Thursday at the Final Five

Making himself at home

Denver sophomore forward Jason Zucker, who has his NHL rights owned by the Minnesota Wild, is no stranger to the Xcel Energy Center.

After his latest showing in his future home arena, where he scored the game-winning goal in a 3-2 overtime win over Michigan Tech, the questions directed at Zucker in the postgame press conference were almost entirely about his upcoming decision on whether to stay in college or jump to the professional ranks.

While Zucker said he “doesn’t mind” playing at the home of the Wild, he left little doubt as to where his thoughts were centered.

“We play tomorrow night,” he said.

Coach George Gwozdecky, who has seen numerous players jump ship for the NHL in recent years, offered his own opinion to the questions.

“I’ve never in my 18 years talked to anyone who has regretted coming back for another year [of college hockey], but I’ve certainly talked with a lot of guys who have regretted leaving early,” Gwozdecky said. “There’s never anything wrong with leaving if you’re ready. There’s never anything wrong with giving yourself an extra year to get yourself ready for the next level.”

The Pioneers are essentially guaranteed a spot in the NCAA tournament, which begins next week, so Zucker will have a bit more time to mull over the decision.

Minnesota, which is in desperate need of scoring punch and depth in its system, will surely be watching the final weeks of the Denver season.

Not your average Huskies

Following his team’s 4-1 loss to North Dakota in the Final Five play-in finale, a loss that ended their season, St. Cloud State coach Bob Motzko fought back emotions when talking about the latest edition of the Huskies.

“I’ve been coaching a long time, and I don’t know how much longer [you stay in coaching] when you get over 50, but if I could ever have a team like this again, that’s what its all about,” he said. “Its’ just a tremendous group of guys that came together, and it hurts because we think we should still be playing.”

All year long St. Cloud State found itself behind the eight ball in terms of injuries and roster losses. Star forward and captain Drew LeBlanc went down early in the year with a broken leg, goalie Mike Lee missed significant time before coming back to finish the year and others were injured or bounced to different leagues midway through the season.

Even so, the Huskies prevailed, clinched a home-ice spot on the final weekend of the season and made it to the Final Five.

We’ll see you tomorrow night

Gwozdecky was satisfied with the win on Thursday, but he quickly shifted his attention to the Pioneers’ next opponent, Minnesota Duluth.

“There was a point back in January where I though Duluth was without a doubt the best team in the country and they were going to run away with the WCHA title,” he said. “A lot of people, including yours truly, thought they were going to take a dip from last year. They’ve got the team to beat, not only in this tournament but the next one.”

Fittingly, Gwozdecky expects it to be a great test.

“There’s going to be some challenges that we’ll have to face and figure out how to play them as efficiently as possible.”

North Dakota coach Dave Hakstol didn’t take the same approach to tomorrow’s game with top-seed Minnesota, but he did say he looks forward to the rivalry.

“We’re in the greatest venue possible for postseason play in college hockey. St. Paul, the entire town is electric. This building is a lot of fun to play in with the number of fans, and we have the opportunity to play a rival tomorrow night,” he said.

Denver will play UMD at 2:07 p.m.; Minnesota and North Dakota are set to do battle at 7:07 p.m.

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