Minnesota intent on maintaining momentum
MINNEAPOLIS — The Minnesota men's hockey team needed to win both games against Bemidji State last weekend to even have a chance at a share of the MacNaughton Cup. Additionally, the Gophers also needed some help from a few teams around the WCHA.
Both of those happened, as Minnesota was helped out when St. Cloud State lost Saturday at Wisconsin. The Gophers and Huskies both finished with 37 points to tie atop the WCHA standings. There were several teams in the conference that had a chance to win the league title in the final weekend of the regular season, but only the Gophers and Huskies emerged to share the MacNaughton Cup.
"It was a tight race. The coaches didn't say anything about the St. Cloud-Wisconsin game during the game (Saturday)," Gophers sophomore Ben Marshall said. "We just focused on ourselves, playing our game, finishing our game. We knew if we wanted a piece, we had to get the win. Fortunately, everything worked out."
The MacNaughton Cup is the trophy awarded annually to the winner of the WHCA regular season. The Gophers won it last season, so it resided at Mariucci Arena throughout the year.
Even though St. Cloud State had a chance to clinch at least a share of the cup last weekend in Madison, the MacNaughton Cup didn't make the trip to Wisconsin. Instead, it was at the Sanford Center in Bemidji — something unbeknownst to the Gophers until it was presented to them in the locker room after Saturday's win.
"It's hard to get a piece of that MacNaughton Cup," coach Don Lucia said. "They should be excited about it. They had to win their last three games in order to do that, so they did their job. Obviously, we had help along the way the last couple weekends to get a piece of it."
Winning the WCHA's regular-season title was only one of the Gophers' goals this season. Next is claiming the conference tournament crown.
That starts this weekend with a first-round matchup against Bemidji State. The winner of the best-of-three series at Mariucci Arena will advance to next weekend's Final Five at the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul.
"You make your name during the year, but you make your living in the playoffs," junior defenseman Nate Schmidt said. "That's just kind of where we are as a team. All of our older guys know that. … It just makes it that much more important for us to go out there and have a good playoff run."
The Gophers haven't won the Broadmoor Trophy — given to the WCHA tournament champs — since the 2006-07 season. Minnesota lost, 6-3, to rival North Dakota in the Final Five semifinal last season.
Given how things went a year ago, Minnesota believes there's a bit of unfinished business if it does earn a trip to St. Paul.
"I think after what happened last year in the Final Five and the way that we went out and the team that we went out to, it leaves a little sour taste in our mouth," Schmidt said. "But again, we have to make sure we win a couple games this weekend in order to focus on what could happen in the Final Five."
We meet again: The Gophers' first-round opponent in the WCHA tournament is a familiar one. Minnesota will face the same Bemidji State team it swept on the road just one week earlier.
Given their recent meeting just last weekend, the Gophers believe this can be both a positive and a negative to see the same foe in such a short time frame.
"That'll be interesting," Marshall said of a rematch with the Beavers. "It has its pros and cons. We know Bemidji's about, they know what we're about. I think we understand how we need to play against them, especially sweeping them at their place."
Minnesota finished the regular season with a 24-7-5 overall record and a 16-7-5 mark in the WCHA. Bemidji State, meanwhile, finished second-last in the conference at 6-20-8 overall and 5-16-7 in the league.
From top to bottom, though, the WCHA has proven to be one of the deepest and toughest leagues in college hockey this season.
"You talk to the coaches around the league, there's nobody you want to play. That's just the way it is," Lucia said. "I think there's certainly more parity in college hockey than ever before. No matter who you play, it's difficult in the first round. It's always hard to end somebody's season."
Bjugstad has a big weekend: It was a good weekend in Bemidji for the Gophers team, but forward Nick Bjugstad had perhaps the most successful trip. The junior scored twice in Minnesota's 4-3 win, including the game winner with just over five minutes remaining in the third period.
The following night, Bjugstad added another goal — his 20th of the year — and had an assist to cap a four-point weekend.
"I think he's got a little presence to him right now," Lucia said. "Nick is effective in a lot of areas of the rink, not just scoring. He's had a good year, there's no question. I think sometimes the expectation is that, ‘Boy, he's going to score 40 goals.' No he's not. It's too hard to do that the way college hockey is today. He's had a good year."
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