U takes a share of WCHA

by Michael Rand

The water bottle exited senior Nick Checco’s hand and skidded across the floor of the Gophers locker room during the second intermission Saturday night, leaving the rest of the players stunned.
The Gophers hockey team had learned just seconds earlier that Denver was leading North Dakota 3-0 in the second period. A UND loss and a Minnesota win Saturday night meant the teams would be WCHA co-champions, something that looked impossible a month ago after the Sioux swept the Gophers in North Dakota.
Casey Hankinson’s speech during the second intermission of the Gophers hockey team’s game against Wisconsin on Saturday did not surprise any of his teammates because the junior co-captain is known for his vocal outbursts.
But even given this situation: Down 2-1 with 20 minutes to play, on senior night, the last game of the regular season, at home, against Wisconsin, for a chance at a WCHA co-championship, Gophers players were taken aback by another voice they heard.
When Checco — who on most days could beat former president Calvin Coolidge in a silence contest — launched his water bottle and raised his voice, his teammates noticed.
“He’s not an outspoken guy,” sophomore Wyatt Smith said. “When he comes out and does something like that, it opens some eyes.”
Checco picked the right time.
Motivated by the senior and a renewed mixture of urgency and determination, the Gophers exploded for six goals in the third period to defeat the Badgers 7-3 at Mariucci Arena. That win, combined with Minnesota’s 4-3 win on Friday and UND’s two losses at Denver, gave the Gophers a share of the WCHA title.
The Gophers and UND split their season series and have the same WCHA record, so the WCHA tournament seeding came down to the third tie-breaker.
Because the Sioux gave up fewer goals than the Gophers in the teams’ season series, UND will be the No. 1 seed in the tournament next weekend. North Dakota will host Michigan Tech and Minnesota will host Alaska-Anchorage in the first round.
The on-ice transformation in the final 20 minutes Saturday began as soon as the Gophers hit the ice. Barely a minute after the third period began, Ryan Kraft lifted a rebound of Wyatt Smith’s shot over Wisconsin goalie Mike Valley to tie the game. Six minutes later, Dave Spehar’s unassisted backhand goal from the slot gave the Gophers the lead for good.
Smith’s goal midway through the period upped Minnesota’s cushion to two goals. Wisconsin’s goal one minute later was offset by three Gophers goals in the final 6:17, each one sending the crowd and the Minnesota bench into a greater frenzy.
Then came the game after the game. After a massive group hug at center ice, the players retreated to the bench. Their work was done, but Denver’s wasn’t.
Approximately one-third of the 9,849 fans in attendance stayed as the conclusion of the UND game was broadcast over the public address system. Gophers players paced back and forth between the bench and the locker room, not wanting to get too cocky even though Denver had upped its lead to 4-0 early in the third period.
They gave each other periodic updates — “Hey, still 4-0, less than 10 minutes left” — as if someone had actually lost track of the game’s progress.
When the game finished, a 5-0 Denver win, the players skated out to center ice. WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod presented the team with the MacNaughton Cup, a shimmering prize that last rested in Minnesota after the 1991-92 season.
Then the real celebration began.
“I’ve been waiting for this for three years, and the seniors have been waiting for four,” junior Mike Crowley said. “It’s been such and up-and-down season. It’s just a great feeling to be rewarded.”
Several players talked about the optimism they maintained even after being swept at North Dakota, the low point of their season. Even when they entered this weekend trailing UND by four points, they felt they still had a chance to share the title.
But the Gophers knew they needed a lot of help.
“I can’t say three weeks ago we thought we’d win it,” senior Dan Hendrickson said. “It was more of a hope. Thank God for Denver.”
In a year marked by coach Doug Woog’s suspension in October and a mid-season slump that even threatened Minnesota’s hold on a top-five finish in the league, the ending was fittingly unpredictable.
“After how inconsistent we’ve been,” Smith began, “for us to be wearing (championship) rings soon ….” His voice trailed off and he didn’t finish his thought.
He didn’t have to.

Wisconsin 0 2 1 — 3
Gophers 2 1 1 — 4

First Period: Min — Smith 14 (Crowley, LaFleur), 3:58. Min — Woog 3 (Kohn), 6:25.
Second Period: Min — Kraft 20 (Crowley, Smith), 4:26. Wis — Enrico (unassisted) SHG, 15:52. Wis — Anderson 3 (Moreau, Reinpricht), 17:02.
Third Period: Min — Kraft 21 (Smith, Crowley) PPG, 7:25. Wis — Sabo 4 (Haley) PPG, 12:52.

Wisconsin 1 1 1 — 3
Gophers 1 0 6 — 7

First Period: Wis — Bianchi 16 (Enrico, Gruden), 7:58. LaFleur 8 (Kraft, Smith), 13:56.
Second Period: Wis — Exarhos 5 (Bradley, Smith), 13:30.
Third Period: Min — Kraft 22 (Smith, Crowley), 1:14. Min — Spehar (unassisted), 7:10. Min — Smith 15 (Abrahamson, Hankinson), 9:48. Wis — Haley 13 (Bradley, Sabo), 10:40. Min — Berg 8 (Hankinson), 13:43. Min — Kraft 23 (Crowley) PPG, 16:47. Min — Kraft 24 (Smith), 18:47.