Champs once again: men’s hockey

Minnesota wins WCHA title, MacNaughton Cup.

Minnesota celebrates its MacNaughton Cup title after a 2-1 victory over Wisconsin Saturday night at Mariucci Arena.  The Gophers havent won the league title since 2007.

Image by Satchell Mische-Richter

Minnesota celebrates its MacNaughton Cup title after a 2-1 victory over Wisconsin Saturday night at Mariucci Arena. The Gophers haven’t won the league title since 2007.

by Dane Mizutani

The Gophers men’s hockey team has the tools to dominate its league every year. After a few down years, the Gophers are back on top.

Minnesota won the WCHA conference Saturday and earned the elusive MacNaughton Cup for the first time since 2007 with a 2-1 victory against Wisconsin.

The Gophers did not lead all weekend until the third period Saturday night, and even then, the lead never felt safe.

The Badgers controlled every facet of the game Friday en route to a 4-1 win and had the upper hand with a 1-0 lead through two periods Saturday.

However, Erik Haula provided the fuel for a fierce third-period comeback and Nate Schmidt lit the match.

Schmidt’s goal with more than 12 minutes remaining gave Minnesota its first lead of the series, and the Gophers held on to win the WCHA title.

“They went to work this offseason and put in the time,” head coach Don Lucia said. “I’m really happy for our players, and to look in their eyes and see the reward for their hard work means a lot.”

Despite falling flat Friday, Minnesota still clinched at least a share of the title after Minnesota-Duluth lost to St. Cloud State.

“We just wanted this one for ourselves,” Schmidt said. “We didn’t want a co-champions thing … and I guess that’s being a little selfish, but it’s something that we will take.”

The Badgers outworked and outplayed the Gophers in the first game of the series and won 4-1.

Wisconsin went 2-for-3 on the power play and Joel Rumpel had 26 saves.

“They were the better team tonight in basically every phase of the game,” Lucia said Friday. “They deserved to win the game without question.”

The Badgers struck first when Minnesota goaltender Kent Patterson gift-wrapped a rebound for Tyler Barnes in front of the net.

Barnes pounded the puck in the net, and Wisconsin took a 1-0 lead late in the first period.

Minnesota was without Nick Bjugstad and looked offensively inept for stretches during the night.

Bjugstad’s absence may have contributed to the lack of offense, but Lucia did not use that as an excuse.

“This is a team game and … with the way the rest of our guys played, it wouldn’t have mattered if Nick was in the lineup tonight,” Lucia said Friday.

Wisconsin’s offense exploded in the second period, and the Gophers had no answer.

Ryan Little, Michael Mersch and Mark Zengerle all scored in the frame to create a seemingly insurmountable 4-0 deficit.

Patterson played by far his worst game of the season Friday, and backup goaltender Michael Shibrowski led the Gophers on the ice for the start of the third period.

It was the first time all season Patterson was not in the crease for Minnesota.

“That one’s not on Kent, it’s on us,” Jake Hansen said. “We played sloppy defense, our forwards were awful [and] we let Kent hang out to dry.”

Shibrowski did not allow a goal in relief of Patterson, but he only faced five shots as the Badgers had clearly slowed the pace in the third period.

Nico Sacchetti scored an insignificant goal late in the third to finalize the score at 4-1 after a majority of the fans had left.

Minnesota brought an added intensity Saturday, but it seemed more concerned with hitting the Badgers than scoring goals early in the game.

Wisconsin took a 1-0 lead early in the second period when Barnes slammed home his second goal of the weekend.

Zengerle had an assist on the scoring play to stretch his weekend point total to five. He played a role in every point for the Badgers over the weekend.

In the third period, Bjugstad crashed the net trying to create any sort of offense for the Gophers, and chaos ensued.

Two Wisconsin players hit Bjugstad behind the net, and the three players tussled. Several other fights began around the scrum, but things quieted fairly quickly.

The Badgers ended up on the power play when order was restored with a chance to add a huge insurance goal.

Haula had other things in mind, though.

He found the puck on his stick on the penalty kill and raced into the offensive zone on a two-on-one. Haula deked left and finished with his backhand to even the score at 1-1, and Mariucci Arena erupted.

“That’s the loudest I’ve ever heard any place in my life,” Schmidt said of the crowd. “It was unbelievable … [and] you just kind of get goose bumps across your whole body.”

Less than three minutes later, Schmidt gave the Gophers the lead, and the arena seemed to get even louder.

He made a phenomenal effort to keep the puck in the offensive zone on the power play and faked a shot before beating Joel Rumpel with a laser from just inside the blue line.

Wisconsin made a push to tie the game, but Patterson stonewalled all scoring chances and the Gophers triumphed.

Once the final seconds ticked away, the entire bench emptied toward Patterson in his crease.

 “There’s no better feeling getting this trophy in this building in front of this great crowd,” Patterson said. “We’ve been drooling over that trophy for a long time now.”

Minnesota will host Alaska-Anchorage in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs next weekend. It’s a rematch of last year’s first round, during which Anchorage swept the Gophers in two games.

“We kind of had something to prove to start the season,” Haula said. “We started 9-0-0 and … got our swagger going — then we kind of had a slow period there.

“We’ve won five out of our last six games, so I think we’re really confident going into the playoffs.”