Gophers captain Taylor Matson had just finished his cool-down workout Friday night when he learned his team had clinched a share of the WCHA title and the MacNaughton Cup.
Let's just say he wasn't exactly in the mood to celebrate. He didn't even crack a smile.
Can you blame him?
"It's kind of disappointing after tonight," he said. "It's one of our worst games of the season."
Needing a victory to guarantee themselves at least a share of the WCHA title, the Gophers got clobbered by rival Wisconsin 4-1 in a one-sided affair that had fans scurrying for the Mariucci Arena exits midway through the third period.
The Gophers delivered a few big hits early, but they mostly looked discombobulated and a step slower than their border rivals. They missed scoring chances, were sloppy with the puck and were doomed by too many breakdowns and mistakes.
"Plain and simple, they were the better team tonight," senior forward Jake Hansen said. "They outplayed us. We just couldn't get anything going. They pretty much controlled the whole game. They were hands down the better team tonight. It wasn't close."
It was just a bad night for the Gophers all the way around. Well, until the game ended. Then they received some positive news. St. Cloud State defeated Minnesota-Duluth 2-1, thus giving the Gophers a share of the league title and 40-pound trophy.
The whole thing felt sort of odd and anticlimactic. It still counts as a worthy accomplishment, but the Gophers were too frustrated by their own performance to feel good about anything.
"I'm more concerned about us playing well [Saturday] than anything else," coach Don Lucia said. "Nothing is given to you. We just want to finish this regular season on a good, positive note by our effort and our play tomorrow. That's the most important thing. We just want to play well. That's what I want to see. I want to see a good, honest effort from start to finish."
That message resonated with his players. The Gophers laid an egg Friday. No way around that fact. Now, they need to regroup and put forth a better showing Saturday night in order to launch into the postseason with some momentum. (A victory also means they wouldn't have to share the MacNaughton Cup with UMD in the event of a tie. That would be sort of awkward.)
"We need to be jacked up to play," Hansen said. "There's no excuse. We'll definitely get our best effort."
They didn't come close to that Friday. The Badgers clamped down defensively and the Gophers looked alternately anxious and sloppy. They gave up two power-play goals and looked deflated emotionally after Wisconsin scored its first goal late in the first period. They allowed three goals in the second period. It was just an uncharacteristic performance by a team that had won four games in a row entering the weekend.
"They were the better team tonight basically in every phase of the game," Lucia said. "It's disappointing."
The Gophers played without leading scorer Nick Bjugstad, who was sidelined because of an undisclosed injury. But, as Lucia correctly noted, Bjugstad's presence would have mattered little based on everything else that went awry.
"The way the rest of our guys played, it wouldn't have mattered if Nick was in the lineup," Lucia said. "We didn't have Nick. That's no excuse."
Bjugstad possibly could return to the lineup Saturday, but that alone won't be enough. Everyone has to play better.
This is an important game for the Gophers and not just because they can win the conference title outright. They need to continue to build their NCAA tournament résumé and not limp into the postseason with any self-doubt about their overall play.
"We want to give ourselves a chance to win," Lucia said.
They want to do that on the ice and not have to rely on help from someone else. That scenario counts too but ...
"We'll be a lot better tomorrow," Matson said.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org