Gophers and North Dakota fans didn't get that dream matchup they wanted in the WCHA Final Five last weekend. Thanks to the NCAA, they might yet get another game between the two rivals this season, in the NCAA tournament.
The Gophers, as expected, landed the No. 2 overall seed and will be the top seed in the West Regional in Grand Rapids, Mich., where they will play Yale on Friday afternoon. North Dakota got the No. 2 seed in the regional and plays Niagara, the regular-season champion of Atlantic Hockey. The winners play in the regional final Saturday afternoon with a Frozen Four berth on the line.
If that sounds like a familiar storyline, it is. Last year, the Gophers hosted the West Regional at Xcel Energy Center and won their first-round game against Boston University. They then defeated North Dakota 5-2 in the regional final to advance to the Frozen Four for the first time since 2003.
The WCHA got six teams--half of the conference's current membership--into the tournament. Hockey East and the ECAC got three each, and Atlantic Hockey and the soon-to-be-defunct CCHA got two each.
"Our league, I would argue, is the best in the country,'' Gophers captain Zach Budish said. "It's a tough league, and that prepares us well. We play quality opponents every weekend. That gets you prepared for playoff hockey.''
The Gophers have a 14-6 record against Yale, but they haven't played the Bulldogs since the 2002-03 season--when they beat them 7-3 in their holiday tournament on their way to their second consecutive national championship. This will be the first time the teams have played in the postseason.
Yale finished third in the ECAC this season behind Quinnipiac, ranked No. 1 in the USA Today poll and No. 2 in the USCHO.com poll, and Rensselaer. It's 18-12-3 overall, with a 7-7-1 road record and 12-9-1 conference mark. The Bulldogs have been shut out in their past two games, falling 5-0 to Union in the ECAC tournament semifinals and 3-0 to Quinnipiac in the third-place game.
This will be Yale's fourth NCAA appearance in the past five years after going only twice from 1952-2008. And it's made a good showing, making the regional final in 2010 and 2011 and losing to the eventual national champ both times (Boston College in 2010, Minnesota Duluth in 2011). And in 2010, the team it beat in the first round was ... North Dakota, 3-2. The Northeast Regional final was a real shootout that year, with Boston College beating Yale 9-7.
Statistically, Yale doesn't really stand out. It's ranked 26th nationally in scoring offense (2.82 goals per game) and 31st in scoring defense (2.76 goals against per game). Its power play is pretty decent, connecting on 20.9 percent of its attempts to rank 12th nationally. It's one of those Ivy schools that endows its head-coaching position, so Keith Allain has a title to rival a European royal: Keith Allain '80, Malcolm G. Chace Head Coach of Hockey. Whew.
The Gophers were clearly unhappy with the way they played in a 2-0 loss to Colorado College in the WCHA Final Five semifinals. They can take some solace in the fact that they have not lost back-to-back games all season. It has been pointed out in their pregame notes that the last time that happened was in 2003, when the Gophers won their second national title in a row. They didn't lose back-to-back games in 2002, either, when they broke their long NCAA title drought.
When asked after the CC game what the Gophers needed to clean up before the NCAAs, Budish had this to say: "Our compete level. We have to make sure we finish checks and limit our turnovers. Our coaches always stress that we're playing our best hockey when our hit total is up and our turnover numbers are down. When we're moving our feet and finishing our checks, we're more involved. We can create some chances off of that.''
Budish also said the Gophers' power play--which did not score on three chances, including a five-minute major--was "embarrassing.'' Coach Don Lucia said the team will work on the power play in practice this week. But he did not seem concerned about what he saw in the CC game.
"We've been good about bouncing back,'' he said. "When we lose a game, we seem to come back and play better next time out. ... We've had a great season so far. We've put ourselves in great position. We have to keep this in perspective. Our guys, when they get stung a little bit, usually bounce back quite well. I look forward to watching them bounce back this week.''
Drew LeBlanc is the epitome of the well-rounded college athlete, a math education major who is student-teaching while leading St. Cloud State to a share of its first-ever MacNaughton Cup. Thursday, LeBlanc became the first player ever to be named WCHA player of the year and outstanding student-athlete of the year.
