The MacNaughton Cup made a surprise appearance in Bemidji on Saturday night, shortly after the Gophers claimed a share of the prize that goes to the WCHA's regular-season champion. The photo above--showing the team celebrating in its locker room at Bemidji's Sanford Center--was taken by assistant coach Grant Potulny and posted on his Twitter feed following the Gophers' 5-1 victory over Bemidji State.
Potulny brought the Cup from Minneapolis and kept it in his car, per the instructions of coach Don Lucia. It was in the Gophers' possession since they won it last year, and Lucia wanted to have it handy for postgame hoisting if the Gophers were to earn a piece of it again. That happened when they completed the sweep of Bemidji State and St. Cloud State lost at Wisconsin, which left the Gophers and Huskies tied atop the conference with 37 points each. The players had no idea the trophy was in the 218 area code. When it was hauled into the room, you could hear their shouts echoing all the way down the hallway.
Lucia, who usually keeps his emotions hidden, could not conceal his excitement and happiness Saturday night. His history as a WCHA coach goes back to 1993-94, when he became head coach at Colorado College. His 20th season in the league coincides with its final season in its current configuration, before the Gophers and Wisconsin head to the Big Ten and six other members--including Colorado College--join the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference.
Lucia and his players seemed genuinely thrilled to finish their WCHA tenure with a title. He wanted them to enjoy the moment, rather than wait for a formal presentation later.
"Grant came up Friday, and I told him to bring it up and keep it in his car,'' Lucia said. "He left it in there all weekend. The guys didn't know. Nobody knew it.''
The Gophers will get Bemidji State again in the first round of the WCHA playoffs next weekend at Mariucci Arena. They are seeded no. 2 behind St. Cloud State, which got the top seed because it has more league victories (18, compared to the Gophers' 16). They came out of the weekend at Bemidji in good health, Lucia said, and Saturday's high-flying performance should leave them feeling optimistic.
Five Gophers had multiple points Saturday. Erik Haula scored the opening goal and had two assists. Nick Bjugstad, who scored three goals in the series, got the game-winner and assisted on Christian Isackson's goal just before the final horn. Isackson and Jake Parenteau each had a goal and an assist, and Kyle Rau assisted on the first two goals.
After Bemidji State cut the Gophers' lead to 2-1 at 1:55 of the second, the Gophers outshot them 23-10 in the period and scored three goals in the final 25:34. The game showcased the Gophers at their best, a mental boost for a team that has played below its capabilities in some recent games.
"I thought we played a great game tonight,'' captain Zach Budish said. "Those were a solid three periods, top to bottom. (Goalie Adam) Wilcox had a great game in goal and bailed us out a few times.
"We were up 2-1 going into the third period, then we won the third period 2-0. That's the sign of a good team. We've got to carry the momentum.''
The game drew a crowd announced at 4,415, a record for the building. Bemidji State officials said it was the largest crowd ever to attend a hockey game in Bemidji. Many of those fans were wearing Gophers gear, and they gave the team a standing ovation as it left the ice. Several dozen also hung around afterward to see the team before it boarded the bus for the ride back to the Twin Cities.
The fourth, fifth and sixth seeds for the WCHA playoffs have yet to be determined, because there is one game remaining: Alaska-Anchorage at Denver on Sunday afternoon. St. Cloud State will play No. 12 seed Alaska-Anchorage in the first round, while No. 3 seed North Dakota will play No. 10 Michigan Tech. Nebraska-Omaha will be the seventh seed, Colorado College is eighth and Minnesota Duluth is ninth. Their opponents will be determined by the outcome of Sunday's game.
If Denver wins, it will be in a three-way tie for fourth place with Wisconsin and Minnesota State, Mankato. The tiebreakers would give Wisconsin the #4 seed, Denver the #5 and MSU the #6. If Denver ties or loses, it will be alone in sixth place. MSU holds the head-to-head tiebreaker over Wisconsin, by virtue of more league victories. So the Mavericks would be the #4 seed and Wisconsin the #5.
Lucia has called this the most dramatic league race in his WCHA tenure, and it stayed true to that description right to the end. After Wisconsin scored an empty-net goal with 1:13 remaining to take a 3-1 lead over St. Cloud State, the Gophers--monitoring the situation in their Bemidji locker room after their own game had ended--began banging on lockers and hollering. The Cup was unpacked, and Lucia and strength coach Cal Dietz began carrying it to the room.
Then, with 33 seconds left, the Huskies scored. Someone yelled at Lucia and Dietz to hold on, that things were not final. So they stood outside the locker room for a little longer, with the massive silver cup resting on the floor, until they got the all-clear.