"It has been fun all six times," Gophers coach Don Lucia said on Saturday after his team beat Wisconsin 2-1 to clinch an outright MacNaughton Cup. "I am just happy for our seniors and our team. Our seniors have been through a lot the last couple of years. Certainly, after the way last year -- the disappointing end. They just went to work this offseason and put in the time."
Last season the Gophers were swept at home by Alaska Anchorage in the first round of the WCHA playoffs. That ended their season.
"We got off to a great start [in 2011-12] and we have been able to be basically first all year long from start to finish," Lucia said. "The game [Saturday], we had to win it like you need to. This is a very difficult trophy to win. Wisconsin played very well all weekend long. It was just a grinding series and not a lot of space. And to be down going into the third period and to win in dramatic fashion, makes it that much sweeter. I am just happy for our players.
"To look in their eyes and see the reward for their hard work, means a lot."
Wisconsin won the first game of the series 4-1, but the Gophers rallied for two third period goals to win the second night.
Sophomore center Erik Haula scored the first goal, almost five minutes into the final period.
"That's what you need. Erik made a great play short-handed," Lucia said. "We created a turnover in the neutral zone, went in two-on-one and he made a great play."
Three minutes later, sophomore defenseman Nat Schmidt scored on a power play.
"Certainly Nate Schmidt did a nice little dance at the blue line," Lucia said. "And we had a good screen in front and I don't think the goaltender [freshman Josh Rumpel] saw it.
"It was a heck of a shot. And then we finished it out like we have so many times this year."
Goalie Kent Patterson made 17 saves for the Gophers for his 24th win.
"It was a little bit of an off night [Friday] night," Lucia said, referring to Patterson's play in a 4-1 loss in the first game of the series, "like it is going to happen. Sometimes you can try too hard and get in your own way. And that happened to us a little bit [Friday] night, but this was a playoff game. It was a good win for us."
Next the Gophers play 12th place Alaska Anchorage in a best-of-three, first-round WCHA playoff series starting Friday.
"This [the MacNaughton Cup] is step one, it is a tremendous accomplishment," Lucia said. "Now we have to prepare for Alaska this upcoming weekend. And I think the guys are excited to play."
They were Saturday.
"We had a good start and then [the Badgers] scored on a power play," Lucia said. "And we couldn't score and you wonder if it is going to be our night. But we just needed that first one to tie it and then get that momentum back. That short-handed goal was huge. We won the specialty battle [Saturday] two-to-one. That's where we won the game. We had some good looks, we had some good chances. I thought their goaltender made some nice saves. But we got it done.
"It doesn't matter who you play [in the WCHA], it is never easy," Lucia said. "[The Badgers] have a good power play. They have [defenseman Justin] Shultz and [forward Mark] Zengerle, two of the premier players in college hockey. They are playing very well defensively right now. And if they get the timely goal, that's all it takes this time of the year."
* Lucia won MacNaughton Cups in his first three seasons at Colorado College, in 1994, '95 and '96. His Cups at the U have come in 2006, '07 and this season.
Wisconsin forward Tyler Barnes, who scored the first goal of the game both nights, was impressed with the Gophers.
"They have a lot of talent, a lot of speed," said Barnes, who played for Burnsville High School. "So we were just trying to keep them to the outside and let them play around with it out there."
Said Badgers coach Mike Eaves, "Playing in this building can be difficult if the crowd gets into it." The fans got into the game Saturday, not so much Friday.