Hockey players in the WCHA spent 28 games traveling from Michigan to Alaska to win the conference championship and the MacNaughton Cup, but it all came down to a the final seconds of overtime on Friday in Grand Forks, N.D.
That's when Kevin Doell scored with nine seconds remaining to give the Denver Pioneers their first conference championship since 1986 with a 4-3 victory over the Fighting Sioux.
The Pioneers got some help from Minnesota, who beat the second-place St. Cloud Huskies 5-4 on Friday night.
Though the Fighting Sioux (16-17-2, 11-15-2 WCHA) would return Saturday night for vengeance, Denver (28-7-1, 21-6-1) finished atop the conference with 43 points. St. Cloud State (27-8-2, 19-7-2) came in second with 40 points, and Minnesota (26-7-4, 18-7-3) nipped close behind with 39 points.
Denver limped into the finish in the MacNaughton race, short-handed by two starters. Left wing Lukas Dora and defenseman Aaron MacKenzie, who were injured in a loss to St. Cloud State last Saturday, couldn't hit the ice against the Fighting Sioux.
With 27 points, Dora was the team's fifth-leading scorer. MacKenzie was the highest-scoring defenseman with 20 points.
"Losing both regulars like that is never something you want to have happen," Denver coach George Gwozdecky said before the series. "But nobody will be new in the lineup. No one will have that inexperience. We've played basically 25 skaters throughout the year. We have a lot of guys that may not be regulars but have a lot of experience. I have great confidence that our depth will pay off again."
The Pioneers are keeping their fingers crossed for the return of both players next weekend, when they play Michigan Tech (8-26-2, 4-22-2) in the first round of the WCHA tournament.
In other WCHA action, Minnesota swept St. Cloud State, Minnesota State, Mankato and Nebraska-Omaha traded victories, Wisconsin took two from Minnesota-Duluth, Colorado College swept Michigan Tech and Alaska Fairbanks and Alaska Anchorage split a two-game series.
With their 3-1 home victory over Minnesota-Duluth (13-22-3, 6-19-3) Friday, Wisconsin (14-18-4, 12-13-3) clinched the fifth and final home berth for the conference tournament. Scott Kabotoff turned away 34 shots on goal for the Badgers and Matt Doman and Matt Murray each rang up a goal and an assist.
Wisconsin came back the next night and pounded Minnesota-Duluth 5-1.
"We just wanted to prove a point," forward Brad Winchester said. "We wanted to show that we can score."
It was the 900th victory in school history for Wisconsin, and the last regular season game for retiring coach Jeff Sauer.
"I was probably more surprised than anyone about how we started the game," Sauer said. "The players wanted to put this one away early so we could focus on the playoffs."
Minnesota's 3-1 victory over St. Cloud State Saturday night marked the Gophers' fifth win in a row, and their first sweep of the Huskies since Nov. 17-18, 2000.
"Usually when we play Minnesota, we're like 20 dogs who haven't been fed in three weeks, and fresh meat is on the other side of the ice," St. Cloud coach Craig Dahl said. "I have to question our will to win this weekend. We weren't good anywhere on the ice until the third period."
St. Cloud State outshot the Gophers 14-4 in that period, but it wasn't enough to pull them out of the game-long funk and notch the victory.
"Winning eight out of nine in a tough end to the schedule, I'm happy with that," said Gopher coach Don Lucia. "It was good to play a good team like (the Huskies) going into the playoffs."
Jeff Sanger recorded his 15th career shutout to help Colorado College (22-11-3, 16-10-2) to a 2-0 victory Friday night over Michigan Tech.
But the Tigers hardly needed him Saturday night in an 8-1 drubbing of the Huskies. Peter Sejna scored two goals and had three assists in the rout.
Minnesota State, Mankato (16-18-2, 11-15-2) rebounded from a 4-2 loss Friday night to Nebraska-Omaha with a 4-3 overtime victory. Cole Bassett scored two goals and Jason Jensen made 28 saves for Minnesota State, Mankato in the victory. A Justin Martin goal at 1:07 in the extra period won the game for Minnesota State, Mankato.
In nonconference play, Alaska Fairbanks handled Alaska-Anchorage (12-17-5, 10-14-4) by a 3-1 tally Saturday, avenging Friday's 4-2 loss to the Seawolves. The victory gave the Nanooks a 3-1 season record against Alaska Anchorage and allowed them to take home the Governor's Cup, a symbol of hockey supremacy in the state.
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