Gophers close year at home vs. Duluth

Minnesota already has clinched the WCHA regular-season title.

Chris Lempesis

It’s going to be a weekend full of special events for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.

On Friday night the team will have its senior night ceremonies before the game. Then it’ll receive a pair of trophies – the inaugural Dairy Queen Cup, awarded during the first intermission to the top WCHA team from Minnesota, based on head-to-head play. And then after the game, the Gophers will receive the MacNaughton Cup, awarded to the WCHA regular-season champion.

Before Saturday’s game, sophomores Mike Howe and Evan Kaufmann will be given their WCHA scholar-athlete awards.

“It’s also going to be a fun weekend,” sophomore forward Ben Gordon said.

With all this going on, it would be easy for the Gophers to forget they actually have to play some hockey this weekend – a two-game set against Duluth at 7:07 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Mariucci Arena.

But upon further review, what does this team have to play for, really?

After all, top-ranked Minnesota (23-6-5, 18-5-3 WCHA) already has clinched the top spot in the first round of next weekend’s playoffs, and already knows it will face Alaska-Anchorage. The Gophers have also all but locked up a No. 1 seed for the NCAA Tournament.

But, according to players and coaches, the series against the Bulldogs (9-21-4, 6-17-3 WCHA) will not be treated as any sort of victory lap.

“You definitely can’t let your guard down,” Gordon said. “You’ve got to play like you’re playing for a spot in the playoffs. You’ve got to be playing with urgency all the time. You can’t slack off or loosen up because bad habits form and when bad habits form, then you start playing bad.”

Bad habits have definitely not been a big part of Minnesota’s routine lately. This is evidenced by the team’s two-and-a-half month hot streak (16-1-1 in its past 18 games, 9-0-1 in its past 10).

Nevertheless, the Gophers have underperformed against the Bulldogs in recent history.

Minnesota has managed to pull together a mark of just 2-7-2 (including playoffs) against its northern rival over the past two and a half seasons. That includes the Gophers’ subpar one-point showing in Duluth in early November.

Senior defenseman P.J. Atherton said he wasn’t quite sure why the Bulldogs have had the Gophers’ number as of late, but has a theory:

“I think they got sick and tired of hearing that we were one of the premier teams in the state,” Atherton said. “They took a little offense to that and have kind of handed it to us for the past couple of years.”

Duluth hasn’t been handing much of anything to anyone lately, except maybe wins.

The Bulldogs have lost 11 of their past 12 and coach Don Lucia said he thinks a big reason for Duluth’s struggles stem from the team’s abnormally large freshman class, 11 in all.

“I think they’re playing four or five freshman defensemen,” Lucia said. “And you know what? When you do that, you’re going to have peaks and valleys throughout the course of the season.”

It’s been nothing but peaks for the Gophers lately. And if they have it their way, the other events won’t be the only noteworthy things that happens this weekend.

“We also want to stay hot for the end of the season,” Atherton said. “We don’t want to have a dip. We want to go into the playoffs blazing and keep it up.”