Gophers need one point to clinch second

by Michael Rand

Gophers hockey players and coaches talked at length on Saturday about how important their win and tie at Colorado College were in terms of establishing consistency and a good team atmosphere.
But forget the positive glow they got from their weekend triumph. Warm fuzzies are nice, but the reality is that the three points the team earned weren’t just fodder for feeling good — they were absolutely necessary in the WCHA race.
Let’s say, for instance, that the Gophers would have returned from Colorado with one point, the average amount the Gophers earned over the past three years by going 1-4-1 on the road against the Tigers.
Instead of comfortably residing in second place, three points ahead of St. Cloud State and assured of no worse than a third place finish, Minnesota would be tied with Colorado College for second, one point ahead of the Huskies.
The Gophers conclude their season against Wisconsin (15-13-2 in the WCHA) this weekend, a team that has been slumping but is still dangerous. Meanwhile, CC faces Alaska-Anchorage and St. Cloud State plays Michigan Tech, teams with a combined league record of 12-41-7.
Given that, it’s not unreasonable to envision a split for Minnesota and sweeps for the Tigers and Huskies. And had those scenarios played out, the Gophers would have found themselves in fourth place — facing the prospects of playing a more difficult game in the first round of the league playoffs and an extra game in the WCHA Final Five had they made it that far.
The reality the team created for itself by playing one of its best series of the year against Colorado College is much more relaxing.
Minnesota is already assured of at least a third-place finish and can clinch second place by earning one point against the Badgers. The Gophers even have an outside shot at being WCHA co-champions if they sweep Wisconsin and Denver sweeps UND.
Attitude adjustment
The impetus behind the Gophers sudden rebound from inconsistency is nothing more than a renewed belief in team play, Gophers coach Doug Woog said.
Discussions during the team’s difficult stretch from mid-January until mid-February centered around every player stepping up their intensity level.
“Sometimes you need to look at what direction you’re going,” Woog said. “I’m not going to be the guy yelling and screaming. We stressed being proactive instead of reactive, and I think it worked.”
You know he’s butter …
With all apologies to ESPN SportsCenter anchor Stuart Scott, Gophers center Wyatt Smith has been on a serious roll lately.
The sophomore has eight goals and four assists in his last 11 games after registering just four goals and three assists in his first 19 contests.
Smith had three goals against Colorado College — two, including a game-tying score, on Friday and a empty-netter on Saturday — to move into third place on the team with 13 goals.
Surprise, surprise
Upon learning that Colorado College freshman goalie Jason Cugnet would likely not start Saturday’s game after a spectacular Friday effort, Gophers defenseman Mike Crowley was in mild shock.
“Really?” Crowley asked incredulously. “He was pretty good tonight.”
Cugnet made 40 saves, many of them from close range during Friday’s 3-3 tie, but he gave way to senior Judd Lambert in the series finale.
The Tigers often alternate their goalies, and Saturday was senior day at Cadet Ice Arena. Lambert started off slow, allowing two goals in the first period, but had 40 saves in the game.
Slap Shots
ù The Gophers’ tie Friday night was the team’s first since Dec. 15, 1995, against Alaska-Anchorage, a span of 58 games.
ù CC freshman Cam Kryway, who left Saturday’s game on a stretcher after colliding with Erik Rasmussen, was released from a local hospital later in the evening and should be fine.
ù The Gophers’ 13 penalties in the Colorado College series is their lowest total of the season.