LeBlanc, a senior from Hermantown, also joins Huskies defenseman Nick Jensen on the all-WCHA first team as the league announced its year-end awards. The Gophers placed four players on all-WCHA teams, including defenseman Nate Schmidt (first team), centers Erik Haula (second team) and Nick Bjugstad (third team) and goaltender Adam Wilcox (third team). Other top award winners were Jensen, named WCHA defensive player of the year; Minnesota State, Mankato goalie Stephon Williams, rookie of the year; and MSU Mankato coach Mike Hastings, coach of the year.
LeBlanc has 34 assists this season, the most in Division I, and leads the WCHA with 25 assists in league play. The two-year captain is the nation's fourth-leading scorer with 46 points. A student teacher at St. Cloud Apollo High School, LeBlanc has won numerous academic awards during his Huskies career and also participates in community and campus service activities.
Jensen, a junior from Rogers, has started 113 consecutive games. He's the eighth-leading scorer among Division I defensemen with 28 points and is +17 while playing against opponents' top lines. Williams finished the regular season as the WCHA's goaltending champ with a 1.83 goals-against average, .929 save percentage and 19-9-2 record.
Hastings is in his first season with the Mavericks and led the team to its highest-ever national ranking (No. 7, on Feb. 25). Currently ranked 10th, the Mavericks finished 16-11-1 in WCHA play to make the top half of the league standings for the first time since 2007-08, and their 16 conference victories is a program record.
Ryan Walters of Nebraska Omaha, a Rosemount native, is the WCHA scoring champion with 40 points in 28 league games. His 50 total points--second-best in Division I--are the third-highest total in school history.
In addition to the four players who made all-league teams, the Gophers put 17 players on the WCHA's all-academic team.
The all-WCHA first team is: F, LeBlanc; F, Walters; F, Danny Kristo (North Dakota); D, Jensen; D, Schmidt; G, Williams.
Second team: F, Haula; F, Corban Knight (North Dakota); F, Rylan Schwartz (Colorado College); D, Joey LaLeggia (Denver); D, Mike Boivin (Colorado College); G, Juho Olkinuora (Denver).
Third team: F, Bjugstad; F, Matt Leitner (MSU Mankato); F, Eriah Hayes (MSU Mankato); D, Andrej Sustr (Nebraska Omaha); D, Jake McCabe (Wisconsin); G, Wilcox.
All-rookie team: F, Tony Cameranesi (Minnesota Duluth); F, Alex Petan (Michigan Tech); F, Rocco Grimaldi (North Dakota); D, Nolan Zajac (Denver); D, Andy Welinski (UMD); G, Williams.
You can read the full release at www.wcha.com/men/pres1213/201303/mar14wcm.php
At Wednesday's media session, Gophers men's hockey coach Don Lucia said he jotted down some predictions a couple of weeks ago. He looked at the WCHA standings and schedule and tried to foretell the matchups for the first round of the WCHA playoffs.
Things turned out exactly as he expected, Lucia said. That includes the Gophers' rematch against Bemidji State this weekend at Mariucci Arena in the best-of-three series. Though the Gophers swept BSU last weekend in Bemidji--and hold a 12-1-1 advantage in the rivalry--the Beavers gave them a battle Friday and in parts of Saturday's game. And it's tough to defeat the same opponent four times in a row.
Still, the Gophers have the advantage of playing on a bigger ice sheet--which better suits their game--before a home crowd. Lucia said Wednesday he's trying to create a must-win mentality to keep his team from succumbing to the mental drift that has caused so much inconsistency in the past six weeks.
He did that last week, when the Gophers were pursuing a share of the MacNaughton Cup. To have any chance at the WCHA's regular-season title, they had to win at Bemidji and hope the results of other games swung their way. Lucia put the situation in tournament terms, which seemed to focus his team.
"We've tried to use the analogy with the guys that it's a semifinal and final from here on out,'' he said. "Last weekend, we had to win the semifinal to get to the championship game on Saturday. Even though we maybe couldn't control whether we won (the MacNaughton Cup), we had to win Friday to give us the opportunity.
