Men win share of WCHA regular-season title

The Gophers swept Bemidji State while co-WCHA champion St. Cloud State split with Wisconsin.

Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad moves the puck against Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, at Mariucci Arena.

Amanda Snyder, Daily File Photo

Minnesota forward Nick Bjugstad moves the puck against Minnesota-Duluth on Saturday, Feb. 23, 2013, at Mariucci Arena.

Drew Claussen

BEMIDJI, Minn. — The Gophers didn’t win the MacNaughton Cup outright this weekend, but that didn’t stop them from celebrating.

The No. 2 Gophers (24-7-5, 16-7-5 WCHA) earned a hard-fought sweep over Bemidji State, winning 4-3 on Friday and 5-1 on Saturday at the Sanford Center in Bemidji, Minn.

Minnesota celebrated with the Western Collegiate Hockey Association trophy in its locker room after Saturday night’s win. The trophy, which the Gophers won outright last season, was secretly stored in Minnesota assistant coach Grant Potulny’s car over the weekend.

None of the Gophers players knew the trophy was present.

“It took till the last game of the year to get to first place,” head coach Don Lucia said. “It’s something extra special when we know it’s the last year of the WCHA to get a piece of that title.”

Minnesota’s game finished well before the game between Wisconsin and conference leader St. Cloud State. The Gophers watched the Badgers defeat St. Cloud State 3-2 from the locker room. The room erupted when Wisconsin scored an empty-net goal in the final seconds and went berserk when the final horn sounded

“This is the one time a year we cheered for Wisconsin,” junior forward Zach Budish said. “I don’t think any of us expected for the cup to be here, too.”

Minnesota’s celebration was broadcasted on Twitter and drew backlash from St. Cloud State and North Dakota fans.

The Huskies split their series with Wisconsin and blew their two-point conference lead in the process. They finished tied atop the WCHA with the Gophers.

North Dakota was tied for second in the WCHA entering the weekend and split a series with Minnesota State-Mankato to finish alone in second place.

The Gophers weren’t satisfied with their pedestrian effort in Friday’s win and came out hot Saturday.

“I thought we played a great game tonight,” Budish said Saturday. “Those were a solid three periods top to bottom.”

Erik Haula broke the ice with a goal early in Saturday’s game, and Nick Bjugstad continued his impressive weekend later in the first to give Minnesota a two-goal lead.

Bemidji State regained some momentum after Haula’s goal, but Bjugstad’s snipe quashed it.

The Beavers scored a goal in the second, but Budish answered it, and Minnesota pulled away in the third.

“We were up 3-1 going into the third and won the third 2-0,” Budish said. “That’s a sign of a good team.”

Bjugstad’s two power-play goals made the difference in Friday’s win. The Gophers struggled against Bemidji State’s defensive pressure but overcame a third-period deficit to win.

“I thought we played a pretty good 60-minute game,” Beavers head coach Tom Serratore said Friday. “The thing that’s tough to swallow is you have a third-period lead and you give it up. We’ve done that too much this year.”

Though the WCHA regular season is through, the Gophers will see Bemidji State one last time next weekend.

Minnesota will host the Beavers at Mariucci Arena in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs.

“They’re a good team,” Bjugstad said. “We’ve played them at our place before, and we’ve had some success.”