Gophers Stick Salute After A Sweep (photo courtesy of Gophers Athletics/Paul Rovnak)
Minnesota looks to win their first WCHA regular season title since 2007 this weekend when they face the Wisconsin Badgers for two games at Mariucci Arena. For more coverage of the Minnesota Golden Gophers, check out The Daily Gopher.
The best thing that the University of Minnesota hockey team can do this weekend might also be the worst.
With a two-point lead over Minnesota-Duluth heading into the final weekend of the WCHA regular season, the Gophers (23-11-1, 19-7-0 WCHA) need two points at home against ninth place Wisconsin (15-15-2, 10-4-2 WCHA) to clinch at least a share of the MacNaughton Cup. Minnesota Duluth, meanwhile, has to go on the road against St. Cloud State.
The last two times Minnesota has won the Cup, which is awarded for the WCHA regular season champion, they were unable to advance to the Frozen Four. In 2006 the Gophers were upset by Holy Cross in the first round of the NCAA Tournament while North Dakota played the spoiler role in the second round a year later.
They aren't alone. Only two teams, Denver in 2005 and North Dakota in 1997, have won the national championship after winning the MacNaughton Cup in the last twenty years and both split the regular season title the year they won.
Even superstition - or lack of it - hasn't helped. Only then-captain Gino Guyer touched the Cup in 2006, adhering to the superstition that the sole trophy players touch is the NCAA Championship. Following that failure, the entire team celebrated in 2007 (along with the Broadmoor Trophy for the WCHA Conference Tournament) but even that didn't work.
Regardless, this year's team is peaking at the right time. The Gophers have won four straight games and became the first team to sweep Nebraska-Omaha at home in the regular season since 2008. They've gotten good goaltending from Kent Patterson (Colorado Avalanche), defensive play (opponents have scored five goals in those 4 wins) and their depth has allowed the team to have a different player step up every night. Friday night saw defenseman Jake Parenteau score his first career goal to give Minnesota a 3-2 overtime win and Kyle Rau (Florida Panthers) scored twice Saturday.
The Gophers, however, may have to play this weekend without sophomore Nick Bjugstad (Florida). The third leading goal scorer in the nation missed the third period in Saturday's win and is day-to-day as of Wednesday. Ben Marshall and Nick Larson will both return after missing last weekend's series with injuries.
Despite all the hoopla over winning the WCHA regular season title and securing a NCAA Tournament spot for the first time in four years, Wisconsin is a team that cannot be overlooked. If playing the role of spoilers against their Big Ten rival isn't enough, the Badgers are on a three-game winning streak and playing some of their best hockey. For as bad as Denver made Minnesota look a few weekends ago, Wisconsin defeated the Pioneers 5-2.
The Badgers are led by defenseman Justin Schultz (Anaheim Ducks), who has a good case for being the most talented defensemen in all of college hockey. His 42 points (15 goals - 27 assists) in 32 games lead all blue liners and as Minnesota players know from the first series these two teams played, Schultz has the ability to stretch the ice and make those around him better.
Up front, sophomores Mark Zengerle and Tyler Barnes are two names to watch out for. Zengerle leads the Badgers with 44 points (11 goals - 33 assists) and as an undrafted free agent could be coveted in the off-season by NHL teams. He knows how to use space (which there will be plenty of on Mariucci's Olympic-sized rink) and has developed chemistry with Michael Mersch (Los Angeles Kings). Barnes has 23 points (8 goals - 15 assists) and had two points in the two games against the Gophers in November.
In goal, freshmen Joel Rumpel and Landon Peterson have split each of the last two weekends and it appears that will be the case again. Rumpel has been the better goalie of the two this season with a .910 save percentage but neither have the numbers that Patterson has. It's a role reversal given the Badgers' tendency to produce NHL goalies.
The Gophers are the better team on paper in most categories - not a surprise given Wisconsin's ninth-place standing - but with both teams coming off of sweeps (the Badgers swept Bemidji State on the road for their 2nd and 3rd wins away from Kohl Center) it's hard to count out the Badgers out. But with all 27 Minnesota players having a chance to win their first trophy wearing the Maroon and Gold, there is an extra incentive for the home team.
Even if it means another chance to break superstition.
Minnesota and Wisconsin face off for two games Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena. Both games start at 7 p.m. CST and air on Fox Sports North Plus (find your channel here).