The wayward Gophers have drifted into uncharted territory where, for the moment, they’ve lost their title as Minnesota’s premier college hockey program.
Two other in-state hockey teams are enjoying the hype and success usually associated with the Gophers. Minnesota State Mankato is the new No. 1 — both in the state of hockey and all of college hockey — while No. 7 Minnesota Duluth isn’t far behind.
The power shift has put the Gophers in an underdog role this weekend in the second North Star College Cup — quite a fall for a team ranked No. 1 in the nation coming into the season. The Gophers, now ranked 17th, will try to upset the Mavericks on Friday night at Xcel Energy Center. Bemidji State and the Bulldogs open the tournament beforehand.
“It’s kind of uncharted waters for a lot of the guys here to be on the outside looking in right now,” Gophers senior forward Travis Boyd said. “A little added intensity into it, especially with where we are right now. If the [NCAA] tournament were to be right now, we wouldn’t be in it. So getting a nonconference game against the No. 1 team in the nation is a big game for us. … At the same time, the main thing about this weekend is state pride and making sure we’re the best team in the state.”
While the Gophers will be looking to climb with a pair of victories against ranked opponents, Minnesota State Mankato is getting comfortable in the top spot. And some in the hockey community are not surprised to see the Mavericks up there.
“You could see it coming,” former Gophers hockey coach and longtime hockey analyst Doug Woog said. “Minnesota has tradition on their side and they’ve got good players, but so does Mankato. … And Duluth has a good tradition of hockey.
“This is not entirely a surprise. I think for these teams to be better than the Gophers at this point into the season is an eye-opener.”
The unusual amount of smiles welcoming the Mavericks to practice on Jan. 12 signified a historic moment for the hockey program. For the first time in their 20 seasons playing Division I hockey, they were No. 1.
A relatively new coach and veteran group of players had claimed the coveted spot that often belonged to its rivals to the north.
“We’re excited and take pride in it. It’s another big step for our program,” third-year Mavericks coach Mike Hastings said. “There is some buzz. But we also understand what it is. It’s an opinion poll.
“I don’t think the perception of [power] is changing. I just think we’re continually pushing each other to get better. The model that is in our state is competing for championships, and that breeds the idea that if you want to be considered in that group and respected in that group, you better keep getting better. We had been chasing for a long time.”
The Mavericks are the only Division I men’s hockey program in the state of five that hasn’t played in a Frozen Four.
While Minnesota State Mankato’s journey to the top might have taken time, Hastings has been in a hurry. He led the Mavericks to the NCAA tournament in his first two seasons as head coach and is charging toward a third bid. He has had success wherever he’s been, including a 14-year run in the USHL, a year as a Gophers assistant coach under Don Lucia and three years as the associate head coach at Omaha.
Zach Palmquist, a junior defenseman from South St. Paul, credits the program’s quick turnaround to Hastings. The players have bought into his high expectations, but they aren’t buying into the hype of the No. 1 ranking. Hastings reminded the group that four other teams, including the Gophers, have held the No. 1 spot this season.
“It’s a good feeling to be ranked there and be at the top, but I think we have a mentally strong group where we know it’s just an opinion poll,” Palmquist said.
Palmquist said he and the five other Minnesota-born players on the Mavericks’ roster take extra pride in building another Minnesota power program that has risen out of the Gophers’ shadow.
“It’s kind of weird not saying Minnesota is the No. 1 team,” Palmquist said. “It’s good for the state to have another Minnesota school jump up and [be] at the top of the standings.
“It’s been a good feeling getting this program to where it’s at. It’s a contribution from all the alumni and what coach Hastings has been able to do in such a short time.”
Bulldogs rising, too
A week ago, Minnesota State Mankato and Minnesota Duluth were No. 1 and No. 2 in the PairWise rankings, a system of comparing teams built off the formula used to select the 16-team NCAA tournament field. UMD slid back to No. 5 this week, still way ahead of the No. 18 Gophers.
The Bulldogs were responsible for the initial nudge that sent the Gophers tumbling down the polls following several weeks at No. 1. They swept the Gophers in a home-and-home series in mid-November and continued to rise.
“It’s not all about just one program anymore, but really spread out through the state,” Minnesota Duluth senior forward and Lakeville native Justin Crandall said. “We’re very proud of what we’re doing this year.
“It’s great that all five programs continue to have success. The emergence of Minnesota State is awesome. They’re no joke.”
The focus shifts from polls to hockey Friday at the Xcel Energy Center. Last year, it was the Gophers who were posing with the Cup at Xcel, after beating the Bulldogs in a shootout. This year, the stakes are higher, for the new No. 1, the old No. 1 and a Bulldogs squad that is trying to earn its turn atop college hockey.