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Gophers clinch cup, but concerns arise

Despite rough spell, Minnesota secured its second straight WCHA crown.

In a weekend where Minnesota’s men’s hockey team locked up the conference crown, few positive words were uttered as players and coaches left Saturday night.

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Alaska anchorage
when: 7:07 p.m. Friday
where: Mariucci Arena

Maybe that’s because they knew a Sunday morning practice was already scheduled to right the ship.

The fourth-ranked Gophers solidified a second straight Western Collegiate Hockey Association title with a 3-1 Friday victory over Michigan Tech, but dropped a 5-4 lopsided decision Saturday to raise concerns among coaches that the team isn’t heading in the right direction entering postseason play.

Coach Don Lucia spoke in an almost bewildered tone after Saturday’s contest, a game where Minnesota trailed 5-1 at one point.

“We knew Tech would come out with a sense of urgency,” Lucia said. “But we didn’t even give ourselves a chance to win tonight.”

That notion was evident to those in attendance at Mariucci Arena. The crowd had little to make noise about as the Gophers (26-8-3 overall, 18-7-3 WCHA) were beaten to loose pucks, made costly turnovers and received little help from sophomore goalie Jeff Frazee, who was pulled midway through the second period.

While Lucia described the Huskies’ (16-15-5, 11-12-5) play on Saturday as a desperate team looking for a higher playoff seed, Minnesota looked nothing like a top-five team with championship aspirations.

The result: an all-but-relaxing Sunday morning practice for the WCHA champs.

“It’ll be early,” Lucia said after Saturday’s game. “It may or may not include pucks.”

The message is clear to the players this year after what happened in last season’s playoff meltdown.

And while an impromptu Sunday skate isn’t an ideal way to spend the morning, junior forward Evan Kaufmann said it’s necessary.

“Last year the coaches might not have done all they could to let us know our play was unacceptable,” Kaufmann said, relating to the Gophers first-round NCAA tournament loss to underdog Holy Cross last March.

“The second time around is a little different and we deserve to be here tomorrow morning.”

Kaufmann was a lone shining star in the midst of cloudy play for Minnesota, scoring four goals on the weekend including a hat trick Saturday night.

Since returning from a leg injury on Feb. 16, Kaufmann seemingly put the team on his back by scoring seven goals in the past six games.

“Usually the guy who competes the hardest does the best,” Lucia said of Kaufmann’s play.

However, after acknowledging Kaufmann’s solid play, Lucia anonymously called out other team members who he said haven’t contributed in recent games.

“This is the time of year when your best players have to be your best players,” Lucia said. “We’ve got guys going games – five, six, seven games – without contributing.”

Friday and Saturday’s matchups looked like two completely different Gophers teams. On Friday, Minnesota played sound defense and allowed just 17 shots on goal en route to victory.

Saturday’s team looked incredibly prone to an upset as postseason play looms near.

“We need to play with a little more bite,” Lucia said.

With celebration turning into groans of disappointment, uncertainty and doubt over the course of one weekend, the Gophers might have needed the extra practice session to figure out which team will show up in next week’s first-round playoff series.

“There are no excuses for the way we played (Saturday),” senior netminder Kellen Briggs said. “All I can say is we can’t play like this at this time of the year.”

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