Saturday, March 10, 2012

Gopher Split with Wisconsin Enough to Claim WCHA Title, MacNaughton Cup

So, this is a little late, but the Gopher Hockey team won the MacNaughton Cup this year. Congratulations on an amazing achievement for Don Lucia and his squad, which had not made the Final Five for two years and had not made the NCAA tournament for three.

I won't bore you with a hit-by-hit game recap of the Wisconsin series. Suffice it to say this: the Gophers sleepwalked their way to a brutal 4-1 defeat on Friday before coming back on Saturday and gutting out a 2-1 win with two third period goals, one of which is my nominee for play of the year. No words will do it justice, just check out the highlights below:

Pay close attention to the Schmidt goal, with the play starting around 1:35. Play of the year.

What the split meant was that, coupled with UMD's one point weekend at St. Cloud, the Gophers won the WCHA's regular season and, along with it, the MacNaughton Cup, an almost ridiculously ornate trophy presented to the winner of the league. Virtually nobody gave this team a chance to succeed at the beginning of the year - the coaches tabbed the Gophers to finish sixth prior to the start of the season, and I predicted that they would finish third in my preseason predictions post (found here) at the beginning of the year. However, even my rampant Gopher homerism could not have predicted that Minnesota would hang a banner by winning the league's regular season. So, a big and heartfelt congrats to the boys - they played well and deserved every bit of their tremendous accomplishment.

Below, check out the Three Gopher Stars of the Wisconsin weekend:

3. Kyle Rau - 0G-0A-0P

Rau did not register a point on the weekend, but he's one of those "motor always running" players that Minnesota desperately needs. He kills penalties well, he has some of the best innate hockey sense that I've ever seen in a player, he skates hard and he's not afraid to throw his body around. Rau is one of those kids that you hate unless he's on your team: ultra-competitive, trash talking every chance he can get and not afraid to back it up with his play on the puck or off of it. He made an impact in this weekend's action, and gets the third star because of it.

2. Erik Haula - 1G-0A-1P

Haula's short-handed goal to tie the game in the third period of Saturday's game was a thing of beauty. Streaking to the net with the puck on a two-on-one, Haula kept getting in close to the goalie until he was able to make a move to his backhand and beat Rumpel to light the lamp. Mariucci Arena erupted with the goal, louder than I've heard for a number of years. It's Haula's competitiveness that impressed me, though. I've been critical of Haula's level of compete in the past, as sometimes it seems like he's going through the motions a la Jordan Schroeder. The past couple weekends have sold me on the fact that this kid wants to win and has the will to make it happen. Haula's goal was one of the biggest of the weekend and he earns the number two star for it.

1. Nate Schmidt - 1G-0A-1P

Schmidt's goal to take the lead in the third period was the play of the year thus far. The only thing remarkable about it to me is that it was only Schmidt's third goal of the season. The kid isn't afraid to shoot the puck and has a cannon of a shot. It looks like he's also developed some moves with the puck, as his deke to get around the sliding Badger defender was reminiscent of some of the great Mike Vannelli moves of a few years ago. Schmidt has been one of the best players on Minnesota's team all year long, and it's great that he finally broke through to score the big goal when they needed it. For a play I will not forget for a long time, Nate Schmidt nabs the number one star of the weekend.

By virtue of their number one ranking in the conference, Minnesota hosts Alaska-Anchorage in first round play. If they can take care of business against the bottom-dwelling Seawolves, they'll punch their ticket to the Final Five for the first time in three years. A WCHA playoff primer is upcoming.

Go Gophers!

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