Gophers focusing on their own path in WCHA
MINNEAPOLIS — With three weeks remaining in the regular season, the University of Minnesota men's hockey team knows it faces an uphill climb if it hopes to win the WCHA regular-season title.
After splitting last weekend's series with rival Wisconsin, the second-ranked Gophers are now in fourth place in the WCHA, trailing first-place St. Cloud State by three points. Minnesota is also two points behind Nebraska-Omaha and one point behind Minnesota State but has played two fewer games than those two schools.
Still, the Gophers believe they have a shot at taking the conference crown.
"I think all we can do is worry about our preparation for this weekend and let's just try to win games," coach Don Lucia said. "Wherever it falls out, it falls out. If we win, we'll put some pressure on some other teams. You look at the compression of the league standings and we could still win the league or we could be on the road for the first round of the playoffs."
Indeed, the Gophers need to create separation between themselves and a handful of teams behind them in the standings. Sixth-place Wisconsin is just one point behind both Minnesota and North Dakota, while seventh-place Denver trials the Gophers by three points.
It's only fitting that Minnesota's final year in the WCHA comes during a season in which the top seven teams are separated by six points with three weeks to go.
"I think it's been like that most years. The level of play in our league has been awfully high," Lucia said. "If you look right now, if the NCAA Tournament began, there would be five WCHA teams in and I think two more still have a legitimate chance to try to play their way in. That's why the last three, four, five weeks, including the conference tournament, will be a dog fight."
For Minnesota, that will literally be the case this weekend when the Gophers host the Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. The two schools haven't faced off yet this season and played just twice last year, with the Gophers winning both games in Duluth early in the season.
The Bulldogs will not be one of the previously mentioned WCHA teams vying for the conference title during the last few weeks of the season. UMD is in a tie with Colorado College for eighth in the standings with 20 points and is just 8-12-4 in conference games after losing six of its last eight games.
"Our coaches talked to us yesterday about Duluth and said they're much better than their record shows," Gophers captain Zach Budish said. "They won a national championship a few years ago, and a lot of their guys are still on the team so they know what it takes to win big games. … They've got some talented players."
As the Bulldogs come to town, the Gophers are hoping to reverse a trend that has plagued them the past several weeks. In each of the last four weekends, Minnesota failed to pick up a series sweep. The last two times, the Gophers won on Friday night but couldn't follow it up with a win in the series finale.
Those missed opportunities to grab a few more points could end up hurting Minnesota down the stretch, especially in such a closely contested WCHA.
"Our big thing right now our coaches have been stressing the last couple weeks is we've got to put a good weekend together, and a good weekend is two nights. It's not just one," sophomore forward Travis Boyd said. "We've been coming out pretty consistently now and playing well on Friday and coming back and playing not good on Saturday, not good enough to win. That's why we're sitting where we are. … We've got to put together a couple good weekends here at home."
Ambroz out this weekend: The Gophers remain relatively healthy at this point in the season, but Lucia said Wednesday that sophomore forward Seth Ambroz will not play this weekend against Minnesota-Duluth.
Ambroz has nine goals and seven assists this season for the Gophers, including the game-winner Friday against Wisconsin and another Sunday in Minnesota's outdoor game at Soldier Field.
When asked whether Ambroz was out with an upper-body or lower-body injury — the cryptic terminology often used in hockey, Lucia said only, "He's injured."
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