Roman Augustoviz spends Minnesota's winters covering college hockey, specifically the Gophers, and other University of Minnesota sports. During the summer, he writes about the WNBA's Minnesota Lynx, with a dose of U sports sprinkled in. Follow him on Twitter @RomanStrib.
The WCHA race for the MacNaughton Cup appears to be down to three teams: St. Cloud State, which is in first; North Dakota, which is alone in second, and the Gophers, who are tied for third but qwho have two games in hand on all the contenders.
Here are the standings:
St. Cloud State 15-6-1 31 pts.
North Dakota 11-5-6 28
Gophers 11-5-4 26
Neb Omaha 12-8-2 26
So why is UNO out? Well, if the Huskies just go 3-3-0 in their final six games, they will finish with 37 points. To reach that total the Mavericks would have to close 5-0-1. A daunting task and they also would have to climb over North Dakota and the Gophers, who have eight games left and a potential of 16 points.
UNO was looking good until being swept by UND at home this past weekend.
The three teams tied for fifth -- Denver (10-7-5), Minnesota State Mankato (12-9-1) and Wisconsin (9-6-7) -- face a problem similar to UNO. They have 25 points, so they would have to make up six points on SCSU in six games. And climb over three other teams. An unlikely scenario.
So let's look at the three contenders:
St. Cloud State, 15-6-1, 31 points, alone in first place with a three-point lead.
Schedule: at Colorado College, vs. Michigan Tech, at Wisconsin.
Lowdown: The Huskies have only two games left at home, four on the road. ... They can probably afford a stumble or two and still win the Cup. ... CC is coming off an emotional series with Denver. The Tigers got a tie in the first game and an overtime win in the second. Can they get up for the Huskies? ... Winning at the Kohl Center against Wisconsin could be tricky. ... But the Huskies have as much talent as any of their final three opponents.
North Dakota, 11-5-6, 28 points
Schedule: at Denver, vs. Bemidji State, at Minnesota State
Lowdown: UND has two games at home against what appears to be its easist opponent left, Bemidji State, and four games on the road at two tough spots, Denver and Mankato. ... North Dakota has to win two more games than SCSU in the final six to overtake the Huskies. ... Freshman Zane Gothberg played well in the nets last weekend as UND swept Omaha on the road. This is the Year of the Freshman Goalie. Think of the Gophers Adam Wilcox and MSU Mankato's Stephon Williams and UMD's Matt McNeeley. All are playing well.
Gophers, tied for third at 11-5-4, 26 points
Schedule: at Wisconsin, vs. UMD, vs. Denver, at Bemidji State
Lowdown: The Gophers have four games left at home, three on the road, and one at a neutral site (Soldier Field with Badgers next Sunday). They squandered a golden opportunity to close ground on the Huskies Saturday, when they lost 4-3 at SCSU.
Now if the Huskies finish 3-3 for 37 points, the Gophers will have to finish 6-2 to pass them with 38 points. If the Huskies go 4-2, the Gophers will have to close with a 7-1 run. They haven't shown they can do that.
The Gophers have only swept one WCHA team in 10 series. Here is the breakdown:
Sweep (four points): One time, vs. last-place Alaska Anchorage
Win and a tie (three points): four times.
Split: Five times.
They have earned at least two points every weekend. That's why they are still in the race. But that's not good enough anymore. They need at least two, three WCHA sweeps to catch SCSU.
Not likely, so St. Cloud State will win the MacNaughton Cup, although the Huskies probably won't clinch until the last weekend of the regular season.
RUN AT NO. 1 OVER FOR U?
Don't be surprised if Quinnipiac of the ECAC is the No. 1 team in both major hockey polls when they are released later on Monday. The Bobcats just don't lose while the Gophers, who have held the top spot for more than a month, split another series this weekend, this time at St. Cloud State.
