Gophers have plenty to play for in their final WCHA series

The MacNaughton Cup is possible, but so is a precipitous fall when the Gophers play their last WCHA series ever.

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Minnesota's Nate Condon and Sam Warning celebrated after Condon scored on North Dakota earlier this season.

Photo: Kyndell Harkness, Star Tribune

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A slight thread of sentiment will run through the Gophers men’s hockey team this weekend, as it travels to Bemidji State for its final regular-season series as a member of the WCHA. With the MacNaughton Cup still up for grabs, several players mentioned how sweet it would be if the Gophers could hoist it one last time before moving to the Big Ten Conference.

On the flip side, the No. 2 Gophers are wary of stumbling to a lower seeding for the WCHA playoffs. They are tied for second in the standings, but the league’s top seven teams are separated by only six points, meaning much could change in the final weekend of the regular season. That sort of intrigue feels appropriate, Gophers coach Don Lucia said, for a conference about to say goodbye to seven longtime members.

Lucia plans to maintain ties to Bemidji State — which will stay in a reconfigured WCHA — and to the state’s other three Division I programs, which will play in either the WCHA or the new National Collegiate Hockey Conference. Those in-state rivalries also are important to Bemidji State coach Tom Serratore, who is bullish on the future of the new WCHA.

Lucia said the conference race is the most dramatic he’s seen in his 20 years as a member. Despite the historic import of the weekend, he and his players emphasized they must focus only on the here and now to create the best possible ending to their 61 years in the WCHA.

“We all want to keep [the MacNaughton Cup] here for the last season,’’ junior winger Nate Condon said. “That would be pretty fun for us. But we’re just worried about playing our best hockey. We want to get our game going and play up to the level we can.”

Last Friday’s monumental flop against Denver prompted a rare tirade from Lucia, which remains fresh in his players’ minds. Given their lack of consistency, the Gophers have broken down the weekend into two separate tasks: clinch home ice for the playoffs on Friday, then look at the standings Saturday morning and set a fresh goal.

One point will officially secure home ice for next weekend’s first-round games. Winning the MacNaughton Cup will require dominoes to fall the Gophers’ way in several other series. Should there be a tie atop the standings, those teams would be declared co-champions, with tiebreakers used to determine playoff seedings.

Several players said the Gophers didn’t need the rancor of Lucia and associate coach Mike Guentzel to motivate them. Captain Zach Budish said their recovery last Saturday, when they followed a 2-0 shutout loss with a 5-1 victory, demonstrated how powerful the Gophers can be when they all buy in — something he said they are hungry to repeat. Lucia noted that his best players led that charge, which they must continue to do in the critical games ahead.

“If we can play like we did on Saturday in every game from here on out, I’ll take it,’’ Lucia said. “They have to play at that pace and that commitment level, doing whatever it takes to win games this time of year.’’

The Gophers will play at Bemidji State again next season. Lucia admires its long history of success, and he speculated the Beavers’ program might not have survived had the WCHA not accepted them as a member in 2010-11.

The Beavers, Minnesota State Mankato, Michigan Tech and Alaska-Anchorage will remain in the league, joined by Alaska Fairbanks, Alabama-Huntsville, Bowling Green, Ferris State, Lake Superior State and Northern Michigan. Like Lucia, Serratore said he is committed to maintaining ties with the Gophers and other in-state schools. As for the WCHA, he anticipates it will endure and evolve, as it has in the past.

“I think it’s going to be a heck of a league,’’ Serratore said. “There’s no question a lot of us were blindsided by [realignment]. But when you look at the teams, there’s a lot of tradition and history, and a lot of success. There will be new rivalries, and there will be a time in the future when people forget about the old WCHA.”

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