It had been about a half-hour since the crowd of 10,069 roared its full-throated approval after the Gophers men's hockey team clinched the Big Ten regular-season championship on Senior Night with a rollicking, 8-0 rout of Wisconsin, and there Bob Motzko was, still coaching even during the news conference.
"Both games were way closer than the score,'' Motzko said Saturday night at 3M Arena at Mariucci. "We caught a break there in the first period [with an overturned Wisconsin goal]. We were getting our butts kicked, and we scored two quick goals. … Both nights, the game could have gone sideways on us.''
The sweep of the Badgers by a combined 13-0 score might have suggested otherwise, but Wisconsin made the Gophers work for two periods each night before the home team scored three third-period goals on Friday and five in the final stanza on Saturday. Motzko didn't want to make an overly big deal of the regular-season championship, not with bigger goals on the horizon.
"I'm always cautious,'' he said. "I love it. We were just a consistent hockey team from the start of the year through. We had a lot of things happen to us, and nothing fazed us. … Everyone's contributing. That's another great thing we've got going – everybody feels a part of this.
"… This is the time of year where I don't like this pageantry – Senior Night, league championships. You get this roller coaster, and we've got to stay even-keel. But we do need to enjoy this, and we've got a few days to do it.''
By sweeping the Badgers and getting a big assist from Notre Dame with its sweep of Michigan, the Gophers surged past the Wolverines on the final weekend of the regular season to grab that Big Ten crown. They'll have this weekend off while the other six conference teams play best-of-three, first-round playoff series. On March 12, the Gophers will be host to a one-game semifinal. If they win that one, they'll be back at Mariucci on March 19, looking to win their second consecutive Big Ten tournament title.
Their ultimate goal, of course, is winning the NCAA championship. An eight-game winning streak and 13-3 mark since the start of January has vaulted the Gophers to No. 4 in the PairWise Ratings – and on Monday they moved up two spots to No. 2 in the U.S. College Hockey Online poll. They'll play as many as six games and as few as two the rest of the way, and Motzko is relishing the challenge.
"It's kind of fun to get a trophy, but now we've got to get onto the next,'' Motzko said. "Now we go to the fun time of the year – the playoffs.''
While most conference tournaments begin this week, the NCHC plays the final week of its regular season with much to decide. North Dakota, winner of six in a row, holds a four-point lead over Denver for first place in the conference. The Fighting Hawks visit sixth-place Nebraska Omaha, while the Pioneers have a home-and-home series against eighth-place Colorado College.
An intriguing series is fifth-place St. Cloud State at fourth-place Minnesota Duluth. The Bulldogs (16-14-4) remain in line for an NCAA tournament berth but must be at least .500 to make the field. UMD and the Huskies could meet again in an NCHC first-round series.
WCHA Final Faceoff set
The top-ranked Gophers women's team, No. 2 Ohio State and No. 4 Wisconsin all swept their WCHA tournament first-round series, and No. 8 Minnesota Duluth won Game 3 against Minnesota State Mankato 3-2 in overtime on Sunday to complete the field of the Final Faceoff at Ridder Arena. The Gophers will play UMD at 1 p.m. Saturday, with Ohio State vs. Wisconsin at 4 p.m. Sunday's final is at 1 p.m.
Minnesota Duluth advanced on Elizabeth Giguere's goal 2:30 into overtime after the Mavericks rallied from a 2-0 deficit. Minnesota State's season is over, but the Mavericks made big strides under coach John Harrington, going 15-19-1 with an OT win over Minnesota after finishing with fewer than 10 wins in five of the previous six seasons.
In the weekly look at a potential field for the NCAA men's tournament, top-ranked Minnesota State Mankato moves to the No. 1 spot in the PairWise Ratings and is projected as the No. 1 overall seed. Michigan fell one spot to No. 2, while Denver held steady at No. 3 and the Gophers moved up to No. 4. 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.
Albany (N.Y.) Regional
1. Minnesota State vs. 16. American International *
8. Quinnipiac vs. 9. St. Cloud State
Allentown (Pa.) Regional
2. Michigan vs. 15. UMass-Lowell
7. Notre Dame vs. 11. Minnesota Duluth
Loveland (Colo.) Regional
3. Denver vs. 13. Ohio State
6. Western Michigan vs. 12. Michigan Tech
Worcester (Mass.) Regional
4. Gophers vs. 14. Northeastern
5. North Dakota vs. 10. Massachusetts
Notes: Denver is host of the Loveland Regional and must be placed there. Intraconference matchups between the Gophers and Ohio State (4 vs. 13) and Western Michigan vs. Minnesota Duluth (6 vs. 11) are broken up. … No. 10 UMass moves from Loveland to Worcester to help attendance. … The NCAA Frozen Four is April 7 and 9 in Boston.
The NCAA tournament selection announcement comes Sunday, and one team already has clinched a berth in the 11-team field. That's Syracuse, which won the College Hockey America tournament title and its automatic bid. Here's a projected look at the 11-team field, with on-campus regional sites, through games of Sunday:
First round: 8. Minnesota Duluth vs. 9. Harvard
Quarterfinal: Winner vs. 1. Gophers
First round: no game
Quarterfinal: 4. Wisconsin vs. 5. Colgate
First round: 7. Yale vs. 10. Clarkson
Quarterfinal: Winner vs. 2. Ohio State
First round: 6. Quinnipiac vs. 11. Syracuse
Quarterfinal: Winner vs. 3. Northeastern
NCAA Frozen Four: March 18, 20, State College, Pa.