MANKATO - The Gophers hockey team and the lads from Minnesota State Mankato played a home-and-home series in early November. The Gophers won both, 4-3 and 5-3, which was not exactly a news bulletin.
The victories extended the Gophers' unbeaten streak against Mankato to 20 games (17-0-3) and put their all-time record against the Mavericks at 25-2-5.
Now, three months later, what appeared to be routine -- Don Lucia's golden boys beating the WCHA's street urchins -- has turned into this:
Sweeping Mankato was the season's highlight for the Gophers and getting swept was a low ebb for the Mavericks.
The Gophers are off this weekend, giving Lucia, his players and their smug followers extra time to contemplate how the college hockey program with the most money, the widest-ranging television exposure and its choice of elite recruits can find itself in seventh place and with six victories in 22 WCHA games (6-11-5).
Minnesota was 7-21 and finished last (10th) in the WCHA in 1971-72. Over the next 35 seasons, the Gophers' fewest victories in the league were 10 in 1998-99 -- a fifth-place, 10-12-6 campaign that got Doug Woog run off and Lucia brought in.
The WCHA schedule has taken a different turn in Mankato, where the Mavericks don't have a sparkling and fabulously equipped arena in which they play and practice, but rather a modest rink called All Seasons in which they practice before moving down the hill to play games in the 5,000-seat Alltel Center.
The Mavericks are at Wisconsin tonight and Saturday, and the stake is fourth place in the WCHA. Both teams are 9-9-4 for 22 points, and what's intriguing is that Mankato has gotten there with a six-game winning streak.
"We've been playing well for quite a while," coach Troy Jutting said. "We've lost four times in our past 19 games. To me, what woke us up was a 7-0 loss at Denver in mid-November.
"We lost a tough 2-1 game on Friday, felt a little sorry for ourselves, and got crushed. There was a lot of conversation after that, as to what kind of team were we going to be."
The Mavericks' sweeps over the previous three weekends came against St. Cloud State, Denver and Alaska Anchorage. The skeptics that remain -- and there always will be those when it comes to Mankato's perennial underdogs -- can point out five of those six games came at home.
"We know we're tough at home," Trevor Bruess said. "Now, we have to show that we also can win on the road in this league."
Bruess is a sophomore forward who played at Holy Angels. His teammates at various times included Erik Johnson, Mike Carman, Jay Barriball, Jimmy Kilpatrick, Jack Hillen and Mike Taylor -- all major signees for the Gophers, Colorado College or Harvard.
Bruess is like most of the Mavericks. He had to grind it out in junior hockey to get this chance in the big league of college hockey.
He started in the North American Hockey League, the secondary junior league, in 2004-05 and then moved to the USHL and Lincoln, Neb., the next winter.
"I was going to stick it out in juniors until I got a chance to play in the WCHA," Bruess said. "It took two years."
He leads the Mavericks with 25 points, 18 on assists. Mick Berge has 15 goals. More than anything, Mankato is about persistence rather than stars, with 13 players between 10 and 25 points.
The Mavericks have scored only 83 goals in 29 games, so they must win with relentless checking and strong goaltending. Plymouth's Mike Zacharias has taken care of the second part of that equation.
Wisconsin was the focal point this week, but there's no secret about the overall goal: finish in the first division and host a playoff series for only the third time in the Mavericks' nine WCHA seasons.
And if the opponents happen to be the Gophers?
"No one on this team has ever beaten them," Zacharias said. "I'd love to play them right now, the way we've been playing, and see if we can do it."
Bruess agreed, adding: "Especially if we could play the series in our building."
Patrick Reusse can be heard weekdays on AM-1500 KSTP at 6:45 and 7:45 a.m. and 4:40 p.m. firstname.lastname@example.org