Saturday was a day for winning banners in college hockey, and two Minnesota teams will hang new ones in their arenas' rafters next fall.
In Minneapolis, the No. 1-ranked Gophers women's team continued a season of resurgence by completing a sweep of St. Thomas with a 7-1 victory at Ridder Arena. Combined with another 7-1 triumph over the Tommies on Thursday at St. Thomas Ice Arena, the Gophers closed the regular season with a 26-7-1 record and claimed the WCHA's Julianne Bye Cup with an .810 conference winning percentage (21-6-1) to edge Ohio State (.778 with one fewer game played).
The WCHA regular-season title is Minnesota's first since 2018-19 and its second in the past seven seasons.
"Just an incredible way to honor our seniors, all 12 of them,'' Gophers coach Brad Frost said. "… To be able to win the Julianne Bye Cup and WCHA regular-season championship is really special. It's a very, very hard trophy to win.''
The Gophers now will try to secure another piece of hardware that's difficult to win – the WCHA Final Faceoff trophy. They play St. Thomas again in the best-of-three first round on Friday-Sunday at Ridder Arena and hope to return to their home rink the following weekend for the Final Faceoff. Other first-round matchups are St. Cloud State at No. 2-ranked Ohio State, Bemidji State at No. 3 Wisconsin and Minnesota State Mankato at No. 5 Minnesota Duluth. That's four of the top five teams in the latest USCHO rankings, and three that were Frozen Four participants last year.
The other banner secured Saturday happened in Mankato. Minnesota State's men's team finished a sweep of Bemidji State with a second consecutive 5-1 win to capture the MacNaughton Cup as the CCHA regular-season champion. It's the fifth consecutive conference title for the Mavericks, who won the previous four in the now-defunct WCHA men's league.
"That's a handful. Congratulations,'' Mavericks coach Mike Hastings told his team, singling out super seniors Jack McNeely and Reggie Lutz, who were members of all five title teams.
Hastings returned from duty as a Team USA assistant coach in the Winter Olympics, and his team back home didn't skip a beat without him and star forward Nathan Smith. Goalie Dryden McKay was his usual stingy self, allowing a combined three goals in the past four games. Senior forward Julian Napravnik, the latest in MSU's German connection that produced past standouts Marc Michaelis and Parker Tuomie, collected three goals and five assists in the past four games and matched Smith's team-leading 41 points.
The Mavericks, 29-5 and ranked No. 1 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll, close the regular season at Michigan Tech on Friday, then will face St. Thomas in the best-of-three CCHA first-round playoffs on March 4-6. Hastings, who led Minnesota State to its first Frozen Four appearance last year, wants his team to remain hungry.
"Let's make sure we're not satisfied and keep getting better,'' he said postgame in the locker room, with the MacNaughton Cup nearby. "… You did something that will bond you guys forever. Let's make sure that's just a start.''
Gophers men in title hunt
With its road sweep of Penn State, the Gophers men's team won its sixth consecutive game and improved to 21-11. Ranked No. 4 in the USCHO poll and sitting at No. 5 in the PairWise Ratings, the Gophers still have a chance to win the Big Ten regular-season title but will need help to do so. Minnesota is two points behind first-place Michigan in the standings entering the final weekend of the regular season.
The Gophers are host to fifth-place Wisconsin on Friday and Saturday, while Michigan visits fourth-place Notre Dame. If the Gophers sweep Wisconsin in regulation, they would win the Big Ten title if Michigan loses at least once in regulation to Notre Dame. At stake is a bye into the Big Ten tournament semifinals for the first-place team, while the second-place squad would play a best-of-three first-round series.
With Olympians Ben Meyers and Brock Faber back in the lineup, the Gophers stormed back from a 3-0 first-period deficit on Saturday to win the finale at Penn State 6-4.
"All we said was, 'Let's start the plane and go home, or let's start playing,' '' Gophers coach Bob Motzko said of the first intermission message. "And we started playing.''
NCHC race tightens
The NCHC regular season has two weeks remaining, and the playoff picture is coming into focus. North Dakota moved into first place with its road sweep of Minnesota Duluth and secured home ice for the first round of the playoffs. Denver, which split its series at Western Michigan, also clinched home ice and sits one point behind the Fighting Hawks (45-44).
North Dakota closes with a home series against Western Michigan and a road set at Nebraska Omaha. Denver travels to Omaha this weekend then finishes with a home-and-home, Gold Pan series matchup with Colorado College.
Western Michigan is in third place with 37 points, while Minnesota Duluth (29), Nebraska Omaha (25) and St. Cloud State (25) are battling for a home-ice spot. The Bulldogs and Huskies play a makeup game on Tuesday in St. Cloud.
In the weekly look at a potential field for the NCAA men's tournament, Michigan again edges Minnesota State in the PairWise Ratings and is projected as the No. 1 overall seed, in large part because of the Wolverines' 3-2 victory over the Mavericks in the final of the Ice Breaker tournament in October. Projections are based on games through Sunday and include current conference standings leaders as the winners of league tournaments for automatic bids. Seedings are based on the PairWise, except for automatic bids outside the top 16, which are designated with an asterisk.
Worcester (Mass.) Regional
1. Michigan vs. 16. American International *
8. Minnesota Duluth vs. 9. Massachusetts
Albany (N.Y.) Regional
2. Minnesota State vs. 15. Connecticut
7. Quinnipiac vs. 10. St. Cloud State
Loveland (Colo.) Regional
3. Denver vs. 14. Boston University
6. North Dakota vs. 11. Notre Dame
Allentown (Pa.) Regional
4. Western Michigan vs. 13. Ohio State
5. Gophers vs. 12. Michigan Tech
Notes: Denver is host of the Loveland Regional and must be placed there. … The NCAA Frozen Four is April 7 and 9 in Boston.
The announcement of the NCAA women's tournament field is less than two weeks away, and WCHA teams have four teams in the top eight of the PairWise. Here's a projected look at the 11-team tournament field, with on-campus regional sites, through games of last weekend. An asterisk denotes a projected conference champion outside the PairWise top 11:
First round: 8. Minnesota Duluth vs. 9. Quinnipiac
Quarterfinal: Winner vs. 1. Gophers
New Haven, Conn.
First round: no game
Quarterfinal: 4. Yale vs. 5. Wisconsin
First round: 7. Colgate vs. 10. Clarkson
Quarterfinal: Winner vs. 2. Ohio State
First round: 6. Harvard vs. 11. Syracuse *
Quarterfinal: Winner vs. 3. Northeastern
NCAA Frozen Four: March 18, 20, State College, Pa.