With the finish line in sight, Beavers see chance to loosen Mavericks' grip on MacNaughton Cup

Feb. 28—It's been seven years since the MacNaughton Cup has changed hands.

The CCHA's regular-season championship, formerly the WCHA's top prize, has been awarded to Minnesota State each of the last six seasons. The last group of non-Mavericks to win it? The Bemidji State men's hockey team in 2016-17.

The MacNaughton Cup has survived 111 years of hockey tradition. The first winner was the Cleveland Athletic Club in 1913-14 in the American Hockey Association. Starting in the 1932-33 season, the trophy was awarded to the best Michigan Western Upper Peninsula team. It then became the prize of the Midwest Collegiate Hockey League in 1951.

From there, the MacNaughton Cup was awarded to the winners of the original WCHA. It's a trophy that's traveled hundreds of thousands of miles, with pit stops to rest in the victor's hands in one of college hockey's most loaded leagues.

"It's a hard trophy to win," BSU head coach Tom Serratore said. "Marathons are hard, and that's what the regular season is. The regular season is a marathon. During the regular season, there are a lot of different games, and there are times when you're playing extremely well. There are times when you're not playing well. ... There are a lot of emotions and a lot of different things that go into a season. It's hard to win a championship."

After conference realignment that took the heavy hitters out of the WCHA — now the CCHA — in 2013, the MacNaughton Cup stayed put, paving the way for new challengers to become regulars.

One stepped up to the plate: Minnesota State.

"Mankato is a really good team," fifth-year Kyle Looft said on Saturday. "I've been here five years, and I don't know how many times I've played them, but they're a really hard team to play against. They've been at the top of this conference for a long time. It's a great opportunity, and we're super excited for it, but we know we have to keep our nose to the grindstone."

For the third series, the Beavers picked up five points last weekend. This time, however, it came on the road against St. Thomas, which was tied for second place heading into the weekend.

At 42 points in the CCHA standings, BSU can clinch the outright claim to the MacNaughton Cup by picking up a win of any kind this weekend. Two overtime or shootout losses would also be enough. If Bemidji State (15-15-2, 13-7-2 CCHA) grabs just one of the six points up for grabs this weekend, it will share the title with Minnesota State (16-12-4, 12-8-2 CCHA, 38 pts).

Looft, a Mankato native, has been in this situation before. So has fifth-year Carter Jones.

In the final regular-season game of the 2019-20 season, Looft and Jones came up one game short of snatching the MacNaughton Cup, losing to the Mavericks in the final game. They both played in the 2022 CCHA Mason Cup title game whirlwind that ended in defeat against MSU.

"Obviously the games have a little more on the line, but we're just trying to treat them the same," Jones said. "They're big games for us, so we just want to play (the best) we can."

This weekend is a chance for Looft and Jones to finally hoist a trophy wearing hunter green and white.

"You want to stay in the moment," Serratore said. "All you can worry about is the task at hand. ... We can (look) at our February efforts and say, 'It's great.' But Mankato is going to have something to say about it, too. At the end of the day, both teams are playing very good hockey. It's just exciting to have the last two games of the year be important like this."

In each of the last three seasons, BSU has been in a favorable position to win the MacNaughton Cup at the midway point of the regular season. Last year, Bemidji State slipped down to fifth place by season's end. In 2021-22, the Beavers finished in third.

When the calendar flipped to 2024 in January, BSU had a slim lead in first place while the trailing teams held games in hand. Despite their standings lead disappearing, Bemidji State kept pushing, roping off a seven-game point streak starting on Jan. 20 against Michigan Tech.

"It's a total team buy-in," junior goaltender Mattias Sholl said on Saturday. "We know what needs to be done. We're following the system and how it's coached and how it's supposed to play out for us. When guys aren't worried about individual things — when they just go out there and battle — the results speak for themselves. When you have that winning feeling, you don't want it to go away."

The Beavers were close to clinching a share of the MacNaughton Cup in Mendota Heights on Saturday. Lake Superior State held a 3-2 lead entering the third period against the Mavericks in Mankato. Sam Morton scored the tying goal for MSU before Brian Carrabes buried the winner with 50 seconds left in regulation.

It set the stage for a winner-take-all series in Bemidji at the Sanford Center, one where BSU enters pushing all of the right buttons.

"This group is special," Looft said. "You can see it on the ice. It doesn't take much to see it. We have a lot of guys that are committed to our game. Not that we didn't before, but this team is just jelling at the right time. We've been through the struggles, we've had the injuries. That's been us this year, and we've had to battle a lot. To come together now and have everyone contribute, it's why we're in this position. It's definitely exciting, but the job's not done, and we know that."