Barriball returns to streaking team for season finale

The captain has been out with a leg injury since Feb. 5, but says he is 100%.

by Austin Cumblad

Perhaps his career at Minnesota has trained him to fear the worst, but when senior captain Jay Barriball left the ice with a leg injury Feb. 5 against Minnesota-Duluth, he wondered if heâÄôd ever wear a Gophers uniform again.

âÄúIt was real scary. Right when it happened and I went off and got checked out by the doctor at UMD, they were thinking long term,âÄù Barriball said. âÄúMy heart sank; I thought, âÄòHere we go again.âÄôâÄù

When he returned to Minneapolis, however, BarriballâÄôs doctor gave him a more optimistic prognosis. He spoke with the media that week and floated the possibility of returning for the very next series.

But he didnâÄôt play against Denver. Day-to-day turned into week-to-week, and he wasnâÄôt back for Wisconsin or Michigan Tech. As recently as Saturday, head coach Don Lucia said he didnâÄôt know if Barriball would play until the WCHA playoffs.

On Wednesday, the saga ended. Barriball, who sat out all but five games of the 2009-10 season with a torn ACL, will play this weekend in MinnesotaâÄôs final regular season series at Bemidji State. He rejoins a team streaking at the right time.

âÄúTheyâÄôre playing as good as anybody in the WCHA right now,âÄù Bemidji State head coach Tom Serratore, whose nephew of the same name is a freshman this season for the Gophers, said this week. âÄúTheyâÄôve really moved up in the standings, so I know theyâÄôre feeling pretty good about themselves, and weâÄôve got our work cut out.âÄù

The Gophers need only a point this weekend to secure home-ice advantage for the WCHA playoffs, but more than home ice, they are looking for continued momentum. As a team, they are on their longest unbeaten streak of the season and have scored 25 goals in the last five games.

Not three weeks ago, Minnesota was struggling to average more than two goals per game. Before a 7-3 win at home against Denver that catalyzed their current five-game streak, the Gophers needed 11 games to score 25 goals. In fact, until that seven-goal outburst, the Gophers hadnâÄôt scored more than two goals on back-to-back nights since the New Year.

âÄúI think weâÄôve played pretty darn well the second half of the season, and you can go back to even the Michigan Thanksgiving weekend, and weâÄôve played very good hockey since that time,âÄù Lucia said. âÄúWe just hadnâÄôt scored much. Now, some guys are starting to put the puck in the net.âÄù

Those guys especially include seniors Jacob Cepis and Cade Fairchild, junior Jake Hansen and freshmen Erik Haula and Nick Bjugstad.

Cepis, on a five-game goal streak and six-game point streak, seems to have taken it upon himself to singlehandedly absorb BarriballâÄôs missing production.

âÄúI need to score, and I need to get on the board every night,âÄù Cepis said. When I get on the board, I think a lot of guys follow.âÄù

Up and down the lineup, the Gophers are playing with a certain confidence that should serve them well in the postseason. Bjugstad was just named WCHA Rookie of the Week thanks to his two shorthanded goals last weekend; Hansen scored twice last weekend as well; Fairchild is on CepisâÄô heels with his own five-game point streak; and Haula, who went through a prolonged slump after Christmas, has two 3-point games in the past three series.

âÄúItâÄôs better to play well at the end of the year,âÄù Haula said. âÄúEven if youâÄôre a No. 1, you want to play well at the end of the year.âÄù