"We'll use the same thing this weekend. We've got to win Friday to get to Saturday. If we win Saturday, we move on. Then it becomes a true single-game elimination. We want that to be our mentality, that we've got to win Friday to get to Saturday.''
Lucia said the Gophers remain in good physical health for the first round. Defensemen Nate Schmidt and Ben Marshall both said the team is in a good mental state as well.
"Guys are really ready for the playoffs,'' Schmidt said. "You make your name during the year, but you make your living in the playoffs. All our older guys know that.''
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.
This weekend, the Gophers play their last regular-season series as members of the WCHA, facing Bemidji State at Sanford Center in Bemidji. Thursday, the Beavers--and Minnesota State, Mankato--got a look at the conference schedule for the newly reconfigured WCHA, and college hockey's newest league held a press conference in Minneapolis to show off its logo, web site and postseason tournament.
The WCHA will keep a 28-game schedule in 2013-14. The new lineup includes 10 teams: current members MSU Mankato, Bemidji State, Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage, plus Alaska Fairbanks, Alabama-Huntsville, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan. The league will announce postseason tournament sites at this year's WCHA Final Five at Xcel Energy Center on March 21-23. The 2014 Final Five will be March 20-22.
The National Collegiate Hockey Conference unveiled a slick logo--a shield with a hockey stick and eight stars, representing the eight member schools--at Thursday's press conference at Minneapolis City Hall. The conference will hold its first postseason tournament March 21-22, 2014, at Target Center. There will be two semifinals, a championship game and a third-place game, and ticket packages already are on sale. The charter members of the NCHC are former WCHAers Colorado College, Denver, North Dakota, Minnesota Duluth, St. Cloud State and Nebraska Omaha, plus Miami (Ohio) and Western Michigan of the CCHA.
The NCHC will have a booth at the Let's Play Hockey expo at St. Paul's RiverCentre during the boys' state high school hockey tournament this weekend. League staff will be there to talk up the conference and answer questions. The league also announced its Web address will be www.nchchockey.com
Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore said this week that he expects the new WCHA to be "a heck of a league,'' because it continues to have schools with strong hockey traditions. "These are good schools, and it's going to be good competition,'' he said. "At the end of the day, things aren't going to change a whole heck of a lot.
"You have to let it evolve. You have to build new rivalries within the league, just like Minnesota is going to have to do in the Big Ten. That takes time. But eventually, they're going to be great rivalries. There's going to be a time in the future when people are going to forget about the old WCHA. The new WCHA and the new Big Ten, that's going to be what people know.''
Next season, when the Gophers start play in the Big Ten, they will play one of their non-conference series at Bemidji State. Like Gophers coach Don Lucia, Serratore wants to continue playing all the in-state rivals after they go to separate leagues.
Lucia lauded the BSU program. "I don't think people understand what a great tradition Bemidji State has had over the years,'' he said, noting that the Beavers remain relatively anonymous because of their location. "(Former coach/athletic director) Bob Peters has one of the most successful records in the history of college hockey. They deserved to be a Division I member, and in the WCHA, we fought very hard for that to happen.
"It's great to see the program they have. If the WCHA wouldn't have taken them in, I'm not sure they would even have a program right now, which would have been sad when you look at the history and tradition they have.''
This weekend, Lucia will be focused on his own team's short-term prospects. The Gophers could finish anywhere from first to a tie for sixth in the WCHA standings. The team is healthy, he said, and they should be relatively fresh. They practiced on the small ice sheet at Ridder Arena this week, and their ice time was limited, so they held shorter sessions.
Several players said they will refrain from scoreboard-watching this weekend, no matter how tempting it will be to see what other teams are doing. "On Friday, our goal is to get home ice (for the first round of the WCHA playoffs), and we'll go from there,'' captain Zach Budish said. "We can't worry about other scores. If we take care of our business, we know we'll be at least a No. 2 seed in the WCHA playoffs. We'll take that.''