Gophers host Anchorage in WCHA playoffs rematch

The Seawolves swept the Gophers in last year’s WCHA playoffs.

Minnesota defender Jake Parenteau passes during Friday's game against the Seawolves at Mariucci Arena.

Mark Vancleave

Minnesota defender Jake Parenteau passes during Friday’s game against the Seawolves at Mariucci Arena.

Dane Mizutani

 

It’s said revenge is a dish best served cold — or in this case, on ice.

The Gophers will have their shot at retribution this weekend in a rematch of last year’s first-round matchup of the WCHA playoffs against Alaska-Anchorage.

Minnesota was unbeaten in its final seven games of the regular season last year, but it fell twice to Alaska-Anchorage in the opening round of the WCHA playoffs. The Seawolves dominated the series and swept Minnesota at Mariucci Arena.

“We may have looked past them [last year],” defenseman Nate Schmidt said. “If we had won … and got in the Final Five, we would have secured our place in the NCAA tournament.

“They proved to us last year that’s what happens when you … overlook a team,” Schmidt said.

It was the first time that the Gophers had ever lost a playoff series at Mariucci Arena. It was also the last time they were swept at home.

Nick Bjugstad hasn’t forgotten the feeling.

“We’re a little bitter about last year,” he said. “There are a lot of Gophers fans and alumni that are pretty sour about last year, as well as the players.”

Bjugstad missed last Friday’s game with an undisclosed injury, but he returned for Saturday to help his team claim the MacNaughton Cup for the first time since 2007.

“I basically felt ready on Friday night, but we were trying to be cautious,” he said. “It was good to get back there on Saturday.”

Bjugstad said he feels “100 percent” entering this weekend’s series with Anchorage. 

This year’s matchup between the two teams will be different, as No. 5 Minnesota (24-12-1, 20-8-0 WCHA) will enter the WCHA playoffs as the No. 1 seed.

It’s a stark contrast from when Minnesota was projected to finish sixth in the league before the season started.

“We get picked higher than we should be [sometimes] just because of who we are, but our guys had to work for it this year,” head coach Don Lucia said.

The Gophers started the season 9-1-0 and have won five of their last six games en route to winning the conference.

Anchorage (9-23-2, 5-22-1 WCHA), on the other hand, could not recover from a 0-6-0 start in league play and ranks dead last in the WCHA. The Seawolves have also lost three-straight games heading into the playoffs.

Despite its horrendous league record, Anchorage managed to defeat Minnesota-Duluth a month ago and upended Colorado College on the road Dec. 9.

“There’s not that much of a difference. … We’re talking one or two goals a game,” Lucia said. “It’s not like you’re playing a team from a completely different level … like what you see early in [the] NCAA basketball [tournament], where [teams] are not the same caliber.”

Curtis Leinweber and Mitch Bruijsten lead the Seawolves on offense with 16 points apiece. Anchorage also runs a platoon system with Rob Gunderson and Chris Kamal in the crease.

Kamal allowed five goals in the first matchup in October, and Gunderson allowed three goals the next night.

“They’re going to definitely wait for us to make the mistake and then counter off of it,” Minnesota goaltender Kent Patterson said. “They’re going to try and get a lot of perimeter shots and just try and get those scrappy goals.”

The Seawolves will need those types of goals this week, as they have the worst offense in the WCHA.

Should Minnesota win its first-round series, it will advance to the Final Five for the first time since 2009.

“We haven’t been to the [Final Five] the last couple years,” Lucia said. “We’ve had a great regular season … but now it’s the playoffs … and the next step is trying to get to the Xcel Energy Center.”

Even with the opportunity to get the Final Five back on the table this weekend, the idea of revenge still permeated among players Wednesday.

“It just so happens that we play Alaska-Anchorage again in the first round,” Schmidt said with a smile. “It’s one of those things that the stars were aligned to play these guys again.”