MINNEAPOLIS — After more than six decades as the premiere men’s conference in college hockey, the Western Collegiate Hockey Association faces an uncertain future after the current season. In 2013, powerhouses Minnesota and Wisconsin left for the Big Ten, and a few months from now, seven more teams are leaving the WCHA for the new Central Collegiate Hockey Association.
But for those six decades, when it was rare that a Frozen Four or a national title game was played without a WCHA team (or two) it was widely known that each team had two arch-rivals. For example, Denver and Colorado College, or Northern Michigan and Michigan Tech were regional rivals. But geography or no, all four of those teams had a rivalry with the Gophers.
As teams coached by Herb Brooks and later Doug Woog and Don Lucia were seemingly always at the top or contending for the top of the WCHA standings, the coaches liked to joke that there was always a target on the Gophers’ backs.
Things have changed in the past decade, as rivalries have cooled in part due to the massive conference realignment. But with the Gophers bringing an 11-1-0 record into this weekend's series with Notre Dame, and Minnesota holding the top spot in the national polls for the past five weeks, that red bullseye on their backs looks to have a fresh coat of paint.
“There are people poking at us, and yeah, that means we’re doing good things,” Gophers coach Bob Motzko said, recalling his time at St. Cloud State when the games with Minnesota were circled on many fans’ calendars. “I can tell you from being on the other side of it, yeah, people get up to play the Gophers. You’re darn right they do. The Gophers have to be up for that challenge. That’s our job.”
The job when any team faces Notre Dame under coach Jeff Jackson, who is in his 16th season behind the bench for the Fighting Irish, is to find a way around their daunting defensive systems. In the 12 games Motzko has coached the Gophers versus the Irish, including four games in the Big Ten playoffs the past two seasons, 10 of them have been decided by one goal.
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The Irish reputation for stifling defense has taken a hit this season. They come to Minneapolis with a 5-6-1 record, having given up nine goals in a home split with Arizona State last weekend.
After Cale Morris was the de facto every-night starter in goal for Jackson’s teams for three years, they have been unsettled in the crease since Morris left campus last spring. Senior Dylan St. Cyr and sophomore Ryan Bischel have split time, with neither of them posting a .900-plus saves percentage so far.
“We’re still switching back and forth between the two of them,” said Irish forward Michael Graham. “I think it’s more that we have to play better defensively in front of them. Some of the goals we’re giving up, there’s no way they could save it. But I think as we play better, the goalies will definitely be the beneficiary of that.”
With the Gophers at home on their Olympic-sized ice sheet, there would seem to be an opportunity to open things up more. Although the last Irish win in Minneapolis, in the playoffs last season, was a 1-0 slugfest. Motzko has termed the meetings with Notre Dame — which was a member of the WCHA in the 1970s — as a kind of tug of war.
“They’re a tough team to play. They’re really structured and they like to sit back and pounce on our turnovers,” said Gophers forward Blake McLaughlin. “They kind of sit back and let the game come to them. It’s going to be a really strategic game. You have to be really smart on when to take a chance and when not to, because they’ve got guys that can make you pay.”
The renewed target on the back that comes with being a Gopher this season is just a given.