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INCH College Hockey Extra

GOLDEN GOPHER

Ryan Potulny sizzled last week, erupting for five goals in a weekend sweep of Alaska-Anchorage that clinched Minnesota's first MacNaughton Cup since 1997. The offensive surge ushered Potulny into the nation's goal-scoring lead and also into serious contention for college hockey's most coveted individual prize, the Hobey Baker Memorial Award.

Fortunately for the Golden Gophers, nothing could be further from his mind.

"I never thought about it before and I still don't," Potulny said of the Hobey. "My job is to go out and try to make Minnesota the best team we can be, night in and night out."

His job approval rating has been off the charts since an early-December showdown at North Dakota ended in a Golden Gopher sweep. It was there that Potulny and his linemate, Danny Irmen, helped peel Minnesota off the mat following a demoralizing pair of home losses to Wisconsin one week prior. The Golden Gophers' dynamic duo -- both North Dakota natives -- combined for nine points against the Fighting Sioux, sparking what became a seven-game winning streak.

"Danny and I really wanted to be the guys that got things going [that weekend]," said Potulny, a junior and third-round draft pick of the Philadelphia Flyers. "We felt like that was where we had to be the leaders, and to do it was pretty special."

The tag team pacesetter role is nothing new to Potulny and Irmen, who also skated together as junior hockey linemates with Lincoln of the USHL from 2001-03. They celebrated America's first Tier I junior hockey national championship together in their final season, a campaign Potulny capped by landing USA Hockey Junior Player of the Year honors. He led the USHL with 78 points in 54 games that year, a total that included 35 goals or just six more than his current mark through 34 games.

"My game is pretty similar to what it was then, but I'm a lot stronger now," said Potulny. "I'm probably scoring more goals around the net now, where in juniors I was probably scoring more finesse-type goals."

Never one to heap credit on himself, Potulny deflects much of the praise to his teammates and coaches.

"It's pretty nice having the same linemate as I had in Lincoln, and playing on the power play helps too," he said.

What's particularly intriguing about Potulny's game -- in addition to his considerable offensive upside -- is that he also tends to his own end of the ice, a trait Minnesota head coach Don Lucia has honed since Potulny's arrival in Dinkytown just one season after the Golden Gophers claimed a national championship with Ryan's brother Grant Potulny serving as captain. And what advice would the elder Potulny -- now with the AHL's Binghamton Senators -- give the younger Potulny as Minnesota rumbles toward the national tournament?

"He'd tell me to put my heart and soul into everything you do on and off the ice," said Potulny. "And to have no regrets after the season. And that winning a championship isn't about individuals, it's about the team."

-- Jayson Hron


CCHA second-season sadness

Unhappiness is the theme heading into the first round of the reformatted, three-week CCHA tournament. Lake Superior State is on a month-long slide that cost it a bye. Ohio State might have had the worst season in the nation, relative to expectations. Western Michigan and Alaska Fairbanks both had more downs than ups. Ferris State and Notre Dame are probably feeling OK, although it's tough to get too amped about seventh- and eighth-place finishes.

But the most bummed-out teams this week might be No. 5-seed Nebraska-Omaha and No. 12 Bowling Green, who play in a best-of-three series at the Qwest Center this weekend. All the Mavericks needed was two points out of their trip to lowly Western Michigan University last weekend to secure a first-round bye. Even a non-sweep by Northern Michigan against Ohio State would have clinched it.

Instead, the Mavericks blew a 5-2 lead and settled for a tie Friday -- a draw UNO coach Mike Kemp called "crushing" -- then lost Saturday, while NMU took both from the Buckeyes.

Bowling Green, meanwhile, is shocked by its last-place finish. With offensive stars such as Alex Foster (51 points) and Jonathan Matsumoto (46 points) and a fairly veteran lineup, there's no way the Falcons should be the worst team in the league. But that's where they find themselves.

So the question is, who will dry their tears first and take care of business this weekend?

"We're disappointed, no question," Kemp said. "We feel like we let an opportunity slip through our fingers. But the team, really, is positive. They think they can stay sharper by playing this weekend as opposed to being off. Hopefully, that will pay off for us.

"At Bowling Green, you're not ever going to feel satisfied finishing where we did this year," Falcons coach Scott Paluch said, "but we've been playing some pretty good hockey down the stretch. We think we have enough in the arsenal to be a dangerous team."

-- James Jahnke

Mankato's Backes a class act

As Minnesota State Mankato forward David Backes donned headphones for a radio interview following his team's 6-4 win against visiting Wisconsin last Friday, a few dozen Mavericks fans chanted, "One more year! One more year!"

"It's definitely not the first time I've heard that," said Backes, who had two goals and two assists against the Badgers that night. "It feels good to hear that they want me back."

It's no surprise that the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Backes, picked 62nd overall by the St. Louis Blues in the 2003 NHL draft, led the Mavericks this season with 12 goals and 28 assists. For some, however, it's a surprise that he hasn't bolted for the pros. Backes was the team's second-leading scorer as a freshman and led the Mavs with 40 points as a sophomore, prompting many to speculate he'd sign a pro contract last summer. The talk of Backes cashing in is heating up again, but he says he's made no decisions.

"When it comes right down to it, I've got to do what's best for me," he said. "That might mean coming back, but it also might mean moving on."

Academic pursuits may play a big role in whether Backes returns to Mankato for his senior year. An electrical engineering major with a 4.0 average, he's reportedly very committed to getting his degree. And Backes says his acquired affection for southern Minnesota may also play a role in his final decision.

"I love it here and the fans have been great," said Backes, who earlier this week penned a letter published in the Mankato student newspaper, thanking fans for their support throughout the season. "I really like this community and would like to live here someday when I'm done playing, so I'd have no qualms about coming back here for another year."

-- Jess Myers