*NOTE: Eric Stromgren and I will be live blogging events from Minneapolis and St. Cloud all weekend long, with him at the National Hockey Center and I at Mariucci Arena. Two arenas, two writers, one blog — join us tomorrow and let’s talk some hockey. Click here to find the chat, which should get underway at 6:30 p.m. CST. There will also be a link on CHN’s main page.
** SECONDARY NOTE: I will be on AM 1500 ESPN Twin Cities for a segment tomorrow, talking Gopher hockey. If you’re not local and wish to listen anyway, you can listen online here. “This Week In Golden Gopher Athletics” starts at 8 a.m CST, and I will be on around 8:50.
Heading into the season’s final weekend, only Minnesota and Minnesota-Duluth have a shot at taking home the MacNaughton Cup. The Gophers lead the Bulldogs by two points, and also have the added edge of playing at home this weekend. UMD plays at St. Cloud. In order to take the MacNaughton outright, and the top-seed in the playoffs, the Bulldogs will need to net three points on Minnesota, as the Gophers’ sweep of Duluth back in October assured them of the tiebreaker.
Should both teams finished tied, both will get a chance to dance with the Cup as they will be considered co-champs.
Minnesota is undoubtedly the favorites though, and this week, acted like the front-runner.
“Our focus is on winning the season series with Wisconsin,” said Gophers coach Don Lucia. Minnesota left with a split in Madison back in November. “If we do that, the rest of the things take care of themselves.”
“It’s a rivalry weekend, we’re not really thinking about the Cup as much as just trying to win the season series with Wisconsin,” said sophomore defenseman Nate Schmidt. “We want to get things done Friday and Saturday and then other things will fall into place.”
“It’s definitely an exciting position to be in, but right now, we’re just focused on winning the season series with Wisconsin,” said senior goaltender Kent Patterson. “If we take care of what we want to this weekend, everything will happen the [way we] want it to.”
Sense a pattern here? It’s safe to say Lucia fed his players the lines they were allowed to use during Wednesday’s media session, seemingly attended by every media member in town. The contingent of scribes always seems to climb on championship weekends, or when North Dakota is in town.
Either way, it’s clear the Gophers view themselves as the front runner, and are playing with the confidence of one too. And why not? Minnesota has won four straight and is playing some of its most consistent hockey all season. Last weekend, the Gophers swept UNO in Omaha — the first time the Mavericks had been swept at the CenturyLink Center since Feb. 20-21, 2008. Heck, it wasn’t even the CenturyLink Center yet. UNO was still in the CCHA.
The Gophers are thinking about the MacNaughton Cup though. They did a good job of masking it, but you could tell it’s on their mind this weekend and would mean a heck of a lot for a program that hasn’t been to the NCAAs since ’08.
UMD needs plenty of help from a Wisconsin team that hasn’t exactly been a bastion of road excellence this season — although the Badgers won twice in Bemidji last weekend. But Bemidji is not Minnesota (as we saw two weeks ago), and even if Wisconsin lends a helping hand, there is no guarantee the Bulldogs can get four points. Duluth hasn’t won at the National Hockey Center since Nov. 27, 2004, going 0-7-1 since then.
The Bulldogs could do their job this weekend, and still miss out on the Cup. Instead, coach Scott Sandelin says the focus is on continuing to play well as the playoffs approach in just one week’s time.
“I don’t think so. I mean, they know,” Sandelin said when I asked if his team would be watching for updates from Mariucci. “We’ve gotta go in and win hockey games. The important thing is, guys want to keep playing well heading into the playoffs.”
If Duluth does wind up with the MacNaughton Cup, it would be a heck of a story for their senior class. When this group started, the Bulldogs were bad. As in one of the league’s doormats bad. Since they’ve arrived, they’ve won a Broadmoor Trophy and a National Championship. Adding a MacNaughton Cup would secure this group’s place among the school’s all-time greats. Sandelin says it already has.
“Whether they get the MacNaughton or not, they’ve certainly been the best, success wise, since I’ve been here,” Sandelin said. “Their success is not going to be gauged by that. But its been something they’ve talked about as a group, that its eluded them up to this point and they’d love to win that. And if you told them heading into the last weekend that they’d have a chance to do that, I think they’d take that.”