The Quinnipiac Bobcats of Hamden, Conn., beat Cornell 4-1 and Colgate 3-2 to extend their unbeaten streak to 21 games (18-0-3). Junior Kellen Jones had two goals in their one-goal win over Colgate while senior goalie Eric Hartzell of White Bear Lake made 17 saves.
Hartzell's latest win enabled him to tie Quinnipiac's single-season record for victories. He is 21-2-4. Quinnipiac is pushing him for the Hobey Baker Award.
The Bobcats are 21-3-4 overall and 14-0-2 in the ECAC. Their last loss was 2-1 to American International on Nov. 6. In the game before that, they lost to Colgate 5-1 on Oct. 27. So beating Colgate was not a given.
"I didn't think we had out best effort," Quinnipiac coach Rand Pecknold said after the Colgate win. "We were sloppy at times and lost our composure. But we found a way to win again."
Quinnipiac, the No. 1 team in the PairWise rankings, has been closing the gap with the Gophers and this week probably will move ahead of them.
The Bobcats have six regular-season games left.
ANOTHER CHALLENGING WEEK
I was right on the Gophers and St. Cloud splitting their series in my WCHA picks, but had a rough week otherwise picking WCHA games. Had UMD sweeping Minnesota State Mankato and Denver taking two from Colorado College.
Instead, the Mavericks swept and CC took three points. So my final score was 6-1/2 right, 5-1/2 wrong. Not good. But I'll keep trying for that perfect week.
The Gophers, who were idle last weekend, had a team bowling event on Friday.
"We found out that [junior forward Nick] Bjugstad is good at bowling and I am still terrible," Gophers junior forward Nate Condon said on Monday on the weekly Don Lucia Show. He was filling in for the head coach.
The team had practice on Friday, but not on Saturday when the "Skate with the Gophers" event was held at Mariucci. The players signed autographs and skated with fans at the annual get-together.
Asked about the Gophers series at St. Cloud State this weekend, Condon said, "They have two freshmen with over 10 goals, which is amazing. And then they have [senior cocaptain Drew] LeBlanc back, who didn't play last year. He was hurt. So there are a lot of new faces for us to play against."
LeBlanc leads the nation with 30 assists. And he will be one player the Gophers have to watch closely.
Condon said you can't give a player like LeBlanc time and space. "If you give him any time, he is going to find the open guy," Condon said. "Probably one of those freshmen that have 13 goals, or whatever it is. So just get on him and make sure he can't make those finesse plays he wants to."
The Huskies and Gophers are second and third in goals per game in WCHA games at 3.40 and 3.39, respectively.
Condon said that the Gophers can match the Huskies' scoring. "There are a lot of guys are on our team that can score any night and that is something we share with St. Cloud," said Condon, who has at least one point in 10 of the Gophers' past 12 games.
He said it could be a high-scoring series.
And after the WCHA season, Condon said he thinks the Gophers can make it back to the Frozen Four by winning a regional. "Tampa was a great time last year," he said. "I am not complaining about that."
The Gophers lost in the Frozen Four semifinals to eventual NCAA champion Boston College in Florida last March.
The Frozen Four is in Pittsburgh this April.
Because of injuries and line shakeups, Condon has played on each of the top three lines and at every forward position. Lately, Condon has been the right wing on Bjugstad's line. Kyle Rau is the left wing.
"It's really a fast line ... and pretty creative, too," he said.
He is also one of the team's top penalty killers. "The main role there is to make sure defenseman don't get any open shots." Condon said. "They want us out there 20-30 seconds [a shift], so we know we can go hard."
Condon, of Wausau, Wis., also goes hard in the classroom. He is studying finance and accounting in the Carlson School of Management at the U.
The Gophers are rated No. 1 again in the national polls this week. One reason is their good record on the road so far, 6-2-2. "We play a lot tougher on the road," Condon said. "When you get behind an opponent in that team's building, it's hard to come back."
So the Gophers try not to get behind, of course. And, for the most part, that strategy seems to be working.
