U’s drive for five continues vs. Tech

by Aaron Kirscht

HOUGHTON, Mich. — It’s Winter Carnival time at Michigan Tech, which means behemoth ice sculptures fill the front yards of the school’s fraternities and sororities in celebration of the majesty of the season.
It also means it’s time for something a little less festive: violence. After all, the Gophers are in town.
When the Huskies and the Gophers met three years ago, Minnesota set a team-record for penalty minutes in a game with 78. The rink at MacInnes Ice Arena is also smaller than most, befitting of a more in-the-trenches series. That’s what Gophers coach Doug Woog is expecting again, although on a somewhat smaller scale than the 1995 series.
“It’s going to be physical for sure,” Woog said, “and that’s just our luck. We get some guys back and then run the risk of hurting more.”
Minnesota will need a full slate of players — they will actually have 12 forwards for the first time since mid-December — if it hopes to keep the window of opportunity from slamming shut.
The Gophers’ hunt for fifth place was helped considerably by the their sweep of fifth-place Minnesota-Duluth last weekend. But as the season goes along, series that didn’t look so important in October are looking huge today.
“We have some games in hand that we can make up time on,” Woog said. “But two points is pretty much a need.”
Woog said he is avoiding using the phrase “must-sweep,” concerned his team might take that to mean anything less is a failure. So he’s been using words like “need” and “critical” to soften his message.
But the fact remains that if the Gophers have any hope of making this anything more than one of the worst seasons in their history, an opportunity like this can’t be passed up.
Michigan Tech has hovered in the middle of the WCHA pack for most of the year, but boasts one of the league’s best power plays.
That doesn’t bode well for Minnesota, which has struggled to contain high-scoring teams. Incidentally, however, the Gophers have lately become one of those big guns themselves. In the past three games, all wins, Minnesota has scored five, seven and six goals.
“I’d say as far as the team goes,” senior Casey Hankinson said, “we’re feeling pretty good. It’s a lot easier to get up and play competitively when you’re winning.”
Hankinson, by the way, isn’t feeling completely well. His flu symptoms have subsided and the hip pointer he suffered two weeks ago is no longer a problem. But his broken left thumb and the bulky cast that surrounds it have Hankinson down. He’ll be relegated to mostly the role of assist man because his shooting accuracy isn’t up to par.
“I told Wyatt (Smith, his linemate) to expect anything,” Hankinson said. “It’s going to be weird.”
Playing anyplace other than Mariucci Arena might seem strange as well. It’s been more than two months since the Gophers played outside the state, with the last series coming over Thanksgiving weekend at the College Hockey Showcase in Michigan. And it’s been the same length of time since Minnesota played on a rink that wasn’t Olympic-sized.
If the Gophers are going to play another two months, they’ll have to make a serious run to close out the season. The NCAA tournament — which Minnesota has been a part of for 12 consecutive seasons — is coming up in a hurry. Those 14 losses next to 10 wins don’t look good.
“Reputation doesn’t mean anything,” Woog said. “If we win every one of our games for the rest of the season, we’ll move up in the rankings. But as the season goes along, you tend to see more splits than sweeps. Teams get tired.”
But Minnesota has no time to rest. A strong cup of coffee and a dose of adrenaline — another eight or nine wins wouldn’t hurt, either — will have to carry the team to the finish.