Weekend series at Wisconsin suddenly has WCHA championship implications

Minnesota is now just four points behind Wisconsin for first in the conference.

Chris Lempesis

Going into last weekend’s slate of games, it seemed a near lock that the McNaughton Cup ” awarded to the Western Collegiate Hockey Association’s men’s regular season champion ” would belong to Wisconsin.

The Badgers, the No. 1 team in the nation at the time, had 28 points, eight more than both Minnesota and Denver.

As of Saturday night, however, a race for first officially is on again.

The Badgers’ sweep at the hands of Denver ” coupled with the Gophers’ sweep of Colorado College ” puts both teams just four points back of Wisconsin, now the No. 2 team in the nation.

Minnesota (16-6-4, 11-5-2, WCHA), still ranked fourth nationally, has a chance to pull dead even with the Badgers when the teams meet in Madison, Wis., for a two-game set this weekend at the Kohl Center.

“They swept us up here (in early December), beat us pretty good,” freshman forward Phil Kessel ” a native of

Madison ” said after Minnesota’s 3-2 win over the Tigers Saturday. “But we gotta go down there and try to do it back to them.”

Kessel is referring to Wisconsin’s two dominating wins over the Gophers at Mariucci Arena. The Badgers controlled all facets of the game in winning by scores of 4-3 and 4-0.

But things don’t figure to be as lopsided this weekend.

A big reason for that is also a big reason Wisconsin was swept for the first time all season last weekend: no Brian Elliott.

The junior goaltender, considered the frontrunner for this year’s Hobey Baker Memorial Award (18-2-2, 1.40 goals against average, .944 save percentage), apparently injured his left leg in practice last week. He missed the Denver series and was expected to be out three to four weeks.

His replacement was freshman Shane Connelly. Connelly hadn’t played a minute of college hockey before last weekend.

The Badgers lost to Denver by scores of 1-0 Friday and 4-2 Saturday.

Big guns kept in check

Before last weekend’s series, the Gophers knew they would have to contain Colorado College’s standout pair of senior forwards, Marty Sertich and Brett Sterling, in order to give themselves a chance to win.

While Minnesota didn’t completely shut them down, it did effectively keep them in check.

Sertich, last year’s Hobey Baker winner, was limited to one goal. Sterling ” the nation’s leading goal-scorer coming in ” had just two assists.

“One of the goals we had coming in was ” Sterling had 99 goals (for his career) coming into the weekend,” coach Don Lucia said. “And I said “I don’t want 100 on our rink.’ “

The Gophers did this by being extra physical with Sterling and it showed. After Saturday’s game, Sterling definitely seemed to be sore from the pounding.

Attendance still down

One negative did come out of the weekend series with Colorado College: The Gophers are inexplicably still having trouble filling the seats at Mariucci.

The paid attendance for the games was announced as 10,209 Friday and 10,191 Saturday.

But, as has been the case all season, those numbers appeared to be far greater than the actual attendance for the games. Large numbers of seats throughout the area were visibly empty. Capacity at Mariucci is listed at 10,000.