St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko was worried about last weekend's series at Bemidji State, he said on his weekly radio show on Monday on 1450KNSI.com
"It was a big weekend for us," he said. "We had a couple of emotional series against Denver and North Dakota, and everybody last week was already talking about the Gophers series."
The Huskies, sitting in first place in the WCHA, play the Gophers on Friday and Saturday at the National Hockey Center/
SCSU avoided what he called the "booby trap weekend" against the Beavers by beating them 4-0 and 4-1 in their owd den..
Motzko said the Huskies older players like Drew LeBlanc and Ben Hanowski, his senior co-captains and junior Nic Dowd did a terrific job of making sure the rest of the team did not overlook Bemidji State.
He also said the goaltending of Ryan Faragher was great and the defense was terrific.
He said the Huskies won the special teams battle, adding "we were not called for a penalty".
Faragher made a big stop at 30 seconds of the opening game after a SCSU turnover. He said if that point-blank shot gets in, the game and series might have been different. As it was, "we did not let their power play get out on rink and we were able to score first."
He said the Huskies played a little bit different defense against the Beavers. "Bemidji like to throw bomb passes," he said. "So we kept players back behind the play. ... We wanted to play a patient series."
FRESHMAN EXCITED FOR U
"It feels good, it feels right," said SCSU freshman forward Jimmy Murray of the Huskies being in first place in the WCHA.
He expects a cool, exciting atmosphere for the Gophers series from everything he has heard from older teammates.
Murray has three goals and seven assists for 10 points this season, and said he is trying to be better on defense because he is not scoring that much.
But what SCSU as a team is doing does not surprise him. "I was telling everyone last year when I committed that we would be a top 15, top 10 class," he said.
He said the freshman class has been awesome, especially what Kalle Kosilla and Jonny Brodzinski have done. Kosilla has a team-high 13 goals, Brodzinski 12.
As for the Gophers, "we know they have a really good power play, are a real good team. They have been ranked No. 1 for a couple of weeks," he said. Actually it's six weeks now.
MOTZKO KNOWS ALL ABOUT U
Said SCSU coach Bob Motzko of the Gophers series, "There are not a lot pep talks that have to be given out this week. The guys will be ready. Actually, we have to tone it down. It will be crazy in the building. There is no question.
He said there should be a great college atmosphere, adding "We've got to have a good week of preparation."
He said the series could turn into a real defensive battle: "They are a great skating team, a great power-play team. We have to know our assignment and stick to our assignments."
That said, he said the Huskies will try to skate with the Gophers. "To play Minnesota, you have to go up and down the rink with them," he said. "You try to defend them, you got out and try to have a defensive scheme, you will lose the hockey game.
"You have to go up and down the rink. You have to make as many plays as they make. You've got to take it at them. It's the only way to play this sport. And that's why I do like this series because I think the ultimate game is still our 8-7 game" in a Final Five with the Gophers.
Motzko said he has watched four of the Gophers' game -- they were idle last weekend -- on tape. He said they have tremendous passing and catching skills on the power play. "No matter where the puck went, it just stopped on a dime on their tape," he said, "and they were able to release it to the next guy.
"That's why you have to have proper postioning and you have to have great sticks, and deflect sticks out of the lanes and not let them get in there. And maybe get in their head a little bit. Maybe make them shoot more pucks rather than just try to make fancy plays," Motzko said. "We've got to do the little things well, a little thing for example, is our faceoffs. We are a little bit of Jeckyl and Hyde on it. But we have to have a strong weekend on faceoffs where over 50 percent of the time we are starting with the puck."
The Huskies know all about the Gophers' top players like Nick Bjugstad and Kyle Rau, but Motzko also worries about another forward.
"Erik Haula has been their top offensive player now for two years in a row," Motzko said. "I am not sure if it was a broken hand or a bruised hand, it was something in the upper body area, but he is going to be completely healthy now."
