Surprise!

Michael Rand

It’s hard to tell at what point in the season the Gophers hockey team’s odds of winning the WCHA regular season title were the worst.
It could have been at the beginning, before the team’s eight freshman had even begun the daunting task of helping to replace the likes of Brian Bonin, Dan Trebil and eight other seniors from last year’s team.
Maybe it was right after a crippling sweep at North Dakota a month ago produced a lot of questions but few answers.
Perhaps it was just a week ago, when the Gophers, even after taking three points on the road at Colorado College, still trailed North Dakota by four points with just two games remaining.
But in a season when WCHA coaches stopped making predictions when it became clear the league was too unpredictable, the Gophers improbable rise to the top makes sense.
UND’s pair of losses at Denver and the Gophers’ two wins at home against Wisconsin this weekend — which made the teams co-champions — were the final twists in a bizarre regular season.
The Gophers’ turbulence on the ice was reflected in their emotions throughout the season.
“Some days you feel different than others,” co-captain Casey Hankinson said. “North Dakota was not a fun weekend. We questioned our selves quite a bit. But there was still a glimpse of hope. It wasn’t in the odds, but strange things happen.”
Even though the Gophers (24-11-1 overall, 21-10-1 in the WCHA) had some dry spells during the season, they finished with just one fewer point in the WCHA than they did last year.
Despite their good record last season, the Gophers finished 12 points behind league-leader Colorado College. Still, most people would compare last year’s team favorably to this year’s squad.
How, then, did Minnesota manage to win the title this year? Here are a few reasons:
ù Although the team had a 19-game unbeaten streak last year, it also lost six of its last eight WCHA games. This year’s team, on the other hand, never lost more than two games in a row.
Minnesota didn’t always play well in victory, but it found a way to win. In their last nine games decided by two or fewer goals, the Gophers are 7-1-1.
ù The WCHA is obviously a different league this year than it was last year. There are no truly dominant teams like Colorado College was last season. Rather, there are several very good teams that all had legitimate chances to win the title.
“The WCHA is a little different than it has been in past years,” Gophers junior Mike Crowley said. “North Dakota is a good team, but they’ve struggled on the road a little bit.”
ù Because the league was so up and down this year, the Gophers never thought the title was out of reach. That helped Minnesota post a 4-0-1 record over the final five games of the regular season.
“Until we knew we were 100 percent out of it, we weren’t going to give up,” Gophers goalie Steve DeBus said.
Earning the co-championship in the last game of the season was sweeter, Gophers players said, because of the highs and lows they experienced along the way.
The end was all that mattered.
“It was unbelievable,” Hankinson said. “Some people may not have thought it was realistic, but we did it.”
DeBus added, “It was the most personally satisfying moment of my life.”