Date with Wisconsin offers chance at Cup

Minnesota can clinch the WCHA title with a sweep or a win and a tie.

Gophers sophomore Nick Bjugstad handles a puck Feb. 17 during a game against Bemidji State at Mariucci Arena.

Satchell Mische-Richter

Gophers sophomore Nick Bjugstad handles a puck Feb. 17 during a game against Bemidji State at Mariucci Arena.

Dane Mizutani

Minnesota can capture its first MacNaughton Cup since 2007 in a border battle with Wisconsin this weekend, but any mention of the hardware was hard to come by Wednesday.

The Gophers players skillfully evaded any talk about the trophy given to the regular-season champion of the WCHA and in the few moments it was brought up, they were quick to refocus on the series with the Badgers.

“We have a good chance … and it would be an unreal experience if we could win [the MacNaughton Cup],” senior Jake Hansen said, “but we’re just trying to look at Friday’s game first and just focus on that game.”

It’s been five years since the Gophers hoisted the league trophy, but this weekend they control their own destiny.

No. 4 Minnesota (23-11-1, 19-7-0 WCHA) can clinch first place in the WCHA with a sweep or a win and a tie.

Wisconsin is the only thing standing in the way.

“It’s a rivalry, and no matter where we are in the standings, no matter where they are in the standings, the magnitude of the game isn’t going to change,” Nate Schmidt said.

The Gophers split a series with the Badgers at the Kohl Center in November and came out extremely flat. They fell 3-1 in their first meeting but bounced back with a 4-1 victory the following night.

“We’re still looking for a little payback,” Hansen said. “We played one of our worst games all season up there … and we’re just looking to finish the season off and hopefully get four points this weekend.” 

Minnesota has not lost since dropping a pair of games to Denver three weeks ago.

The Gophers are currently on a four-game winning streak for the third time this season and have only surrendered five goals total throughout the streak.

“We’ve played well,” head coach Don Lucia said. “We’re not going to go out there and out-score people. We have to continue to do what we’ve done, and that’s out-defend them.”

Wisconsin (15-15-2, 10-14-2 WCHA) comes in just as hot as the Gophers and is on its second-longest win streak of the season.

It split a series with Denver two weeks ago and is fresh off a road sweep of Bemidji State.

Mark Zengerle and Justin Schultz lead the Badgers with 44 and 42 points, respectively.

Schultz leads all WCHA defensemen in points and will be a focal point on the ice this weekend.

“Obviously we’ve got to know when Justin Schultz is on the ice,” senior captain Taylor Matson said. “He’s one of the Hobey Baker candidates and one of the best players in college hockey.”

Though the Badgers are ninth in the league and are essentially locked into their spot for the WCHA playoffs, Hansen said he knows they will try and play spoiler this weekend.

“I don’t think they want to see us win the MacNaughton Cup, so I think they’re going to come out and try to ruin everything for us,” Hansen said. “I think they’re definitely coming in here with one goal, and that’s to ruin our season.”

Should the Gophers win the regular-season title, Hansen said it would make it that much more sweet if it came against arguably their biggest rival.

It will also be the last regular-season home series for the seniors on the team, and Matson said he couldn’t see a better team to close out their careers.

Minnesota can also clinch the MacNaughton Cup if Minnesota-Duluth loses a game to St. Cloud State this weekend.