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‘Minnesota 6’ Compete for Conference Titles

The six Minnesota Division I hockey programs will make their runs at the CCHA, NCHC, Big Ten and WCHA conference titles.

UMD women's hockey goaltender Eve Gascon. (Photo courtesy of UMD Athletics)

Three weekends remain in the regular season schedules of the top colleges. Minnesota’s six Division I teams are hot in the running for title contention in the CCHA, NCHC and Big Ten, putting extra emphasis on these closing games and defying the coaching cliche that teams must focus on “one game at a time.”

In the CCHA, which used to be the WCHA for both men and women, it couldn’t be more competitive. Bemidji State leads with 37 points on an 11-7-2 record; St. Thomas and Bowling Green are tied with 35 points and identical 11-8-1 records. Minnesota State Mankato also has 35 points and an 11-7-2 record. 

This weekend, things could get straightened out a bit — or even more tangled — in the CCHA when Bemidji State faces two games at St. Thomas, while Lake Superior State invades Mankato, Michigan Tech is at Bowling Green and Northern Michigan at Ferris State.

In the Big Ten, Minnesota stumbled at Notre Dame, but came back from a 6-1 embarrassment to gain a 3-2 overtime victory in the rematch when Jaxon Nelson scored late to tie it, and Jimmy Snuggerud scored at 1:18 of overtime to win it.

Nevertheless, Minnesota’s stretch of 9-1-1 was broken, as was the Gophers hope to vault up into the top spot in the conference. At 12-6-4, the third-place Gophers have 37 points to stay ahead of Notre Dame, but they still trail first-place Michigan State (46 points, 14-4-2 record) and second-place Wisconsin (13-6-1, 39 points). The Gophers are idle this weekend, while last-place Ohio State heads for Michigan State after ruining Wisconsin’s title hopes with 3-2 overtime and 3-1 victories for the Buckeyes last weekend.

The NCHC, meanwhile, which had some struggles early, has now settled into its usual position as the nation’s best conference. The top five teams could legitimately feel as though they could win any other conference in the country. Those top five are North Dakota, St. Cloud State, Colorado College, Denver and Western Michigan, and they are all bunched within eight points.

Rough weekend for UMD vs. Denver
Minnesota Duluth isn’t among the NCHC title-chasers this season, but if they can pull all their loose ends together for the final six regular-season games, the Bulldogs may well decide who wins it. The Bulldogs languish in seventh place after being swept 5-4 in overtime and 5-2 by Denver last weekend at AMSOIL Arena. While Denver looked like the best team any hockey fans in Duluth have seen this year, they trail the leaders: North Dakota (11-6-1, 37 points), St. Cloud State (10-4-4, 36 points) and surprising Colorado College (12-6, 33 points). Denver is 11-6-1 with 31 points.

UMD, having lost twice to powerful Denver, now finishes the regular season at North Dakota this weekend, at Colorado College and back home against St. Cloud State. How’s that for a playoff tuneup?

Last Friday night’s game might have been the most entertaining and exciting games of the season for the Bulldogs who, if they didn’t have their torturous loose ends together, they pulled them together in that wild finish with two goals after pulling goaltender Zach Stejskal to tie the game 4-4 — only to fall on a goal by Aidan Thompson at 1:46 of the 3-on-3 overtime.

The thrill of victory and the agony of defeat, all within about four minutes of elapsed time.

The loose ends came back to haunt UMD Saturday night, after another similar rally seemed to lift the Bulldogs from a horrible three-goal opening deficit fashioned in a shaky first seven minutes, to self-destructing when two of their promising scorers — Ben Steeves and Anthony Menghini — wound up sharing penalty box time for misconduct penalties through the final minutes to eliminate any chance of continuing the rally.

It was, in a word, embarrassing. That, after an embarrassing start of three goals on five shots that caused coach Scott Sandelin to pull Stejskal and send in Matthew Thiessen.

“And you know what the most embarrassing thing was?” Sandelin said, challenging three media types who showed up after the game. “That stuff at the end. Having two guys sitting there for mouthing off. It’s frustrating, and I get it, but I’m sorry, if they don’t learn it’s not going to bode well for us. You don’t disrespect the team.”

And with that, Sandelin stalked away from the podium. Press conference over.

That Saturday night, UMD’s fire was extinguished early when Zeev Buium scored on the first shot of the first shift, at 0:31, and Connor Caponi shoveled in a backhander at 5:25. Jared Wright got loose on the right boards and flew in to score short-side on his breakaway for a 3-0 lead at 6:39. Shots were 5-5, but the score was 3-0 Denver, and the crowd was silent. Thiessen was sent in to tend goal, and he was sharp immediately, and made saves on all eight shots the rest of the first period.

Denver took a 5-2 lead in the third period, and the air went out of the balloon. At 9:57 of the third period, it got worse. That’s when Menghini, who has scored seven goals as a freshman, was called for checking from behind. Menghini said something to the ref, and was given a 10-minute misconduct, too. Sandelin sent Steeves over to serve the minor, and it ended just as a whistle blew. Steeves skated out and, as he passed the ref, he made a comment. Bang! He also was awarded a 10-minute misconduct, with eight minutes to go.

Losing the chance to make one last bid to win was too much for Sandelin, and while he has defended his players all season, he blew up this time, although UMD’s dressing room full of players might have been a better audience than the three-person media contingent that showed up after the game.

UMD women’s hockey close to home-ice advantage
Meanwhile, on the women’s front, UMD had a more beneficial answer to the women’s WCHA run to the playoffs. Needing three points to clinch home ice for the first round, the Bulldogs edged St. Cloud State 1-0 on Clara Van Wieren’s goal at 4:33 of the third period, and goalie Hailey MacLeod held on for the victory by that score. Playing as afternoon preliminaries to the UMD men, the Bulldogs played another amazing battle with St. Cloud on Saturday, this time going 0-0 through all three periods and overtime, and sending the game to a shootout to be decided.

Goalies Jojo Chobak of the Huskies and freshman Eve Gascon of UMD were brilliant throughout, but when the shootout started, everybody scored! Hanna Baskin scored for UMD; Emma Gentry scored for the Huskies. Van Wieren scored for UMD; Laura Zimmermann matched it for St. Cloud. Then Olivia Wallin skated in but was stopped by Chobak, putting all the pressure on Finnish freshman Sofianna Sundelin, who scored on Gascon and gave the extra point to the Huskies.

In what might be a brilliant political PR performance, UMD’s MacLeod was named goaltender of the week by the WCHA for her first-game performance, overlooking Chobak’s two-game performance, stopping 28 of 29 shots in the first game and all 39 shots the Bulldogs pelted her with in the second, for a weekend tally of 57 saves on 58 shots.

UMD coach Maura Crowell admitted she was pleasantly surprised that her sophomore goalie got the award, but added Chobak’s cumulative two-game performance deserved something.

UMD senior center Mannon McMahon was cited for playing in her 164th and 165th consecutive games over an illustrious five-season career, and she admitted stopping the game to acknowledge her achievement was “a special moment.”

More importantly, the Bulldogs will play at Minnesota this weekend, after which UMD and St. Cloud will reconvene at AMSOIL Arena next weekend for the first round of the best-of-three WCHA playoffs. And the Huskies, after very impressive performances in both games of last weekend’s series, will not be bothered by not having home ice.

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