Haula got hurt in the Gophers' holiday tournament, missed several games, then came back and played wing as his injury healed more. Expect him to be back at center versus the Huskies. The Gophers were off last weekend.
"Nate Condon -- he's another kid who can really skate," Motzko said. "Probably one of faster skaters in the league, one of the best penalty-killers in the league and timely offense from a guy like that.
"And then their defensive corps. They have a great puck-moving defensive corps. ... They play very strong defense and they can defend. A couple of years ago, that was one of their downfalls. But hen they brought [assistant coach Mike] Guentzel back, they really shored that up again."
Motzko was on Lucia's staff in the early 2000s along with Guentzel. He knows both Lucia and Guentzel well. He said he talked to Lucia on Monday morning.
He said Lucia joked that Motzko should tell his players the Gophers are a nonconference team --- which they will be next season.
"We struggle nonconference," Motzko said.
That they do. SCSU is 14-5-1 in WCHA games, 3-5-0 in nonconference games.
"Maybe we are not quite as amped up as we get for league play," Motzko said. "But we need not worry. Every game we play worry every game we play from here on in is league play."
Next season the Gophers and St. Cloud State will meet only once, in one of the two opening games in a yet-to-be-named tournament of four Minnesota teams at Mariucci in 2014. In the other first day game, Minnesota State Mankato will play Minnesota Duluth. Bemidji State will be part of the tournament rotation in 2015.
Motzko's last words on the Gophers: "They are going to be a handful."
* In WCHA games, St. Cloud State is first on the penalty kill at 86.5, the Gophers are second at 86.0. It's the reverse on the power play. The Gophers are first at 26.5, the Huskies second at 22.0.
The Gophers are going to run into a hot team this weekend when they play at St Cloud State.
The Huskies, who are in first place in the WCHA with a 14-5-1 record for 29 points, have a nine-game unbeaetn streak (8-0-1) in the conference after sweeping Bemidji State last weekend by scores of 4-0 and 4-1 on the road..
But SCSU is only 3-5-0 against nonconference opponents, so the Huskies' overall record is 17-10-1.
One reason for the Huskies' success is they stay out of the penalty box. SCSU did not have one penalty in the Bemidji State series. The Huskies are 59th, or last in the nation, in penalty minutes per game at 8.5 penalty minutes per game.
The Gophers better score some 5-on-5 goals this weekend because the number of power plays they have could be limited. Their power play is good, third in the nation at 24.8 percent.
U players also are pretty good at staying out of the box. The Gophers are 49th in penalty minutes, averaging 10.7 per game.
Gophers coach Don Lucia often says a college team is as good as its senior. Well, the Huskies seniors are playing well, especially Drew LeBlanc.
The redshirt senior cocaptain missed almost all of last season with a broken leg. He had a goal and an assist, his 30th of the season, in the second game against the Beavers.
The 30 assists leads the nation and his 38 points are second.
Ben Hanowski, the other senior cocaptain, has 12 goals and 10 assists for 22 points.
FRESHMEN DANGEROUS, TOO
Not only are the older players doing well, so are the freshmen.
Forward Jonny Brodzinski of Blaine has a a 13-game point streak.
He had two goals against the Beavers, one each game. The first one was an empty-netter. His 13 goals are first among all rookies in the nation.
Kalle Kossila, a forward from Finland, leads WCHA rookie and ranks fourth in the nation for freshmen with 25 points. He has 12 goals and 13 assists.
Other SCSU players to watch:
* Junior forward Nic Dowd gas fifth game-winning goals this season, which ties a team record and is second in the nation. He has 12 goals and 17 assists for 29 points -- all career highs. Not bad for a player from the South. He is from Huntsville, Alabama.
* Sophomore goalie Ryan Faragher leads the WCHA with a 1.89 goals-against average in conference games.
* Junior defensemen Nick Jensen has 18 assists, second most in the naton among blue-liners.
* The Huskies are scoring 3.32 goals per game, the Gophers 3.77. That's eighth and first in the nation.
