A year ago this weekend, the Minnesota men’s hockey team was able to clinch its second-consecutive McNaughton Cup as the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s regular season champions.
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All-time record: Minnesota leads 44-15-5
Earlier this year: Junior forward Blake Wheeler and senior forward Ben Gordon each tallied two points in a 3-0 shutout over the Seawolves on Friday. However, Alaska-Anchorage came back strong the next night to win 4-2 and pick up its first conference win of the season.
This weekend as the team travels to Alaska-Anchorage, the Gophers will be doing a different type of clinching – teeth, fists, etc.
“The past couple seasons we’ve been fortunate enough to clinch the regular season title and we’ve put ourselves in great shape,” senior forward Evan Kaufmann said. “This year’s kind of been the opposite; we’ve been up and down with a lot of adversity. We’ve kind of dug ourselves a hole, but I think last weekend we took a step to get out of that hole.”
Junior defenseman R.J. Anderson said Wednesday that a season like this year’s isn’t all bad for a team.
“I think it’s a little more rewarding. We lay it on the line every night to get that win,” Anderson said.
“It’s a little bit of a reality check. We’re finally finding our stride, so hopefully we can make a run here.”
“It gets frustrating, everything that’s happened, but that’s what can make this a real rewarding year – if we can fight back,
(13-13-8 overall, 7-11-6 WCHA) Ranking: Not ranked
The Gophers recorded their only shutout of the season against Alaska-Anchorage earlier this year when junior goalie Jeff Frazee turned away all 24 shots on goal. Freshman Alex Kangas, the Gophers’ regular netminder, has failed to pick up a clean sheet this year. Minnesota has not been shutout by an opponent this season.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Senior forward Ben Gordon: In 15 career appearances against the Seawolves in four years, Gordon has an astounding 18 points (two goals, 16 assists). He also broke out of three-game scoreless streak – his longest of the season – last Saturday with a power-play goal in the second period.
Senior forward Evan Kaufmann: Kaufmann also picked up a goal in last Saturday’s 4-4 overtime tie with Wisconsin. The senior is currently riding a three-game scoring streak – tying for his longest of the year.
Minnesota (13-13-8 overall, 7-11-6 WCHA) could continue climbing in the standings against the conference’s cellar dweller Alaska-Anchorage.
The Seawolves (7-18-7, 3-18-5) haven’t won a game in their last three series, but that may be working for the team as much as against them Anderson said.
“I don’t know if it’s a good thing that they’re struggling because they are going to be pretty jacked up to play us,” Anderson said. “We’re going to have to match their intensity and surpass it because these are two big games for us, and we have to win.”
Four conference points could potentially move Minnesota up to a three-way tie for fifth place if St. Cloud State, Minnesota State and seventh-place Minnesota-Duluth fail to nab any points this weekend.
But points have been hard to come by for the Gophers as of late and this season might be the first time in nine seasons under coach Don Lucia that the team fails to reach the 20-win plateau. “It gets frustrating, everything that’s happened, but that’s what can make this a real rewarding year – if we can fight back, find a way to win, and get ourselves back in the tournament,” Lucia said. “More than anything, that is what this is all about.”
(7-18-7 overall, 3-18-5 WCHA) Ranking: Not ranked
The Seawolves come into the final weekend of their regular season in the midst of a seven-game winless streak including losses in all six of its last contests. The team hasn’t scored more than two goals in a game since its last win – a 4-0 shutout over Michigan Tech.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Sophomore forward Kevin Clark: Clark scored the game-winning goal – one of three third-period goals by the Seawolves in a span of less than four minutes – against Minnesota earlier this season in a 4-2 come from behind win. The sophomore leads the team in points with 23.
Sophomore forward Josh Lunden: Lunden leads the Seawolves with 13 goals this season and trails Clark by just one point with 22. But the sophomore hasn’t picked up a goal in Alaska-Anchorage’s last four games – his last came in a 4-2 loss to Minnesota State.
This could potentially be the first time any of the current Gophers players will begin the playoffs on the road and the first time for the program since the 1999-2000 season – Lucia’s first year as head coach.
“If we have to get into the NCAA tournament a different way this year or if we need to make a run right at the end, that’s what we’re going to try and do,” Kaufmann said. “There wouldn’t be any better way to make it to the Frozen Four than to go on a nice winning streak at the beginning of the playoffs.”