Minnesota stays in middle of WCHA pack

by Josh Linehan

The Minnesota men’s hockey team has mastered the art of dancing this season.
After waltzing past Colorado College on Friday night with a 6-2 win, the Gophers sidestepped their way back to WCHA mediocrity, turning in a lackluster performance in Saturday’s 5-1 loss.
This year’s Gopher dance isn’t an ecstatic post-goal celebration. Instead, it’s a meandering wobble that has fans, coaches and players shaking their heads.
Take a small step forward. Smile, acknowledge the cheers of the crowd and look past the dance partner in front of you. Now, take a giant leap backward, affix your face with a blank look and watch your NCAA tournament hopes fade.
For the second time in three weekends, Minnesota failed to complete a Saturday sweep that would have moved the Gophers up in the WCHA standings and given them the tiebreak against Minnesota State and Colorado College, respectively.
“Guys came out not ready to play,” a visibly upset Minnesota captain Nate Miller said after the loss Saturday. “I thought we learned our lesson the other weekend, but I guess not. It just shouldn’t happen.
Miller, who played hard all weekend, seemed as amazed at Saturday’s result as the 9,856 fans who watched the contest.
“It’s mental. Strictly mental,” Miller said. “There’s no fatigue, and we’re not banged up. There are no excuses. It was just a lack of mental preparation.”
It seemed at times the two teams merely traded uniforms after Friday’s contest. The score after one period Friday was 3-0 Minnesota. Saturday, it was 3-0 Colorado going into the second.
“We were the aggressor tonight,” said Colorado College coach Scott Owens. “We got out of the gate quickly and stayed out of the penalty box, and those were our keys. It was a good team win.”
The mirror-image quality of the games doesn’t end there. On Friday, Minnesota connected twice on the power play and Aaron Miskovich buried a short-handed breakaway — his fourth in four series.
On Saturday, Miskovich was stuffed, alone on a short-handed breakaway, and the Gophers failed to convert on four power-play attempts.
Instead, it was Colorado balancing a power-play goal, a short-handed goal and three tallies at even strength to bury Minnesota.
After the first period, the Tigers used their three-goal cushion to tighten the defensive clamps on Minnesota. The Gophers never even threatened Colorado, scoring their lone goal in garbage time.
It was possibly the worst effort all season for the entire Minnesota team, including goaltender Adam Hauser. After kicking away 26 Tigers shots Friday, Hauser was beaten five times on 18 shots in the rematch, giving him only 13 saves Saturday.
“Adam didn’t play his best game tonight,” Lucia said Saturday, “but he’s bailed us out of so many games, it would’ve been nice for the guys to bail him out. But that didn’t happen.”
Minnesota shelled Colorado netminder Colin Zulianello for six goals Friday. But Colorado rallied to turn the tables, protecting Saturday starter Jeff Sanger. Though Sanger stopped 27 pucks on the night, almost none were great scoring chances or rebounds.
“Sanger played great, and we spread the scoring around. We got a few early, and when we do that it seems to relax our kids,” Owens said.
Saturday was not only the end of Minnesota’s three-game WCHA win streak, but also of junior center Erik Westrum’s point streak. Westrum scored at least one point in the last 19 games.
“We have to beat the teams we should beat, and we didn’t get it done tonight,” Westrum said. “Tonight we didn’t work hard.”
A frustrated Westrum, unable to elude the Tigers defense all evening, was assessed a 10-minute misconduct with less than a minute to play in the game Saturday.
Westrum asked referee Tom Goddard if he had swallowed his whistle.
He hadn’t.
And on Saturday, Goddard could have played “Hail Minnesota” on his instrument and the Gophers still would have taken a step backward.

Josh Linehan covers men’s hockey and welcomes comments at [email protected].