Myers: Gophers close WCHA era with the MacNaughton Cup in hand
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BEMIDJI, Minn. -- On a night where the Gophers did not control their own destiny, they were in complete control on the ice. By the end of this snowy evening on the shore of Lake Bemidji, they had given the Sanford Center's scoreboard a workout. And thanks to some good news supplied on the out-of-town scoreboard, they had earned the right to hoist one more WCHA title banner.
The Gophers convincing 5-1 win at Bemidji State, coupled with Wisconsin's 3-2 win over St. Cloud State in Madison, means that the U of M claims a share of a 14th (and final) WCHA regular season title. The Huskies, who clinched a share of the WCHA title (their first, and last) on Friday night, own the tiebreaker and will be the top seed in the league playoffs, which begin on Friday.
The Gophers got a surprise guest in their locker room as soon as the game in Madison went final. They still hold the MacNaughton Cup after winning it outright last season, and just in case there was a reason to celebrate on Saturday, Gophers coach Don Lucia had the Cup smuggled to Bemidji without the players knowledge.
"(Assistant coach) Grant (Potulny) came up Friday, and I told him to bring the Cup and just keep it in his car, just in case," Lucia said, grinning ear to ear. "Nobody knew it. They had no idea. My first year at Colorado College, we got the Cup the first weekend of the playoffs, and it stunk. Now is when you want it. Next week it's anti-climactic."
After beating Bemidji State twice this weekend, for just their second WCHA series sweep of the season, second-seeded Gophers will get to see the Beavers again next weekend. Bemidji State finished 11th in the 12-team league, and will travel to Mariucci Arena for a best-of-three series.
"They had some nice goals, and we better be sharper away from the puck next weekend when they have more time and space to make plays," said Beavers coach Tom Serratore, who did not sound thrilled about a rematch with the Gophers. "It is what it is. What are you going to do? For us we'd like to avoid playing on big ice if we can, and they're a good team. Offensively they're extremely dangerous, so I'd be lying to you if I said I'm doing cartwheels about going over there."
After coming from behind to beat the Beavers on Friday, the Gophers never trailed in their final regular season WCHA game ever. Bemidji State celebrated senior night with an extended ceremony honoring 11 upperclassmen and their families, then had one of the Gophers' parents drop the ceremonial first puck. Air Force coach Frank Serratore, who played hockey at Bemidji State, and is brother of the Beavers' coach, dropped the puck between the Beavers' captain and Frank's son, Gophers junior winger Tom Serratore.
If that wasn't bewildering enough for the sellout crowd, which was 40 percent Gophers' fans, minimum, they were treated to some on-ice shock and awe early, and the Gophers moved the puck up and down the small ice sheet with speed that the Beavers could not match. The Gophers took a 2-0 lead after 20 minutes, on goals by usual suspects Erik Haula and Nick Bjugstad, but the fans in green got a glimmer of hope with a goal early in the second that cut the U of M lead in half.
That was the end of the drama, as Zach Budish, Jake Parenteau and Christian Isackson scored for the Gophers, ensuring that their final season in the WCHA, after more than 60 years there, ends with them on top.
"It was a great effort from everyone, and it's great to have the Cup back," said Bjugstad, who added an assist with a second left in the game. "We're going to have to prepare for (Bemidji State) just like we did for them this weekend. They're a good team, but we have home ice advantage obviously. We'll have to figure out what we can do on home ice."
The "glass is half empty" crowd will note that for a team ranked number one in the country from much of the season, and a near-unanimous preseason pick to win the WCHA title, sharing the crown is a bit of a disappointment. Before it's turned over to the WCHA, with the Gophers and Huskies heading to other conferences next season, the Cup will pay a visit to St. Cloud State.
But for now the Cup is on a bus, headed back to Minneapolis on a snowy spring night with a celebratory bunch of Gophers.