Gophers seal WCHA title with two wins

Chris Lempesis

Don Lucia’s teams have won a lot of things in his nearly seven seasons as coach of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.

Most notably, his teams won back-to-back national titles in 2002 and 2003, and Western Collegiate Hockey Association playoff championships in 2003 and 2004.

However, one thing none of those teams have been able to claim is the MacNaughton Cup, awarded to the WCHA regular season champions.

Not anymore.

Thanks to a dominant second period effort Saturday night, the Gophers earned a 4-0 victory over Alaska-Anchorage to complete the sweep and win the cup outright for the first time since the 1991-1992 season. Minnesota began the weekend with a 4-3 win Friday.

“I’m excited for our players,” Lucia said. “When we went up to Anchorage, I didn’t even really think about (how) we could clinch it outright over the weekend. But we got some help from around the league and we took care of business.”

The help Lucia was talking about was a Minnesota State sweep of Wisconsin and Denver splitting two games with North Dakota.

Two areas of the top-ranked Gophers’ (23-6-5, 18-5-3 WCHA) game were particularly crucial in the team taking care of business in the second period Saturday: their defense and junior forward Ryan Potulny.

Defensively, the Gophers held the Seawolves (6-25-3, 4-21-3 WCHA) to a grand total of zero shots on goal (and just 10 for the game). It is unknown if Minnesota ever has held an opponent to no shots on goal for a period.

“I thought we played well offensively on Friday night, but I thought we were real, kind of sloppy defensively,” Lucia said. “And we showed some video clips and I think the guys knew that and we tightened things up on Saturday.”

Potulny benefited from this strong defense to become a one-man lamp-lighting machine in the offensive end.

Potulny picked up the natural hat trick in the second, scoring the Gophers’ first, second and fourth goals of the frame (freshman forward Phil Kessel had the team’s third goal).

The goals were the 27th, 28th and 29th of the season for the junior and the hat trick is Potulny’s second of the season.

“Ryan’s a great player and you need your best players to be stepping up this time of year,” Lucia said. “And he’s certainly doing that.”

Potulny – considered one of the leading Hobey Baker Memorial Award candidates – was a key player in Friday’s win as well.

He scored Minnesota’s first two goals, also the first two of the game, to finish the weekend with five total markers.

But other Gophers also needed to step up Friday for the team to win, as the Seawolves stormed back to tie the game on two separate occasions, at 2-2 and 3-3, in the second period.

Freshman Blake Wheeler, who has been very quiet as of late, ultimately stepped up above everyone else. Wheeler scored the game-winning goal 3:56 into the third period.

“It hasn’t been good for him because I know he’s getting chances and he’s playing well,” Potulny said of Wheeler. “So, it’s not that he’s playing good, and so it was good to see him get the game-winning goal.”

Friday’s close victory led to Saturday’s dominant one, which, in turn, led to the Gophers giving their coach something he hadn’t yet won in his time at Minnesota.

And if the team – 16-1-1 in its past 18 games; riding a 10-game unbeaten streak (9-0-1) – has its way, the MacNaughton Cup won’t be the only thing it gives Lucia before all is said and done.

“We’re pretty happy with (winning the cup),” Potulny said. “But we know we have two steps left and we’re not done yet.”

“We don’t want to get ahead of ourselves too much. I won’t exactly say what they are but I’ll just leave them out there for the imagination.”