* The Huskies give up 2.32 goals per game.
The Gophers remain No. 1 in uscho's web poll. They have 30 first-place votes. Second is Quinnipiac, the Bobcats have 20 votes for the top spot and have a 19-game (16-0-3) unbeaten streak.
Six other WCHA teams are also in uscho's top 20: North Dakota, St. Cloud State and Denver are bunched from No. 7 to 9, Minnesota State os No. 11, Nebraska Omaha No. 14 and Wisconsin No. 19.
In this week's USA Today ratings, the Gophers also are No. 1 and Quinnipiac No. 2 but the gap keeps closing. Gophers lead 494-488 in points, 21-13 in first-place votes. ... SCSU is No. 10 in this poll.
In the PairWise rankings, which are based on statistical comparisons and mimic how the NCAA fills and seeds its postseason tournament field, Quinnipiac of New Haven, Conn., is No. 1 and the Gophers No. 2.
No. 16-rated St. Cloud State edged Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute 2-1 on Friday at the National Hockey Center for a split of their nonconference series.
Ben Hanowski and Drew LeBlanc, the Huskies senior co-captains, each scored a goal in the second period.
Hanowski's goal came on a power play at 12 minutes, 54 seconds and tied the score at 1-1. He tipped in a shot by teammate LeBlanc. It was Hanowski's sixth goal of the season and his 96th career point at SCSU.
LeBlanc, who leads the nation with 22 assists, scored the game-winning goal at 19:37 of the second period. He has six goals now, too. He also has an NCAA-best 28 points and his career point total (125 points) is 11th place on the Huskies' all-time points list.
LeBlanc also owns a nine-game points streak going into the Northern Michigan series on Jan. 4-5 in St. Cloud.
The Huskies (12-8-0), first in the WCHA, lost 4-3 to RPI (5-7-4) on Thursday.
The Engineers, who had won four in a row against SCSU dating back to 2002, took a 1-0 lead in the third minute of play on Matt Tinordi's first goal.
SCSU outshot the Engineers 25-15, which included limiting RPI to just four shots in the third period.The Huskies have outshot their opponent in eight consecutive games and not given up a power-play goal in seven games. RPI was 0-for-2 with a man advantage.
MINNESOTA ST. MANKATO LOSES FORWARD
Junior forward Corey Leivermann of Minnesota State Mankato has decided to leave school and transfer.
Leivermann, a 2008 graduate of Mankato West, was the first native of Mankato to play for the Mavericks, but the problem was he didn't play much.
As a freshman he played in 19 goals and had three goals and four assists for seven points. Last season he had one goal in 21 games. And this season he only played in the first two games against Alabama-Huntsville, a Division I weakling.
The 5-11, 175-pound Leivermann tweeted to a Mankato Free Press reporter that he will transfer to Gustavus Adolphus in nearby St. Peter, Minn. He will be eligible at the Division III program there immediately.
“We appreciate and recognize Corey's contributions to Maverick Hockey during the past two and half years,” Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said, according to a school news release. “We wish him the best as he moves forward in his future endeavors.”
* The Gophers and Bemidji State also lost players at the holiday break. Defensemen Blake Thompson left the Gophers and the Beavers lost a freshman goalie from Sweden.
U.S. WINS IN U17 CHALLENGE PRELIM
Jack Eichel scored two goals and had an assists as the U.S. team rallied to beat Canada's Team Pacific 6-2 in a preliminary game before the Under-17 Hockey Challenge in Drummondville, Quebec. The U.S. team opens the tournament against Canada Ontario on Saturday.
Team Pacific took a 2-0 lead in the opening period. Defenseman Jack Glover, who has committed to the Gophers, started the U.S. rally with a goal at 5:16 of the second period. The U.S. team also scored four other goals in the middle period. Forward Alex Poganski, who has committed to North Dakota but attends St. Cloud Cathedral now, has one of those goals.
The U.S. team outshot the Canadians 36-17.
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