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March 1, 2012 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Minnesota Focusing on Wisconsin, Not Cup

by Dan Myers/CHN Staff

MINNEAPOLIS — With its first MacNaughton Cup championship within reach this weekend at Mariucci Arena, Minnesota coach Don Lucia won't let his team get too far ahead of itself.

For a team with a senior class that hasn't seen an NCAA Tournament berth, much less a conference championship, the amount of self-control shown during Wednesday's media day session was quite impressive.

Seniors Kent Patterson, Jake Hansen, Nick Larson, Taylor Matson and sophomore Nate Schmidt were each asked what a MacNaughton Cup championship would mean to them.

In the case of some, they were again asked the same question in a different way.

In the case of Schmidt, he fielded the question five or six times.

Each time, each said that was not what they were thinking about. The Gophers, according to Hansen, have plenty of other things to think about this weekend against the Badgers.

"We're still looking for a little payback. We played one of our worst games all season, Friday night," Hansen said, referring to the Badgers' win over Minnesota on Nov. 11 at the Kohl Center. "This is a big rivalry, a border-battle. We're just looking to finish this season off and hopefully get four points this weekend."

A win either night against Wisconsin, or a loss either night by Minnesota-Duluth, wraps up the top seed for the Gophers and at least a share of the league championship. If the two finished tied, the two teams will be considered co-champions, even though Minnesota swept UMD at Amsoil Arena in their only meeting this season, way back in October.

But parading the MacNaughton Cup around Mariucci Arena? That's secondary.

"Our focus is on winning the season series with Wisconsin," said Gophers coach Don Lucia. Minnesota left with a split in Madison back in November. "If we do that, the rest of the things take care of themselves."

The Gophers run to the top of the WCHA was rather unexpected. Picked to finish in the middle of the league by most this season, Minnesota has relied upon a deep group of forwards and a stalwart senior goaltender who has played every minute of every game this season.

Perhaps most impressive is the manner in which the Gophers can win the league this weekend. Only once has Minnesota not been atop the league standings — and that was a 24-hour period the first weekend back from winter break. The Gophers swept Minnesota-Duluth on the opening weekend of conference play, which helped them withstand a stretch of games where the Bulldogs went unbeaten in 17 straight and 20 out of 21.

And after enduring an inconsistent stretch for two months between mid-November and mid-January, Minnesota has won four straight games and seven of nine, positioning itself perfectly for a chance to lift the Cup this weekend on home ice.

"It's one of the premier leagues in the country," Schmidt said. "Winning a league like this, it comes with a lot of pride. Especially with the teams we have, with the championships in the locker room that we get to look at every day. The teams that have done it before us.

"But we have to take care of business this weekend before that can happen."

One thing is clear about this Gopher bunch this weekend: Despite Wisconsin's ninth-place standing, Minnesota will provide the Badgers with a superior effort both nights this weekend. There is definitely no lack of respect from the guys west of the St. Croix River.

On paper, getting the two points necessary shouldn't be too big of a challenge. The Gophers are playing some of their best hockey of the season and Wisconsin enters winners of just three games on the road all season.

But two of those games came last weekend, as the Badgers rolled out of Bemidji, one of the WCHA's best teams at home this season, with a pair of 4-2 triumphs. UW also boasts arguably the nation's best player in defenseman Justin Schultz.

Schmidt, a defenseman like Schultz, says he loves watching the Badgers' junior assistant captain whenever he can. This weekend, he'll get a chance up close and in the flesh.

"He's an unreal player," Schmidt said. "We had an off weekend and they were on the Big Ten [Network] and I watched him both games. He's just such a smooth player, he's fast, he's quick, he's smart. He makes unbelievable plays with his legs and continues plays. He's that all-around defenseman every team looks for."

Even with that respect, the stakes are high this weekend.

"You come to the University of Minnesota to hang banners and win championships," Matson said, echoing a long-time mantra of Lucia.

And even if they weren't, it's still the Badgers, and that rivalry has the ability to make even the most buttoned up Gopher open up — even if it's just a second.

"For them, one of the teams we're not too fond of, obviously a big rivalry there," Hansen said. "It'd be pretty fun to celebrate in front of them."
 

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