Huskies put celebration on ice

The Gophers need just one win to clinch the WCHA regular season title.

Mark Remme

With a smile on his face outside the visiting locker room Saturday night, St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko’s first three words said it all.

“Now it’s interesting,” he said with a grin.

up next

Michigan tech
when: 7:07 p.m. Friday
where: Mariucci Arena

Motzko’s right. The conference-leading Minnesota’s men’s hockey team dropped two decisions to the second-place Huskies, 5-1 on Friday and 5-3 on Saturday, tightening the Western Collegiate Hockey Association race to three points heading into the final weekend.

While a single win against Michigan Tech this weekend would secure an outright conference title for the Gophers (25-7-3 overall, 17-6-3 WCHA), bigger problems seem to be looming over a once unbeatable squad.

The Huskies ran over second-ranked Minnesota, proving they are peaking as the playoffs near with strong goaltending, a potent offense and enough grit to potentially lead them deep into the postseason.

“They’re one of the best teams in the country,” Minnesota coach Don Lucia said. “They’re one of those teams that could really win it all this year.”

Both Friday’s intense crowd at National Hockey Center and Saturday’s audience at Mariucci Arena noticed.

The fourth-ranked Huskies (20-6-6, 14-6-6) won the little battles all weekend long, getting timely goals when they needed them most.

On Friday night, St. Cloud State notched a pair of first-period goals that set the tone for the 5-1 drubbing. On Saturday, it got a seemingly harmless second-period goal from junior forward Marty Mjelleli that cut the Minnesota lead to 3-2.

More importantly, Mjelleli’s goal would prove to be a momentum swing the Gophers couldn’t come back from.

“We were getting our butts kicked,” Motzko said, “but we got our energy going (with that goal).”

It was the start of four unanswered goals by the Huskies, something Minnesota had no answer for.

Part of the reason the Gophers had no answer was St. Cloud State senior goaltender Bobby Goepfert’s play, as he stood out all weekend long.

Goepfert stopped 68 of Minnesota’s 72 shots on goal over the course of the series, never letting poor goals slip into the net.

“I think we’re a dangerous team,” Goepfert said. “What’s unique about this team compared to others I’ve been on is that it might not be our best night, but we find ways to win.”

The Gophers’ performance might have proven not only that the battle for the MacNaughton Cup is still wide open, but Minnesota isn’t a lock for post-season success.

But those issues might have come up at the right time.

After Friday’s game, Gophers assistant coach John Hill said fellow assistant Mike Guentzel made a heated speech addressing last season’s playoff meltdown – a three-game losing streak culminated with a 4-3 overtime loss to Holy Cross in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

This year’s squad has the time to make necessary corrections.

Two regular season games remain before the WCHA playoffs, and Minnesota still controls its own destiny in the conference standings.

But St. Cloud State gave the Gophers a blatant reminder that how a season starts carries no weight on how it ends.

Minnesota senior goaltender Kellen Briggs said this series was a reminder of that and the Gophers need to learn from it.

“We can’t forget (these losses); we’ve got to learn from it,” senior goalie Kellen Briggs said. “We’ve got to get back to playing as a team and playing a whole 60 minutes.”