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Minnesota increases lead in conference with sweep

The Gophers now have a seven-point lead in the conference standings.

It was a week where members of Minnesota’s men’s hockey team stressed getting back to its roots.

The Gophers succeeded in a much larger capacity than they anticipated during a sweep of Alaska Anchorage this weekend, winning 8-2 on Friday and 2-1 on Saturday at Sullivan Arena.

The pair of victories gave No. 3 Minnesota a shot of life after losing four of six Western Collegiate Hockey Association contests leading into the games.

With St. Cloud State idle and Denver splitting on the weekend, the Gophers extended their conference lead to seven points.

“The coaches came in between the second and third period (on Saturday) and told us that Denver lost, so if we won the game, we’d have a seven-point lead going into our bye week,” freshman center Kyle Okposo said. “We wanted to stress that, so it puts pressure on everybody behind us to try and catch us.”

And the team did so against the Seawolves (11-14-3 overall, 7-14-1 WCHA) by getting back to those essentials that proved pivotal in the Gophers’ early-season success.

Minnesota (23-5-3, 15-4-3) emphasized physical play, better puck movement and minimized turnovers all week, all of which came to the forefront in Anchorage.

But the most overshadowing – and less predictable – part of the Gophers’ weekend triumphs came by way of a freshmen offensive onslaught, the likes of which Minnesota hasn’t seen since before the break.

“I think we just got back to the basics,” freshman winger Jay Barriball said. “We just focused on the fundamentals – get a hit, get a shot – if you do everything right the points will come.”

Freshmen accounted for 14 of the Gophers’ points on the weekend, including four each for Barriball and Okposo.

In total, seven freshmen contributed at least one point, including the game-winning goal Friday by Barriball and again Saturday by winger Tony Lucia.

But coach Don Lucia said while an overall contribution by the freshman class is needed, it was contributions from experienced players that made the offensive weekend a success.

“More importantly for me, (sophomore center Blake) Wheeler scored and (junior winger Ben) Gordon scored and Kyle (Okposo) scored,” Lucia said. “Those are the guys we have to turn to this year.”

Coach Lucia said puck movement down low in the offensive zone proved crucial to the offensive output against Alaska Anchorage and it showed.

Minnesota amassed 41 shots on goal during Friday’s game, a significant improvement from the 23 shots the Gophers took against North Dakota the game before.

And coach Lucia said the offensive production went even further than the score sheet, including the “three or four pipes” Minnesota hit Saturday.

But the offensive performance wasn’t the only sign of improvement. Puck protection in the defensive zone made the difference between the past few weekends’ meltdowns.

“That’s why we went from giving up all those goals to giving up three on the weekend,” coach Lucia said.

The flight back to Minnesota might be a long haul, but rest is in store this week.

And with two more wins in their back pocket, the Gophers can rest easy knowing a seven-point WCHA advantage is better than the three-point edge they came to Alaska with.

“It was huge,” Barriball said. “It feels good going home on the bye week and keeping a seven-point (conference) lead.”

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