Myers: Gophers hockey team keeps rolling, but too soon to look ahead
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MINNEAPOLIS -- The official WCHA rules say that at the regular season's end, the MacNaughton Cup will be awarded to the best of the league's 12 teams. Whether that team wants it or not.
Currently, the nearly 40-pound silver chalice resides just outside Don Lucia's office inside Mariucci Arena, to commemorate the Gophers' 2012 league title.
Even if they win it again this season, it won't be there next year, as the Gophers are fleeing the WCHA for the Big Ten when the 2012-13 campaign is done.
On Saturday, the Gophers blew past an under-talented and seemingly exhausted Alaska-Anchorage team with a 7-1 win. Spurred by Kyle Rau's first collegiate hat trick, and Friday's "great escape" 4-3 win, the Gophers swept the weekend series to capture an important four points in the race for the Cup.
"It's a good thing for us to start climbing in the league and get back to where we want to be," Rau said. "It's the last year of (the Cup) for us, so we might as well try to get it."
The league standings are so tight -- Denver, Omaha, North Dakota, St. Cloud State and the Gophers all hold realistic designs on the title -- that coming into the weekend, the Gophers were ranked No. 1 in the nation, but were in sixth place in the conference.
"Some of that has to do with games, how many you've played, but we've got a good league," Lucia said, with some understatement. "We showed (Friday) night that we probably stole a game. You've got to come to play every night to give yourself a chance to win."
But is winning the Cup a good thing, or an expender of so much regular season energy that there's nothing left in the collective tank come March?
That's an argument that can be made, as the last time a team won the trophy outright and captured the NCAA title in the same season was more than two decades ago.
Alaska-Anchorage coach Dave Shyiak was a member of the 1991 Northern Michigan team, which won the WCHA regular season title, then came to the old St. Paul Civic Center and survived a three-overtime battle with Boston University in the NCAA title game, winning 8-7 for the school's only national title.
Asked to describe the winning goal afterward, Shyiak's teammate Daryl Plandowski memorably quipped, "I got the puck at the side of the crease and I saw the net was open, so I decided to shoot it in."
Sitting a few seats down from Plandowski in the postgame press conference, Wildcats coach Rick Comley looked at his player and said, "Good decision," as the room erupted in laughter.
Since then, two teams -- North Dakota in 1997 and Denver in 2005 -- have shared the Cup and won a NCAA title in the same season, but nobody has won both outright. The most recent WCHA team to win the NCAA crown was Minnesota Duluth two years ago, after the Bulldogs had finished fourth in the league race.
But with Saturday's on-ice muscle flexing by the Gophers, and their place atop the national polls, they are clearly sending a message. Cursed or not, they would prefer that the only way the Cup leaves Minneapolis is when it's shipped to the WCHA office to give to the champs in the new-look league next season.
"We don't like to think too much about championships right at this point and time," said gregarious Gophers defenseman Nate Schmidt, who had four assists on Saturday.
"We're trying to play for the end of the year, but we have to make sure we're not looking ahead to that part of our season."
By the end of the evening, as the Gophers finally swept a WCHA series with 14 more conference games to play, they had climbed into second place, with games in hand on those above them.
And with a dangerous North Dakota team making its final WCHA trip to Mariucci next weekend, looking ahead to trophies or curses or anything else is clearly unnecessary, and unwise.