Minnesota looks to capitalize on breaks in WCHA playoffs

The Gophers face Minnesota State in a best-of-three series beginning today.

Ben Goessling

Forgive the players on Minnesota’s men’s hockey team if they’re looking for the catch.

Because the Gophers caught such a big break last weekend, you’d think they’d won one of those too-good-to-be-true mail-order sweepstakes.

When Minnesota-Duluth beat Wisconsin on Saturday, it moved the Gophers up to third place in the WCHA standings and teed Minnesota up perfectly for its postseason run.

Instead of playing host to Alaska-Anchorage – a team that went 2-0-1 against Minnesota this year – in the first round of the WCHA playoffs, the Gophers will entertain Minnesota State-Mankato, which they haven’t lost to since November 2002.

The best-of-three series starts tonight at Mariucci Arena.

“I’m anticipating two close games,” coach Don Lucia said. “It’s important we win Friday night to get off to a good start.”

But wait. Despite Lucia’s modesty, things get even better for the Gophers.

Because the Mavericks are tied for 21st in the Pairwise Rankings (Alaska-Anchorage, by comparison, isn’t even under consideration for the NCAA Tournament), Minnesota can pick up crucial ground in the rankings just by taking care of business this weekend.

And the way Minnesota finished off the regular season with a sweep of Michigan Tech, the Gophers couldn’t be feeling better about their chances.

“The bottom-of-the-league teams are (something) to be reckoned with,” forward Barry Tallackson said. “But everything is falling into place right now. Guys have a little more urgency.”

Minnesota’s dealings with the Mavericks this year have been nothing if not entertaining.

The Gophers posted nine goals in both Friday night games, including a 9-6 firefight Jan. 14 at the Xcel Energy Center.

But in the second game of both series, the Gophers needed a little luck – and a lot of Kris Chucko – to prevail.

The freshman forward ensured a sweep of the Mavericks in October at Mariucci Arena, when a puck bounced off his skate and past goaltender Jon Volp for a 3-2 overtime win.

And Jan. 15, Chucko scored two goals (his third and fourth of the year against the Mavericks) and Justin Johnson made 39 saves in a 2-1 win.

The Gophers seem to have caught all the breaks against the Mavericks this season. But despite their good fortune, they said they aren’t counting on luck to advance to the WCHA Final Five.

“It’s playoff time. Everything tightens up a little bit,” center Gino Guyer said. “They’ve got guys that are plenty capable of scoring, and we’ve got to minimize their chances, like we have been doing.”

Briggs cleared to play

Two weeks after breaking a bone in his left pinky, goalie Kellen Briggs has been cleared to return to Minnesota’s lineup.

Briggs will wear a protective covering on his hand and use a larger glove in practice this week, but Lucia said his goalie will be fine.

“I shot at him on Monday, and he didn’t have any pain at all,” Lucia said. “If they keep him comfortable, he’ll be OK.”

Johnson will likely start tonight, but Lucia said it is possible Briggs will see action this weekend.

Recruit visiting

The Gophers will receive a visit from Duluth East defenseman Cade Fairchild, considered to be one of the state’s top 16-year-olds, this weekend.

Fairchild made the all-tournament team at the Minnesota state high school hockey tournament during the weekend and posted four assists in the third-place game for the Greyhounds.

He has received interest from the U.S. National Team Development Program and would start college in fall 2007.