Any hope the Wisconsin men’s hockey team had for winning the MacNaughton Cup is officially on life support. Prior to UW’s trip to Denver two weeks ago, the Badgers controlled their own destiny in the conference race. The Pioneers snatched that control, taking three out of four series points. However, Wisconsin still found itself in a good position for a run at the WCHA regular season title.
Yet another team from the Rocky Mountains damaged those chances last weekend, as the Tigers of Colorado College took the series finale to split with the host Badgers, leaving UW currently five points behind CC and three points behind red-hot Denver.
Now, heading into the last two weekends of the regular season, in which Wisconsin travels to North Dakota and Minnesota-Duluth, the Badgers will have to rely on miscues from the two conference leaders if they are to hoist the Cup. For this to happen, Denver would have to take two points at Minnesota State this weekend, and then split with CC in the two teams’ season finale matchup to give Wisconsin the Cup.
However, Wisconsin doesn’t need to worry about all this. While they are seemingly locked into a third-place league finish and might not have as much to gain as say, North Dakota this weekend, the Badgers have plenty to play for.
“Just win out the rest of the year,” defenseman Tom Gilbert said of the team’s current mindset. “If anything, it’s in Denver’s hands, it’s in CC’s hands and it’s going to be down to that last series and see what they do. Win out, and look to get some momentum going into the playoffs.”
The flat-out reality is Wisconsin cannot control anything that occurs in Mankato this weekend or in the heart of Colorado in two weeks.
“Let’s try to win our next four games,” captain Adam Burish said. “The attitude right now is obviously North Dakota, to go up there and take two games from them. Continue to become a better team, like we say, we want to become a great team. Continue to take those steps to becoming a great team.”
Burish’s words have been the team’s mantra all season. The Badgers’ focus as a whole has always been the biggest prize in college hockey: the NCAA Championship, not the MacNaughton Cup.
As great of an accomplishment as it would be to capture the league title, the national crown is obviously much more significant. And history says that the MacNaughton Cup is not a stepping-stone to national glory. Rather, a contending team’s play entering the end of the season is much more relevant.
Last season is a perfect example. Denver picked up its play in the NCAA tournament en route to the school’s first national title since 1969. The Pioneers weren’t nearly as potent in the regular season due to a slew of injuries, and limped to a fourth place WCHA finish. In comparison, the season did not finish as well for league champion North Dakota, as it fell to Denver in the second round of the national tournament.
“People who are playing their best win the national title, such as Denver last year,” Gilbert said.
In fact, recent WCHA history beyond last season shows league championships hold no national title implications. Two seasons ago, Colorado College raced to the MacNaughton Cup before falling, like North Dakota a year ago, in the second round of the NCAA tourney. League runner-up Minnesota turned it on late in the year, winning the WCHA playoff title and defeating New Hampshire for the national championship.
The year before, Minnesota captured another NCAA title after finishing third in the regular season race. This time it was Denver who bowed out in the tournament’s second round after skating to a Cup title.
Wisconsin’s own school history further illustrates this point. UW has won five national titles in its history to just three MacNaughton Cups. Only twice in those quintet of NCAA Championship seasons have the Badgers won the league championship. And yet who remembers those regular season imperfections?
Bob Johnson’s 1980-81 national champion team won four less games than Jeff Sauer’s 1999-2000 squad, a team that outdistanced the rest of the WCHA by seven points for the league title. However, Johnson’s group, like Denver last season, caught fire in the tournament and etched its place in Badger lore.
On paper, the next two weekends for Wisconsin may hold little significance assuming Denver takes care of its business in Mankato. Barring complete disaster for UW and perfection from Minnesota, the Badgers will earn the third seed in the WCHA playoffs.
While the Badgers may not be playing their best hockey lately, with two wins in their last six games (granted those struggles have come against Minnesota, Denver and Colorado College, three teams that know a thing or two about winning) the team finds itself with two weekends to catch fire before postseason play. What’s more, Wisconsin hosts a first-round conference playoffs series at the Dane County Coliseum, the home of UW hockey for more than 30 years. Not a bad position to be in.