U atop WCHA but near bubble for NCAA tourney berth

  • Article by: ROMAN AUGUSTOVIZ , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 15, 2012 - 10:34 PM
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The Gophers men's hockey team are atop the WCHA standings, but on the NCAA tournament bubble.

Photo: Bre McGee, Special to the Star Tribune

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The Gophers men's hockey team is in an odd position with six conference games left.

It is in first place in the WCHA standings, albeit by one point over Minnesota Duluth and two over Denver. The last time the Gophers won the MacNaughton Cup, which goes to the regular-season champion, was in 2007.

At the same time, the Gophers are near the NCAA tournament bubble for an at-large bid if they don't win the WCHA Final Five for an automatic berth. That's because they are No. 14 in the most recent PairWise Rankings and, at most, the top 15 teams in those rankings -- which mimic how the NCAA fills out its field -- advance.

Coach Don Lucia said he told players this week to look at the positives. "We are in first [place in the WCHA], sitting in a good situation in a lot of different areas," he said Wednesday. "When the year began, we would taken where we are at in a heartbeat and now we just have to finish."

The Gophers, picked for sixth place in the conference in preseason polls, started the season 9-1 but are 10-10-1 since mid-November.

"We control our own destiny, and you just have to continue to win," said Lucia, whose team's longest winning streak is three games in the past three months. "In one weekend, the way things work, you can move up or down half a dozen spots."

By beating the visiting Gophers twice last weekend, Denver soared 10 spots in the PairWise Rankings to No. 7.

This weekend, the Gophers return home to face Bemidji State, which is on an 11-4-2 run.

"[The Gophers] are gunning for a championship and we are gunning for home ice,'' said Beavers coach Tom Serratore, whose team is tied for eighth in the WCHA. The top six teams will play host to first-round playoff series.

Familiar lines to return

With Kyle Rau suspended for the second game at Denver, Lucia juggled his lines and liked what he saw. But he said the lines will look a lot like they have all season long against the Beavers. That means Nick Bjugstad probably will center Rau and Zach Budish on the first line, and Erik Haula, who played wing Saturday vs. the Pioneers, will return to center on the second line.

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