Gophers closing in on crown

by Mark Remme

The Minnesota men’s hockey team has a chance to do something even recent Gophers’ national champion squads failed to do.

Second-ranked Minnesota is a win or tie away from clinching at least a share of their second straight WCHA regular-season championship, a feat the Gophers haven’t accomplished since former coach Doug Woog’s squads did it in 1987-88 and 1988-89.

And if they’re successful in their first opportunity to clinch, they’ll do it against fourth-ranked St. Cloud State, which rivaled Minnesota for that top spot in the conference most of the second half of the season.

The two will meet this weekend in a home-and-home affair with Friday night’s game at the National Hockey Center in St. Cloud and Saturday’s at Mariucci Arena. Both games are slated to start at 7:07.

If the Gophers (25-5-3 overall, 17-4-3 WCHA) raise the MacNaughton Cup this weekend, it will mark a successful start for a group of freshmen who joined a team with high expectations and produced right from the start.

Freshman defenseman David Fischer said he realizes the significance of winning the conference title, especially in a year where parity between the top team and the cellar-dweller is at an all-time high.

“It’s a grind,” Fischer said. “The achievement to win a league championship is phenomenal.”

That conference uniformity is what prompts Fischer to explain that what is more important than clinching the WCHA in the team’s final four games is beginning to eliminate errors – creating less turnovers and more blocked shots while holding teams under 25 shots on goal – heading into the playoffs.

Junior forward Mike Howe talked about the benefits of playing a high-caliber team like the Huskies (18-6-6, 12-6-6) just two weekends before conference playoffs start.

“They’re a hard-working team and they always bring their best game,” Howe said. “They’ve proven they’re one of the best teams in the WCHA and they could be a possible matchup in the playoffs.”

Gophers coach Don Lucia stressed taking care of business one weekend at a time all year long, and he said that won’t change.

Lucia said playing a top-five opponent like the Huskies shows both league-wise and nationally what level of competition is at stake, and, looking ahead, there’s not one WCHA series that’s a lock from here on out.

“There’s more parity in the league than there’s ever been before,” Lucia said. “With the quality of teams in the league and how many good goaltenders there are in the league, I really do believe anyone could beat anyone else.”

Puck notes

ï If the Gophers clinch the MacNaughton Cup Friday night in St. Cloud, the trophy won’t be awarded until Saturday night’s contest at Mariucci Arena.

ï Freshman center Mike Carman earned WCHA Rookie of the Week Honors for his two-goal performance against Colorado College last Saturday. Carman’s third-period tally proved to be the game-winner and gave the Gophers a sweep in Colorado Springs.

ï Both Minnesota and St. Cloud State have an opportunity to clinch the DQ Cup this weekend, a trophy awarded among Minnesota, St. Cloud State, Minnesota Duluth and Minnesota State to the team with the best head-to-head regular season record among those four teams. If the Gophers earn a win or a tie, they will win the cup, but if the Huskies pull out a sweep, the trophy belongs to them.