Minnesota prepares for the team that started last season’s postseason tailspin

Mark Remme

Last year seemed to be a fairy-tale season for Minnesota’s men’s hockey team.

Last season, the top-ranked Gophers owned a 20-1-1 record in their last 22 regular-season games, rallying to win their first outright Western Collegiate Hockey Association regular season championship since 1991-1992.

But they fell mighty quickly.

Minnesota played a roller coaster contest where it fell behind, then came back and fell behind again.

The Gophers, the top seed in the WCHA Final Five, marched into a sold-out Xcel Energy Center to face St. Cloud State on March 17, 2006, in what looked to be a bump in the road before facing North Dakota in the championship game.

It was a match up that didn’t happen, as Minnesota lost 8-7 in overtime at the hands of the Huskies.

The Gophers subsequently dropped a 4-0 decision to Wisconsin in the WCHA Final Five third-place game and were ultimately ousted from the NCAA Tournament with a 4-3 overtime loss to Holy Cross.

Junior forward Blake Wheeler said the game is in the back of his mind this year, as Minnesota prepares to take on St. Cloud State this weekend for the first time since that epic battle in mid-March, especially because of the downhill skid it might have led to last season.

“It was kind of a heartbreaker at the end of our season,” Wheeler said. “I don’t know if I want to go as far as saying that it started the downslide but you know, it might’ve.”

Junior goaltender Kellen Briggs, a staple in the crease during Minnesota’s improbable run late in the regular season, surrendered five goals through two-and-a-half periods and was promptly pulled in favor of freshman netminder Jeff Frazee.

Trailing 7-6 with 15 seconds remaining in the third period, junior forward Ryan Potulny beat Huskies junior goalie Bobby Goepfert to send the game into overtime as 19,353 patrons at the Xcel watched in disbelief.

The late-game heroics by Potulny set up a poor-angle overtime goal by St. Cloud State sophomore forward Matt Hartman, giving the game to the Huskies.

“It was one of those games that became a shootout,” coach Don Lucia said. “They had the final shot and it wasn’t a good goal. That kind of messed up the whole night.”

The two teams traveled different paths after that evening at the Xcel – Minnesota made the NCAA Tournament while St. Cloud State did not.

But those two teams, dawning radically changed rosters, yet harboring similarly high aspirations for postseason success, will meet for the first time since that instant classic showdown in St. Paul last March.

The Gophers, riding an eight-game winning streak into Friday’s contest at Mariucci Arena, take not only its No. 2 ranking into its game against the Huskies, but also a bad taste in their mouths stemming from the shocking upset.

Senior defenseman Mike Vannelli said the eight goals the Gophers gave up last year against St. Cloud State were an example of a team goal to step up defensive play this year.

“One of the things we pride ourselves on this year is really trying to shut teams down,” Vannelli said. “It’d be a big step if we could shut down St. Cloud this weekend.”

The weekend series, a home-and-home affair that faces off in Minneapolis on Friday and in St. Cloud on Saturday, might not have as much riding on the results as their match up in March, but the emotions might be just as high.

“They gave us a tough time last year and hopefully we can give them a little payback this year,” Wheeler said. “We want to make a statement early in the two games this weekend.”