked team, some early-season struggles have left head coach Don Lucia and the Gophers at 11-7-2 overall and 2-2-2 in the Big Ten.

Courtesy: University of Minnesota Athletics

MINNEAPOLIS — The top-ranked team in college hockey will be playing in St. Paul this weekend, and it’s not the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

Instead, it’s the Minnesota State Mavericks who enter this weekend’s North Star College Cup with the No. 1 ranking in the nation. A few spots behind in the rankings is Minnesota Duluth; the Bulldogs are No. 7 in the national polls.

You have to go all the way down to 17th to find the Gophers, a team more used to being the No. 1 team than facing the No. 1 team. But when Minnesota and Minnesota State square off Friday in the opening round of the tournament, that’s the scenario that will play out at the Xcel Energy Center.

"You look around the state, there’s some pretty good teams in our state," said Gophers senior Kyle Rau. "It’s fun. It’s good for the fans and it’s good for the players to play those guys, because we grew up playing against each other."

After beginning the year as the preseason No. 1-ranked team, some early-season struggles have left the Gophers at 11-7-2 overall and 2-2-2 in the Big Ten. One year after playing in the national championship, Minnesota has some work to do just to make the NCAA tournament.

It starts this weekend as the Gophers may have an opportunity to notch a couple wins against ranked foes. Minnesota’s first opponent is the Mavericks, who enter the North Star College Cup with an 18-4-1 record. Minnesota State hasn’t lost a game since early December and is 7-0-1 in its last eight games.

The success of this year’s Mavericks come as no surprise to Gophers head coach Don Lucia, who watched from afar as Minnesota State won the WCHA Final Five a year ago en route to an NCAA tournament bid.

If the (NCAA) tournament were to be right now, we wouldn’t be in it. Getting a nonconference game against the No. 1 team in the nation, it’s a big game for us.

Travis Boyd on facing Minnesota State

"Minnesota State’s had a terrific season," Lucia said Wednesday. "You go back to the previous couple years, they’re a very veteran team. You look up and down their lineup. They’re an older team. They’ve got very good skill up front. A big, strong defensive corps, a returning goaltender. . . . They’re having a really good year and deserve where they’re at."

The second annual North Star College Cup is a state tournament of sorts, as it pits all five Division I hockey teams against each other. However, one school has to sit out every year because of the odd number of programs. This year it’s St. Cloud State’s turn to watch as Minnesota, Minnesota State, Minnesota Duluth and Bemidji State battle it out for state supremacy.

Coming into the tournament as the third-highest ranked team of the four, the Gophers have something to prove. They want to be known as the best team in the state and defend their tournament title from a year ago.

"A little added intensity into it, especially with where we are right now," said Gophers senior Travis Boyd. "If the (NCAA) tournament were to be right now, we wouldn’t be in it. Getting a nonconference game against the No. 1 team in the nation, it’s a big game for us."

As Boyd alluded to, Minnesota is currently on the outside looking in with regards to the Pairwise rankings, the system that mimics the NCAA tournament selection process. The Gophers stand at 18th in the Pairwise. In theory, the top 16 teams in the Pairwise get in.

Minnesota has plenty of regular-season games remaining — 16 to be exact — but the Gophers are in an unfamiliar spot at this point in the season. Winning this weekend’s tournament would not only send a message to the other in-state teams but would also bolster Minnesota’s postseason hopes in the long run.

"We’ve still got plenty of time, but at the same time it’s kind of unchartered waters for a lot of the guys here to be on the outside looking in," Boyd said. "Your goal is to make the tournament and go as far as you can. In order to do that we’ve got to put together a good second half here."

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It starts Friday for the Gophers, who are coming off a bit of a disappointing weekend against rival Wisconsin last Friday and Saturday. Minnesota tied the first game of that series Friday and lost in a shootout before coming back to win Saturday’s series finale.

Things only get tougher this weekend as Lucia’s team could be facing two top-10 programs. As the old cliche goes, in order to be the best you’ve got to beat the best. Minnesota has a date with the best college hockey team Friday night in St. Paul.

"You don’t make a statement in one game. You don’t make a statement in one weekend," Lucia said. "We have to put together some wins if we want to put ourselves in a position at the end of the year. You certainly don’t want to wait until the final weekend and hope you win a tournament to get in the NCAAs, that’s for sure. It’s all about continuing to get better."

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