This is a huge weekend for the Gophers hockey team.

They were going to take a bus -- as usual -- for an unusual Friday-Sunday series against Wisconsin. Friday's game is at the Kohn Center in Madison, Sunday's game is outdoors at Soldier Field in Chicago.

The outdoor game is getting a lot of attention. But maybe more important is how much this series means. If the Gophers can sweep -- a big if considering they have one sweep in WCHA play -- they would be in contention for their second consecutive MacNaughton Cup.

If they get swept, they will be fighting for home ice, so bunched are the standings.

Here is how they look going into the weekend:

                                 W    L    T    Pts.

St. Cloud State     15    6    1     31

North Dakota        11     5    6     28

Gophers                 11    5     4     26

Neb. Omaha          12    8     2     26

Denver                    10     7     5    25

MSU Mankato        12     9      1    25

Wisconsin                9     6      7    25

Comments: Idle this weekend are St. Cloud State and North Dakota, the two teams ahead of the Gophers, and Denver, a point behind the maroon and gold, and Colorado College. The Gophers have two games in hand over those four  teams, but it will be gone after this weekend. So the Gophers need to get some points.

In a best case scenario for the Gophers, this is what would happen: the Gophers sweep Wisconsin, Minnesota State loses two at home to Michigan Tech and UNO loses two at Alaska Anchorage. If all that happens, the top of the WCHA standings would look like this:

                                 W     L    T    Pts.

St. Cloud State     15      6    1     31

Gophers                 13     5    4    30

North Dakota         11     5    6     28

Neb. Omaha          12   10   2     26

Denver                    10     7    5    25

MSU Mankato        12    11   1    25

Wisconsin                9     8    7    25

Comments: The Gophers would be on the Huskies' heels, with six games left for both teams. And they would be in good position for home ice in the first round of the WCHA playoffs.

But suppose everything went wrong for the Gophers. The Badgers sweep them and Minnesota State and UNO sweep. Here is how the standings would look then:

                               W    L    T    Pts.

St. Cloud State      15    6    1     31

Neb. Omaha          14    8    2     30

MSU Mankato        14     9    1    29

Wisconsin              11     6     7   29

North Dakota         11     5    6    28

Gophers                 11    5     4     26

Denver                    10     7     5    25

Comments: The Gophers would be in sixth place. Pretty much out of the MacNaughton Cup chase with five teams ahead of them and only six games left.

So what does The Don think?

 "It is going to be a great finish to the league that is for sure," Gophers coach Don Lucia said during his weekly radio show. "... It is going to go right to the very end, I think. Obviously, St. Cloud right now is in the driver's seat."

The Gophers and the Huskies split last weekend in St. Cloud. The Gophers won the first game 4-2, lost the second 4-3.

"We made a couple of mistakes that ended up costing us in [Saturday's] game," Lucia said. "Two of them were off a line change situations. I can't fault how hard we played. I can fault our execution in a couple of plays.

"We played well enough to win on Saturday. St. Cloud is a very good team."


Wisconsin was a mess early. The Badgers started the season 1-7-2 -- including a 2-2 tie and a 3-1 loss to the Gophers on Oct. 16-17 at Mariucci -- but, in their last 18 games, they are 11-2-5.

"Now they are scoring a little bit more," Lucia said. "They are very good defensively,  they just don't give up many goals. And that is why they are in so many close games. They tie a lot. They don't score a lot but they don't give up much.

"Our mindset has to be 2-1, 3-2 [games]. We are not going to score more than two or three goals, and that has to be  enough. So we have to play well defensively. We have to be disciplined and wait for our chances as well."

After Friday's game in Madison, the Gophers will spend the night there, then head to Chicago for an outdoor practice late afternoon Saturday at Soldier Field.

"Hopefully our guys will bring that linebacker mentality like some of those Chicago Bears guys, Dick Butkus, [Mike]  Singletary and [Brian] Erlacher. They have had a few good ones up the middle. "

Lucia said he expects the outdoor game to be fun for his players. "I think they sold over 50,000 seats, so it will be a good atmosphere, although some of them will be gone after the first game," he said.

Miami and Notre Dame will play in the first game.

"It would be great if it was in the highs 20s, cloudy and still," Lucia said. "That would be the picture-perfect day at Soldier Field." 


In the two major college hockey polls, Quinnipiac replaced  the Gophers at No. 1 while the Gophers, after six weeks in the top spot, dropped to No. 2.

"They [the Bobcats] are getting very good goaltending from Eric Hartzell, who is Kevin Hartzell's -- who played at the U -- his son. He is a senior and he is having a great year."

Hartzell is 21-2-4 with a 1.46 goals-against average, third best in Division I hockey. His save percentage is .936, seventh best. He has four shutouts, tied for second.

"I don't care who you play or what you do, you win 22 in a row, you have a good team," Lucia said.

Actually, that's close but not quite right. The Bobcats have a 21-game unbeaten streak (18-0-3) with

They are certainly deserving of that ranking. And they are the No. 1 team in the PairWise and i am not sure anybody is going to be able to catch them in that.


On freshman defenseman Mike Reilly: "He was good defensively [in St. Cloud]. He created some offensive scoring chances. He did a good job breaking the puck up."  Past series was probably his best since the holiday break, Lucia said.

On defenseman Nate Schmidt, who has a goal in four consecutive games: He  is playing at an all-america level. "I'd like to see a little more goal-scoring back there [from other defensemen]. I think we have the capability of getting a few more pucks to the net. We have to do a better job, too. ... Our forwards, as we enter on the rush, [need] to look for that second wave of attack. And that is something we have to get better at."