Broadmoor Trophy belongs to Minnesota

Mark Remme

>ST. PAUL – Lately, it seems like Minnesota men’s hockey coach Don Lucia’s favorite quote is that at this time of year, a team’s best players have to be their best players.

Well, Blake Wheeler had trouble living up to those expectations down the stretch.

After scoring 27 points in his first 22 games this season, the sophomore center recorded just six points since Jan. 7.

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NCAA regional
first-round games: Fri. 5 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. ET
Final: Sat. 8:30 p.m. ET
where: Grand Rapids, Mich.

But at the Western Collegiate Hockey Association Final Five this weekend, those scoring misfortunes changed drastically. Wheeler recorded four goals and had one assist as the Gophers defeated Wisconsin 4-2 on Friday, and North Dakota 3-2 in overtime Saturday night to win the Broadmoor Trophy as WCHA playoff champions.

It is Minnesota’s first Final Five title since 2004 and the first time a team won the conference regular season and playoff titles in the same year since Denver in 2004-05.

In a weekend where Minnesota (30-9-3 overall) proved, despite a .500 record in its past eight series, it still has a winning touch, Wheeler showed that even though he’s struggled in the second half of the season he’s still got the goal-scoring abilities that landed him as the fourth overall pick by the Phoenix Coyotes in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

Wheeler had difficulty corralling pucks and finding the back of the net recently, and his frustrations showed. But against Wisconsin he overcame both struggles by scoring two goals on senior goalie Brian Elliott and added an empty netter to seal the victory and end the Badgers’ (19-18-4) chances of making the NCAA tournament.

Wheeler’s first against Elliott came 5:52 into the contest, and he said the early goal helped calm his nerves despite playing in front of a noisy crowd of 19,359.

“Scoring early really relaxes me out there,” Wheeler said. “I just calmed down and let the game come to me.”

Perhaps the big stage is where Wheeler displays his best production. In Saturday’s game against North Dakota (22-13-5) his no-look pass from the corner allowed junior defenseman Ben Gordon to burry the puck past Sioux junior goalie Philippe Lamoureux and gave Minnesota a 2-1 second period lead.

And when the Gophers needed a spark in overtime, Wheeler showed why he would be named tournament Most Valuable Player.

Wheeler chased down a loose puck that appeared destined for an ice call and chipped the puck over Lamoureux while diving on the ice.

“That was an effort goal,” Lucia said. “It’s the way he’s played all weekend and I thought it was fitting he got the winning goal.”

Apparently, the Gophers’ recent struggles took a 180-degree turn this weekend. They received much-needed offense from Wheeler, their second line center, and they also came together to play back-to-back complete games – 60 minutes of hockey instead of partial flashes of consistency in the midst of mental letdowns.

Senior defenseman Mike Vannelli said after Saturday’s game that the team knew it was playing a red-hot North Dakota squad that was 15-2-4 since Christmas, and in order to win the championship game Minnesota had to outwork the Sioux.

Vannelli said his team accomplished that feat.

“I think we’re playing our best hockey of the season right now,” he said.

His coach agreed.

“Everybody did their job,” Lucia said. “The team played hard and they played for each other.”